Writing sample: Lamy Vista 

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It’s November and for thousands of writers, that means National Novel Writing Month (or “NaNoWriMo”) a grueling exercise in creativity and self-discipline with the goal of creating a 50,000 word novel manuscript in 30 days.

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year – I don’t have any pressing desire to write a novel at the moment, and I’m a little overbalanced already juggling two full-time jobs (teaching and freelance writing) already. But though I won’t be working towards a completed manuscript, I’ll have something in common with those writers who are doing NaNoWriMo this year – like them, I’ll be writing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1700 words a day, pretty much every day in November. Unlike them, I’ll do the same thing in December, then in January, and on and on.

While I admire the single-mindedness of the NaNoWriMo participants, the dogged determination to produce a novel, the fact is that writers who write for a living are always in NaNoWriMo mode. I figure I write somewhere between 300,000 – 400,000 words a year for publication, plus countless work I produce that either doesn’t get published or gets circulated informally (on academic listservs, for instance). That works out to about 1200 – 1400 words a day, 250 days a year, not far off from the 1700 words a NaNoWriMo writer needs to average every day in November to hit the 50,000-word mark.

I don’t say this to brag – frankly, it isn’t brag-worthy. It’s just what a working writer has to do. There are plenty of writers who are more productive than I am – and plenty of writers with more on their plate than I have who manage to write as much. The point isn’t to brag, but to talk about how I, and so many others, manage to sustain a reasonably high level of productivity day in and day out, in the hopes that it will give some of the NaNoWriMo writers out there a little inspiration in their long slog towards 50,000 words.

Here, then, are 7 tips to help keep you focused on your writing goals. I’m assuming you’ve already set goals (SMART goals, even!) – if you’re taking the NaNoWriMo challenge, the goals are more or less set for you: 50,000 words by November 30, with accountability provided by NaNoWriMo’s word count tracking.

1. Make a commitment.

Whether you write year-round or just during NaNoWriMo, at least 90% of getting to “done” is having the right mind-set. Making a commitment doesn’t just mean sitting down and grinding the words out day after day, but feeling every day’s writing as an expression of who you are and the choices you have made. You have to be able to see yourself as a writer, and/or as a NaNoWriMo winner, not just in the future but in the now — the words you write today have to count as you write them, not in some imagined future if you reach your goals.

In fact, commitment has as much to do with failure as with success. Commitment means that you’ll be as happy to work your ass off for 30 days and not hit 50,000 words as if you do reach 50,000 words. Because if you really try, if you really put yourself out there and you still don’t make it, you’ll know there is room for you to grow as a writer – and you’ll have a good idea of where those opportunities lie.

2. Set a schedule.

Think about your life. There’s things that are important to you, things you have to do – classes, work, dates, your kids’ activities, business flights, doctor’s appointments. Then there are things that are less important, things you’ll try to fit in when you have a spare moment – reading a new novel, visiting the museum, sorting your family photos. The difference between these two types of activities is that the first ones, the profoundly important ones, the ones we need to be absolutely sure we don’t miss, have their own specific time set aside for them. The second group, the ones that are nice to get done but not crucial in any way, get done “whenever”.

Which group does your writing belong in?

Even if your time is relatively unstructured, make sure to schedule fixed times for writing every day. If your schedule is already complex, this is even more important – it’s far to easy to find yourself too drained after a hard day’s work to put n your writing time. Knowing that 7-9pm is writing time will help keep you from getting distracted. If you have the time and keep writing beyond your scheduled time, that’s fine – but make sure you block off enough time to do your minimum writing throughout the week.

3. Make a sacrifice.

Chances are, your time is already pretty much spoken for, so to fit in any serious writing, something’s going to have to give. Getting up an hour earlier might be in order. Remember that to stay healthy, you’ll need to get to sleep earlier too, so this is a serious lifestyle change (hence the sacrifice) – but many writers fid that the quiet time before their day gets under way is a more productive time than the last tired hour before they go to bed.

Another sacrifice to consider is giving up an hour or two of television each night. Given the state of TV these days, that might not be much of a sacrifice! Or you might give up part of your lunch hour, a weekly visit to the spa, or your morning newspaper ritual.

There’s something more to this than just making time, though. Making some kind of sacrifice reinforces the importance of your writing. What’s more, discovering that what you’ve given up pales in comparison to the writing you’ve accomplished puts you one step closer to embracing your identity as a writer.

4. Write an outline.

I know: BOR-iiiing! Shades of high school all over, right?

Get over it.

While there are a handful of prolific writers who don’t outline (not formally, anyway – many still map out their writing in their heads), the more pressure you’re under to write lots, the more some kind of planning will help.

Outlining exists at two levels. The first is project outlining, laying out the course of your project from start to finish – usually chapter-by-chapter (for works long enough to have chapters, anyway) with subheads and main points for each chapter. The second is session outlining, putting down what you plan to write about in each session of writing. As a general rule, any time you sit down to write, it’s a good idea to lay out a few basic points, milestones you intend to hit in your days writing. Likewise, if you’re brainstorming – or an idea just comes to you out of the blue – write down a couple of main points when you write down each idea.

5. Capture everything.

When you’re writing all the time, you need ideas – all the time. Ideally, when you sit down to write, you’ll just need to record and structure the ideas that you’ve already worked through over the course of the day. The lass time you spend thinking of what to write, the more time you can spend during your allotted writing time just writing.

That’s why capturing ideas when they occur, wherever they occur, is so important. Carry a notebook, and use it. Adopt a ubiquitous capture strategy and live by it. Do as much of that work as possible before you start your writing session, the better – and the less likely you are to spend your precious writing time trying desperately to think of something to write.

6. Park downhill.

Always leave off writing when you have at least one more thing to say. Writing is weird – most of the time, it takes a ton of effort to get started, but once we’re writing, the words just come. Minimize the effort you need to reach “escape velocity” by setting yourself up to have something to say the moment you sit down. By the time you finish writing what you sat down already prepared to write, you’ll have built up the momentum to carry you into the next thought.

7. Condition yourself to write.

If at all possible, set aside a place for writing, ideally only for writing. Every time you sit down in that place, write something. Before long, your mind will come to associate the place itself with the act of writing, so that sitting down will trigger the urge to write.

Some writers create little rituals they perform before or as they write. Again, if you have a set of steps you go through before you write, going through those steps can help trigger your mind to write. The idea is to create self-reinforcing associations – connections between certain places, times, or acts that help shift you into the writing mindset.

For more tips on hitting your writing goals every day, be sure to read the interviews I’ll be posting throughout the month with writers who have done NaNoWriMo before – not all of them have “won”, but all of them have developed their own strategies for getting to “done” in their writing. And please let us know your techniques in the comments!

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