Reward Yourself for Writing

Rewards are motivating

Given all the penalties the academic bureaucracy imposes for not writing, you’d think academics would have all the motivation they need to keep writing. This would be true if humans responded well over the long term to negative consequences.

However, the threat of an often distant or uncertain consequence isn’t enough to make you step away from the Netflix when you’re feeling a bit rundown or to make you commit to getting up before your toddler to write for an hour in peace.

We respond much better to definite, positive rewards. I know of a writer who lines up their favourite sweets on the desk and they get one for every 100 words they write. Another buys a couple of decadent truffles from a local chocolatier every Friday if they met their goal to check in on their major project for at least fifteen minutes a day.

Meanwhile, others prefer larger goals such as a nice dinner out with their partner upon submitting an article or a weekend away for submitting a book proposal.

to do vs. have done

I don’t see why you should have to choose between small and large rewards. Consider how much happier you would be if you gave yourself little rewards on a regular basis for what you had accomplished. This might just take your focus away from worrying about the ever-growing to-do-list and shift it to your rapidly expanding what-I’ve-done list.

Shifting your focus from ‘to do’ to ‘done’ is motivating. As you add items to your ‘have done’ list you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something, and you’ll want to add something else. You can amplify this feeling of accomplishment by giving yourself small rewards along the way. This way you have to pay attention to how much you’ve done, which helps ease anxiety about how much more there is to do.

Rewards to consider

To finish, I’ll list some inexpensive, sugar-free (or at least low sugar) rewards to consider:

  • Make a cup of tea in your favourite mug and sit somewhere comfortable without distractions and just enjoy drinking it.
  • If the weather’s nice, go for a walk – bonus points if you can walk somewhere pretty like a park or the beach. Spending time in natural surroundings will do more to recharge you for whatever the rest of your day brings.
  • Watch a favourite movie or TV show (no guilt allowed; you’ve earned the break).
  • Read a book for fun.
  • Call a friend or meet up for coffee.
  • Play with your kids, dog, cat, …
  • Take the time to cook and eat a proper meal – one during which you don’t try to multi-task by working and that you don’t rush through, so you can get back to work.
  • Take a nice hot bath.
  • Have a nap, go to bed early, or sleep in a little in the morning.

However you choose to reward yourself, make sure it’s a conscious choice and that you take a moment to connect the nice thing you’re doing for yourself with the thing(s) you added to your ‘have done list’. The more often you associate rewards with making progress on your writing, the more you’ll want to write.

Regular Writing Support

If you want regular writing support, consider joining my Facebook group, ‘Your Writing Practice’. In the group, you’ll find a supportive community of writers, writing resources, and live tutorials. If you find yourself struggling to set and meet your writing goals, my new course, Setting and Meeting Your Goals, will help. You’ll find more information about it in this video, and you’ll find a sample from week one in the ‘Units’ section of ‘Your Writing Practice’.

How to Cope with Perfectionism

The last full week of September brought an outpouring of anxiety to my social media feeds and groups (Twitter and Facebook) about Impostor Syndrome, which I wrote about here. This morning brought an explosion of worries over Perfectionism. Perfectionism is related to and can cause Impostor Syndrome. As I did before, I’m going to offer what advice I can to help those who are trying to overcome perfectionist tendencies so they can be happier, more productive writers.

Please note that if you experience anxiety as a result of your perfectionism or see perfectionism causing problems in multiple areas of your life, you may need more support than the tips in this blog can provide. In that case, please seek professional support–both talking therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy are effective.

Why is perfectionism a problem?

Many of us are taught from a young age that we should always do our best; early on we are told we should strive to write (actually physically form the letters) clearly, while later on, we are told we should strive to perfect our grammar, punctuation, spelling, essay/novel structure, paragraphing, pacing, … Thus, throughout our lives as writers we are encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to internalise other people’s expectations and ideas of what is perfect.

To an extent, professional writers and students have to meet other people's expectations. But too often, we inflate what others expect of us. We need to get some perspective and stop holding ourselves to…
To an extent, professional writers and students have to meet other people’s expectations. But too often, we inflate what others expect of us. We need to get some perspective and stop holding ourselves to impossible standards. If you don’t believe me, find a short piece by an author you admire. Read it carefully and critically. Is it really absolutely perfect? Can you really not find even a phrase that could be more elegant? a misplaced comma? a misspelled word? After you find one or more ‘problems’, ask yourself, ‘Do I still value this person’s work?’ The answer is probably ‘Yes’. If it’s ‘No’, spend some time re-evaluating your standards; we don’t live in an ideal world and only an ideal world can be perfect.

Slaying the perfectionist demon

Almost every writer I know sometimes has to slay the perfectionist demon. Actually, I can only think of one writer I know personally who doesn’t occasionally struggle with this—they were lucky enough to have learned, years before I met them, how to think through writing. The result is that they never get anxious about putting words on a page because it doesn’t feel any more permanent or stressful than having thoughts in the privacy of their mind.

The rest of us need tools for taming or slaying the demon. I say taming or slaying because I recognise that there will be days that you can’t vanquish your demon—maybe you don’t have time, or you’re ill and don’t have the energy—but you still need to be able to put a muzzle on it so you can get some work done.

I wish I could say that once you vanquish the perfectionist demon it will never come back, but that has not been my experience. You may need to return to the list below should it rear its ugly head later in your career.

I’m going to list (in no particular order) things you can do or remind yourself of when you feel your perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of your writing:

1) Tell yourself, over and over until you believe it, that you are not your writing. You are a complete human being. Those near and dear to you will love you no matter what you write or how it’s received. Since writing is a personal process for many of us, it is easy to conflate our identities as writers with our identities as people. If this is one of the primary ways your perfectionism presents itself, put a note above wherever you write that says something to the effect of ‘I am not my book/thesis/essay/etc.’ It will feel silly; if you’re in a shared office, you might want to put it inside your planner instead. Wherever you put it, seeing this message frequently will help you come to believe it.

2) Change your writing situation. If you tend to edit as you write and find that instead of finishing that section you meant to write this afternoon, you’ve been writing and rewriting the first sentence for the last two hours, you need to short-circuit your inner critic. If you touch-type, open a new document and turn off your computer screen. Yes, you’ll have typos, but you’ll also make progress because you can’t edit what you can’t see. You can also try ‘tricks’ like writing in crayon on unlined paper while sitting in the grass outside (obviously that last part is dependent on the weather—I couldn’t recommend it in southern England today—far to gray and cold). I discuss other such changes you can make in my ebooklet on writer’s block, which you’ll find here.

3) Form or join a writing group. If your perfectionism is making you so uncomfortable that you just don’t even want to try to write, find some like minded people who will meet with you and write with them using the Pomodoro Method—briefly discuss your writing goals for that meeting, set a timer for 25 minutes and write, take a short break to discuss your progress, repeat. You’ll find some online writing groups that do this, such as this one.

4) Get someone else to read your work. If your perfectionism doesn’t really get going until it’s time to send your work out into the world, get someone to read it. Find a friend who’s also a writer and offer to trade chapters and offer each other support. Ask a mentor or supervisor to look at your work. Hire an editor. Join an online group in which members critique one another’s work. Whichever approach you choose, finding a way to have your work read in a less high stress situation than submitting it for marking or publication will make it easier for you to take that final step when the time comes.

If none of these strategies works and/or you find that your perfectionism is causing problems in your life more generally (or that it is so severe that it is crippling your career), you may need professional help. If you can’t afford, or are not interested in, talk therapy, investigate self-help options. If you live in the UK, you can get free help through the NHS; you’ll find more information on that here. Many people have had success using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy—either with a therapist or on their own. There are many websites and books devoted to CBT. I haven’t used any of them, so I can’t suggest anything in particular. Use what works for you, but remember to check the sources of any online therapy—you want resources created by qualified professionals, not quacks.

Further reading

Baty, Chris. No Plot? No Problem! –this is aimed at fiction writers, but all writers can find some useful tips—for silencing your inner critic, see chapter five.

Jensen, Joli. Write No Matter What—this is aimed at academic writers, but as with Baty, other writers will find it useful. For dealing with perfectionism, see chapter nine: ‘Demons in for Tea’.

Murray, Rowena. Writing for Academic Journals—this is likely only useful for academic writers; don’t let the title fool you, the advice in this book would work for other forms of academic writing, too. I haven’t read any of Murray’s other books, but she does have one that focuses on writing the PhD thesis.

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Be Kind to Your Future Self: Develop a Writing Practice

My title raises two questions: what is a writing practice? and, how will having one benefit you in the future?

Writing, like every other skill or craft, requires regular practice.

If you play the piano, you don’t expect to sit down at the keyboard once every few weeks and be able to make beautiful music. Wind instruments can be even fussier—at least with a piano, the instrument provides the tone quality. When I was an active flutist (if my former teachers are reading this, I will start practicing again, eventually), regular practice was a must. As the old saying goes: miss one day of practice and you’ll know, two days and your teacher will know, three days and the whole world will know.

Hopefully we can all agree on the importance of practice for musicians, but for writers? No, you’re not going to be less able to write or type if you don’t practice, but you will find it harder to put your ideas into words.

Why you need a writing practice

When you’re in the habit of writing it becomes a way of thinking on paper (or screen). For writers who hope to produce publishable work, this is helpful because you’ll have a lot of material to comb through in search of the good bits that you can turn into a finished piece.

If you don’t write regularly it becomes a daunting task, and you’re more likely to fall into bad habits like perfect drafting. If you need to refresh your memory, I discuss the dangers of perfect drafting in Coping with Writer’s Block.

Finding time for your practice

You may be thinking, it’s all well and good to make the case that writing is easier for those who write every day, but I don’t have time. In an ideal world, you would be able to set aside time each day to focus only on your writing. Some days, that will work. Others it won’t—this world we live in is far from ideal.

Most days (unless you’re dealing with a crisis of some sort), you do have time. You may not have the luxury of spending hours every day lounging in a café with your notebook, but you do have time. Nowhere is it written that writing must be done in long blocks of time. You can think about what you’re working on while brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking to the shops, and so on. When you finish what you’re doing, you can take a minute to jot down some notes in a notebook, or the notebook app on your phone, to be developed later when you have more time (by which 10 to 20 minutes—not a full day devoted to writing; waiting for that to happen is like telling yourself you’ll write next time you see a unicorn in your back garden). The thinking you did and the notes you jotted down—that’s writing; it’s not publishable writing, but it’s writing.

If you do have the luxury of time, don’t try to write for hours on end—no one can really do that. You’ll be more productive if you write for 20-30 minutes, take a five-minute break, and repeat; after four such cycles, take a longer break.

Keeping records of your practice

To increase the chance that you’ll develop and maintain your writing practice, keep records. The people who developed all those fitness trackers that are now available know what they’re doing. People like data about themselves and they like seeing personal progress.

To begin with, set yourself an easily achievable goal, like 100 words a day / 700 words a week. While I can’t offer you a wearable writing tracker, you can use this Writing Record to chart your progress (feel free to delete the sample entries and alter it in any way that makes you happy), or develop your own record-keeping system. Keeping track lets you see progress. When you notice that you’re regularly writing more than 100 words a day, set a slightly more challenging goal.

Take a minute to look at the sample data I put in my record sheet—you can produce more than 4000 words between the 28th of August and the 30th of September this year without ever writing more than 150 words a day. Still think you don’t have time?

Finally, keep in mind that writing is faster at certain stages of a given project than others. When you’re writing your first draft you should be writing quickly; when you’re polishing a drafted piece, you won’t be writing so many new words each day. Accept that there will be ups and downs in your record—your goal is not to become a machine that can churn out a certain number of words each day, but to increase your productivity in the long term.

Until next time, take care.
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Writer’s Block

While researching writer’s block I came across an interesting article from the 14 June 2004 issue of The New Yorker called ‘Blocked: Why do writers stop writing?’. The article suggests writer’s block is a peculiarly American condition and quotes one British writer who claims not to suffer from it. I’m happy for him, but I’ve known far too many British writers (students, academics, poets, novelists …) who do suffer from it to believe this is true of all British writers.

What is more convincing is the article’s claim that we have the Romantics to thank for writer’s block. This argument makes sense because before the Romantics, writers tended to think of writing as an occupation. Meanwhile, the Romantics thought writing should be inspired. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth argues ‘that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ (see paragraph 26 of this online text). This is where we get the idea that one has to be ‘in the mood’ to write.

Writers who cling to such notions tend to make themselves miserable. If you read further in ‘Blocked: Why do writers stop writing?’, you’ll find that many famous writers have suffered from substance abuse problems and mental illnesses. These writers believed their problems were caused by writer’s block.

Writers do not have to be miserable. They do not have to make themselves ill.

When you start a new writing project, just get words on a page. They don’t have to be good words. But they do need to be recorded somewhere so you can improve them later. Good writing rarely, if ever, springs fully formed from the writer’s mind as Athena is said to have sprung from Zeus’s forehead. The next time you get discouraged at not producing beautiful writing on the first try, remind yourself you are not a Greek god—you might feel better.

In Coping with Writers Block, I outline several practical steps you can take to deal with any resistance you have to putting pen to paper. I hope you find them helpful.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, please follow my blog so you will be the first to know when I post a new one. If you have any specific writing topics you’d like me to address here, let me know. Until next time, take care.
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