Confessions of an Intermittent Writer

The unthinkable has happened.  I missed my deadline.

Nothing was posted on May 21st this month because I hadn’t written anything.  Since deciding to get serious about writing last September I have published an article every week without fail.  But there was nothing to publish on the 21st.

“So you missed a week, big deal” you might be thinking.  But my confession goes much deeper than just the events of May 14th.  You see, I’ve barely written a word at all since late April according to my word tracker (yes I track my daily word count).  Each of my posts since then have came out of a supply of writing that I had built up and saved earlier in the year.

Deadlines are important, especially when self imposed.  Breaking a promise to yourself is easy because there is nobody to hold you accountable.  But that’s why they are the most important, because they take the most willpower.  As John Wooden said: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

So What Happened?

The week of the 16th was incredibly busy at work; probably my busiest ever, volume wise.  I left home late Sunday night and returned Friday afternoon to look at five vessels in three days across two states.  Two of those jobs didn’t finish until after midnight, with the next inspection starting at 0800 the next day.  Each vessel requires a report to be written, then expenses and time sheets to close out the work.  Throw in some delayed flights and it becomes clear that I truly didn’t have a spare moment.

But that’s the short term view.

The long term view is that situations like this are exactly why I had built a stockpile of writing in the first place.  Unfortunately I had squandered it away before it was truly needed.  Why would I do that?  Why would I coast for those few weeks?  I sure didn’t have another side project that I was devoting time to.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now and have come to the following conclusion:

My expectations had grown too high.

Big Word Counts – Daily

March was a great month for writing.  I was offshore on a project that offered a lot of free time, resulting in a lot of writing completed.  19,889 words by my count.  Not earth shattering numbers but keep in mind that I also do a lot of technical writing professionally.  I typically write an average of 800 words per hour when I get rolling, and was working to write for an hour every morning.  My articles usually run somewhere between 800 – 1,600 words in length so it’s clear that I was putting some in the bank.

The trouble is that when work picked up and got busy my daily word count expectation never  changed.  Producing ~800wpd was the new normal and I was afraid to do less.  Add to this a steady diet of some great books on writing, including: 2k to 10k and Write 5,000 Words per Hour, and the expectation was prolific word generation.

The term for this gradual increase is called Creep.  In the workplace it shows itself as gradually increasing requirements of work relative to the normal requirements of the operation.  The marine industry is a prime example; with more and more being required of ship’s officers, with no extra resources or remuneration.  But that’s a discussion for another time.

The unfortunate side effect of the volume of writing I was doing was twofold.  First, between the technical writing I do for work and my personal writing I was getting burned out.  There isn’t an option to reduce writing at work, as the work must be completed.  So I scaled way back on my personal writing.

The second side effect was that I was becoming desk bound.  I was sitting far more than standing during the day and was starting to feel the effects.  Sore back, tight hamstrings, hip flexors like piano wire…  I was starting to feel like I was sacrificing my quality of life to write and this negative connotation was not allowing me to bring enthusiasm to the table.

I started to learn about mobility and am now incorporating various exercises into my daily routine.  Already everything is starting to feel much better and I’m developing a solid set of tools to manage these movement issues.  As for the volume issue I’ve developed a two-part strategy.

Set Small Goals

When I started this back in September the goal was simple; write every day.  As long as I was getting a paragraph down then the goal was met.  This goal would obviously need to be higher if I was writing a book or had a larger project going, but for what I’m doing it was fine.

That slowly evolved into writing for an hour every day and pumping out an article every two.  My strategy for getting back on the horse is to go back to the basics and just write every day.  Specifically, to write for fifteen minutes per day, with no word count goal whatsoever.

It is only consistency that allows us to accomplish great things.  Fifteen minutes a day may not seem like much but I would argue that it is the minimum effective dose that can be applied to any endeavor and will move you closer to your goals.  I wont get into the math here, but fifteen minutes of focused work daily will accumulate over two work weeks of eight hour days over the course of a year.  Imagine what you could do if you took two weeks off from work to focus on a side project.

By doing less in the short term you can accomplish more in the long term.  The ONLY requirements are consistency and focus.

The Writing Ritual

The second thing I’ve been working on is to fine tune my writing ritual.  Nobody can just sit down and start churning out creative material every day without first priming the pump.  An effective habit or ritual allows you to get into the mind state quickly and removes any extra decision making from the process.  These rituals can be simple or complex and all successful authors have one in some form.  For some inspiration on writing rituals see Nicole Bianchi’s excellent (and timely!) article on the subject.

I write early in the morning and so it is a balancing act between writing, exercising (also done before work), getting the kids ready for school, and getting enough sleep.  So while technically it could be considered a ritual, really it is just time management.

This starts the night before with some mobility work before bed, then lights out at 2200 (10pm to you landlubbers).  I’ve got to thank my lovely wife here as she is a real night owl, but lets me get to sleep when I need to.

In the morning when the alarm goes off at 0445 I jump out of bed, put on my workout gear, and head downstairs to make some coffee.  At 0500 I sit at my computer and write until 0530, at which point I’m out the door to get my workout in.  I finish this by 0630, just in time to wake my son for school (if he isn’t already up!), get the breakfasts made, and go get ready for my day.

I’ve experimented with exercising first thing but it never worked as well.  Who wants to sit and write for half an hour when you are all sweaty?  With this new schedule there are built in deadlines at every step of the way which helps keep things moving along.

When you fall – Get up

This article was inspired by a friend I hadn’t seen in a while who said “I don’t know how you do it.”  The truth is; I don’t always.  I strive to be consistent in those things that are important to me but sometimes miss the mark.  The important thing to do when this happens is to just pick yourself up and keep moving forward from where you find yourself.

If you look at what somebody does and think it’s easy – it isn’t.  It is the accumulation of hours spent consistently performing a task over and over.  But this can be done in smaller chunks of time than you think and still create a fantastic result.

I’ve been writing for longer than my fifteen minute minimum already today and can hear the kids starting to stir so need to get to it.  It’s okay to break your own rules sometimes too, especially when the words are flowing.


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2 thoughts on “Confessions of an Intermittent Writer

  1. This post really resonated with me. I’ve been an intermittent writer this month, mostly because life got in the way and I was wrapping up several projects. I wish I’d had more time for writing, but I love what you say about not setting a goal for yourself that is impossible to achieve. It’s important to take into consideration future circumstances and plan accordingly. I like that you tried to have a stockpile of posts for weeks when you were too busy to write. I’m going to try to do that.

    And thanks for the link back to my article!

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