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How to stop procrastinating and finish that novel

Posted on Jun 15, 2019
“Writing a novel is better thought of as… a series of regular bowel movements than an all-night session of violent diarrhoea.”

It’s often said that everyone has a book in them. I think that’s true, but if you’re anything like me then sometimes it can be hard to get it all out. If you're beating yourself up about procrastinating from writing and lacking the discipline to focus on finishing that book, this post is for you. My guess is that you’re either already part way through a writing project, or that you’ve wanted to begin one for a while. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed the highs of those exciting early days of infinite opportunity and now find yourself with a handful of half-finished ideas and frustrations over the limited progress that you're making.

Writing a novel (or almost any kind of book) is better thought of as a marathon than a sprint. Or to put it another way, a series of regular bowel movements than an all-night session of violent diarrhoea. You must have patience and determination. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy the gushing of a powerful stream of productivity from time to time, but don’t be discouraged if a masterpiece doesn’t plop out, fully formed in a single sitting.

Binge Writing vs Little and Often

Ultimately, it’s better out than in. If you prefer to binge write by sitting down in one long session and allowing your work to gush forth in any order and without impediment, more power to you. This approach focusses on quantity over quality in the first instance and can be useful if you're prone to analysis paralysis. Inevitably there will be some tidying up to do later, but that’s ok.

Alternatively, you may prefer to develop a disciplined routine of setting aside a defined time every day, week or month (as dictated by whatever else you must get done in life). Some writers set themselves a daily word target, but in my experience, this lends itself all too easily to feelings of guilt and failure in constipated moments and doesn’t capitalise fully on those times when you're in full flow.

The best technique that I have found is to make writing a part of my daily routine. Instead of targeting myself on outcomes (words and pages written) I have action-based goals (for example, to write for one hour a day). This has made writing a habit and something that my day would feel empty and incomplete without, rather than a chore that I dread confronting. Sometimes I’ll write a lot, sometimes only a little, but the key is to keep making progress. Leaps and bounds are nice, but crawling is infinitely better than standing still.

My tips for building discipline as a writer

No respectable blog post would be complete without numbered subheadings. Here are a few practical tips to help you on your way:

1. Find your shed

Roald Dahl famously wrote many of his wonderful Children’s books in a 6x7 foot shed in his back garden (itself inspired by the bike shed that Dylan Thomas wrote in). Philip Pullman wrote the His Dark Materials trilogy in a shed that he built after his son started playing the violin. All the best people write in sheds.

My theory is that what matters most is to have a special place that you can associate with writing and (ideally) nothing else. It should be free of distractions (Wi-Fi?) but cosy and welcoming. While you’re there, it’s time to write. Speaking as a world-class hypocrite, for me this is often the kitchen table.

pic of my desk Not a shed.

2. Build a routine based on reasonable expectations and being kind to yourself

As above, if you’re making any progress at all then you’re winning. Think about all of the things that are important and/or necessary in your life and commit to dedicating an achievable and sustainable amount of time every day or week to writing. It’s far better to low-ball this number and stick to it than it is to beat yourself up and get discouraged because you couldn’t stick to your plan of writing for 12 hours straight every day. Procrastination stems from the human instinct to avoid unpleasant things, so the key is to write in a way that is sustainably pleasurable.

A routine of regular, moderate effort beats one of occasional beastings every time. This is as true for writing as it is for nutrition and exercise, learning to play the violin, mastering Brazilian Jujitsu or developing an immunity to iocaine powder.

Daniel Kahneman (see if you can spot one of his books in the picture above) proposed something that he called the ‘planning fallacy’. In a nutshell, the planning fallacy is a phenomenon that causes you to underestimate how long it will take you to do something, even though you know very well that it took you much longer to do it last time. When applied to writing, this phenomenon is a recipe for feelings of guilt and self-loathing when you inevitably fall short of your over optimistic targets for words written or hours spent writing per day. You can learn from this by taking your instinctive estimate and making it 40% less optimistic. If you find yourself regularly outperforming that target, feel free to increase it and remind yourself that you’re fantastic. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for something or other, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. This is a dude who knows what he’s talking about.

3. Stop when you’re on a winning streak

Speaking of dudes who know what they’re talking about, to quote Hemingway, “always stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”

This will feel counter-intuitive the first time you try it, but I urge you to do so if you ever find yourself staring blankly at the keyboard when you first sit down to write. The temptation is to keep going until you’re entirely drained and can go on no longer, in order to squeeze every last drop out of the streak that you’re on. However, by stopping when you know what comes next, you’ll be able to jump right back in without having to rebuild momentum from a standstill.

Now take a break and go somewhere else. Live your life so that you’ll be full of experiences to draw from when it’s writing time. By making writing part of your routine, you can be guilt-free about not writing the rest of the time. If you don’t do this then all of your writing will be about sitting on your own in a shed.

4. Tell all of your writing friends to make their book covers with Coverjig

This one weird trick has been scientifically proven (by science) to increase your writing productivity.