To be a prolific writer, it's not enough to write every day.
Authors don't say,
"I wrote 15,000,000 words in 35 years."
"I wrote 49 novels in 35 years."
That's the difference between writing and publishing: a body of work. Being consistent and prolific as a writer (or any kind of creator) isn't just about being motivated to write 750 words a day, or telling the world you're putting out a weekly newsletter. It's about publishing regularly, too.
But you can't just rely on motivation to honour that commitment. You need consistency to build and sustain momentum. But how?
- What do you when you just finished Day 2 of your commitment to write for 100 days?
- What do you do after you publish your first two newsletters to make sure you publish another 23?
Here's a lesson most people don't talk about when it comes to being a prolific creator:
To maintain momentum, it's not enough to know how to start. You need to know how to stop.
In this post, I'll go deeper into a few tactics that have helped me stay consistent with my daily writing and publishing habit, regardless of whether I felt like writing or not.
- Stop when you still know what you're going to say
- As soon as you finish an article, start the next one
- Find the weak link in the finished article and start from there
- Take weekends off
Stop when you still know what you're going to say
When we commit to a writing project, whether it's a weekly newsletter or a regular article, we usually give ourselves a limit.
Maybe it's a time limit — a couple of hours in the morning.
Or a word target — 500 words a day.
Beyond this is when everyone gets it wrong. When you hit your limit, don't keep going.
When you hit the 2-hour mark, even if you're halfway through a compelling thought, stop.
When you've written 500 words, even if you really want to keep going, stop.
This is counterintuitive, especially since I'm talking about maintaining momentum. But there's a reason why this is one of the most popular pieces of writing advice out there.
You stop when you're ahead because you want to maintain long term momentum, beyond the present day.
You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review
When you do feel super motivated to write, just get your 500 words out. If you try to do more, you might overexert yourself and make it hard to start the next day.
Focus on keeping up momentum, not relying on motivation.
But you still need to publish regularly
“Without commitment you’ll never start. Without consistency, you’ll never finish." — Denzel Washington
Hemingway's advice is good for sustaining a daily writing practice, especially if you're working on a lengthy piece of work that only comes out every few months or yeras.
But it's not enough if you want to publish shorter pieces of work every day or every week.
Eventually, you'll get to a point where you write every day, but you never seem to publish anything. Your perfectionism stops you from putting it out there. You're adding 500 damned words to the same damned document every damned day. Writing every day becomes meaningless.
If you're in that boat, remember the main argument of this article:
Knowing when to stop is just as important as knowing when to start
This means committing yourself to a consistent publishing schedule. A deadline to say, "This is where I need to stop writing, stop editing.. And just hit publish."
It could be a newsletter that goes out every Monday. Or an article every weekday. Whatever. Just give yourself a deadline to hit. Once the deadline's looming, cut. Rope it in. Edit. Then close your eyes and hit publish.
Now when you commit to a consistent publishing schedule, how do you keep publishing, day in and day out?
As soon as you finish an article, start the next one
If you're reading this post, you probably just want to publish short-to-medium pieces of writing regularly.
Tweets. Articles. Scripts.
The problem is, while you're not putting out a book, creating a feature-length film, or even publishing an article every weekday, you still struggle to get that relatively smaller piece of content out.
In extreme contrast to this, Anthony Trollope produced forty-nine novels in 35 years. Here's a snippet of his routine from The New Yorker:
"Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour.
Writing for 3 hours every day at 1,000 words an hour amounts to 38,325,000 words in 35 years. And yet, the article doesn't highlight the number of words he wrote.
It highlights the number of novels he put out — a very different, much more challenging outcome.
How did Trollope publish 49 novels — stopping and starting and stopping 49 times in 35 years? Simple. He just kept going.
If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next.
Now, before you force yourself to write another sentence because you have 30 minutes left, know that this could mean something different for you, especially if you write non-fiction. Maybe it's..
- Creating a new document
- Adding some random bullet points on that topic
- Googling what others have said about a new topic
- Opening Evernote and adding any relevant resources you've saved
Whatever gets you going. And if you're wondering, OK, I'll start. But how do I know what I'll write about next?, I've got you covered.
Find the weak link and start from there
What happens when you've accomplished your time or your word count and you just published an article? How do you start another thing the next day? How do you figure out what to write about next?
Here's how singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell dealt with starting a new album after finishing one:
"All I knew was, whatever it was that I felt was the weak link in my previous project gave me inspiration for the next one."
Think about what you had to cut out in your previous piece of work. Or about that tangent you wish you could've gone on, but didn't. List the the improvements you want to make, the topics you wish you could've covered.
Then use your answers as a jump-off point for your next article.
In one of my favourite books on creativity, Show Your Work, author Austin Kleon lists a few more questions to help you keep going. He says,
Ask yourself: What did I miss? What could I have done better? What couldn’t I get to?
For example, as I write this article, I wish I could talk about how consistently publishing your work is great.. But it isn't enough to make a living off of. You need to market and distribute your work, too. Well, there you go: the next article might be about marketing and talking about your creative work. 😉
Take weekends off
One final piece of advice: Just as you stop when you're done on the daily level, you need a regular stop on the weekly level. Here's why:
1. Creativity is a muscle
To get your body stronger, you need to stress the muscle.. then take a day or two off so it can repair itself. And come back stronger.
Similarly, creativity is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets. And just like a physical muscle, your creativity needs to take 1-2 days off a week to repair — so you can hit Monday with a vengeance.
2. Creativity is like breathing
To exhale you need to inhale. To output great writing, you need to input quality content. Garbage in, garbage out.
Read books. Have meaningful conversations. Listen to interesting podcasts.
3. Creativity is a well
In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron likens creativity to a well that you have to constantly cultivate. You don't have to pour more water into it (that's just not how a well works..?). But you do have to make sure the well's clean from any impurities (maybe a donkey fell into it or something, I don't know).
For this, she recommends a weekly Artist's Date — a few hours each week to do something creative to replenish your creative energy. This may mean...
- Taking a CreativeLive course on mixing music
- Watching the Abstract docuseries to learn about design
- Reading Samin Nosrat's book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to learn more about the art and science of cooking
- Typing up your underlines and highlights from that amazing book you read
- Vacuuming your work desk (an actual item on my to-do list)
If you take a break each week and go do something relaxing, then you can keep your momentum from week to week and month to month, not just in the day to day.
Momentum: Stopping is as important as starting
You don't need to sweat out 8-10 hours at your desk once a week to put together a newsletter or publish a great article. You just have to put in 2-3 hours each day. When the word count's used up or the time's up, stop. When you publish something before the time's up, get started on the next thing.
As Trollope said,
“Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat."
Again, the secret isn't about motivation; it's about momentum. Motivation comes and goes. You need to train yourself to be consistent, regardless of whether you feel motivated or not.
In fitness, when you finish each workout strong, it's easy to go back to the gym the next day.
In writing, when you know what you'll write about, it's easier to sit down and pick up where you left off.
When you rely on momentum rather than motivation, it's so much easier to keep going.