The Science-Backed Way to Write a Lot
Writers engage in a lot of magical thinking related to our own productivity. Some of us believe we need special writing spots where the temperature, lighting, and ambient volume are supposedly perfect for courting our personal muses. Others are fastidious about which devices they use, or say they require a particular type of pen. Some writers believe they must be “inspired” before they can begin a project, and will wait weeks or even months for that feeling to arrive and put the creative gas in their engine.
A lot of writers also study (and fetishize) the writing habits of famous authors, believing that by emulating their strange habits, they will unlock their own wild, artistic potential. They’ll try all kinds of rituals in hopes of becoming more prolific: writing drunk and editing sober like Hemingway, scrawling rough drafts on napkins like J.K. Rowling, or running a 10K each morning like Murakami. These habits are the literary version of LARPing, allowing a creative type to feel close to the people they admire by pantomiming their lives. It can be fun, but it doesn’t promise productivity.
In fact, what each of these practices has in common is that they are self-defeating. By framing writing as something that can only happen under idealized circumstances, they provide a writer with endless excuses for why they can’t (or don’t have to) write. These beliefs also transform writing into a special, magical thing that happens to a writer when they’re lucky, rather than a behavior a person can choose to do regularly.
What actually makes a writer productive? To find the answer, it turns out we don’t have to romanticize famous authors, and we don’t have to create strange superstitions involving quiet nooks and special pens. There’s an entire body of scientific research that explains what steps a person should take in order to become more creative and productive. And I’m living proof that these steps work.
In his book, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, the psychologist and researcher Paul Silvia distills the research behind productive writing into a handful of easy-to-follow tips. I first picked up a copy of his book back in 2009 when I was entering graduate school and struggling to get enough writing done. His book completely transformed the way I thought about my own creativity. I’ve been religiously following his tips ever since.
In the last 10 years, with the help of Silvia’s advice, I’ve written multiple 300-plus-page novels, a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, several journal articles, two successful book proposals, hundreds of essays, and most recently, a 70,000-word trade book.
The only person who will drive you to write and create is you.
Believe it or not, none of these long, detailed works was painful to write. Unlike Hemingway, I’ve never had to sit at the proverbial typewriter and bleed. I’ve never pulled a last-minute all-nighter, never secluded myself for weeks on end in order to force the words to come out, and never turned a draft in late. By following these tips, I’ve made every major writing project of my life into an enjoyable, sustainable practice rather than a torment.
When we treat writing as a daily thing we choose to do, rather than a grueling experience that happens to us, we can become more productive, more creative, and happier. It’s worked for me, and it can work for you, too. I promise. Here’s all you have to do:
1. Schedule regular writing times
If you wait for your muse to come to you, you’ll spend a lot of time not writing. But if you want to become a productive and creative writer, you can instead realize that you are your own muse: The only person who will drive you to write and create is you. The best way to do that is to carve out time on a weekly (or even daily) basis and show up, consistently, to write during those times.
In his book, Silvia points out that if you really care about getting something done, you schedule time for it. College professors don’t talk about how we wish we could find time to get some teaching done — we have a regular course schedule that forces us to teach at the same time every week. People who exercise regularly don’t wait to feel “inspired” to work out — they set aside days and times for it. If you need to go to the dentist, you don’t just wait for the going-to-the-dentist muse to visit you — you put an office visit on your calendar.
Many novice writers hate following this advice because it can be painful to slowly, messily plod through a draft when you aren’t feeling motivated. But I promise you, it works. Research shows that writing regularly works a lot better than writing when inspired. Writers who stick to a schedule not only produce more pages of work, they also generate more creative ideas in the long run. By making yourself write even when you don’t feel creative, you will cultivate more chances for creativity to magically happen.
2. Defend your writing time fiercely
I’ve watched a lot of writers try to follow tip number one and fail, because they don’t treat their writing time as truly sacred. Unlike other obligations in their schedule, they make writing time optional or negotiable. They’ll only stick to the schedule when there isn’t something else important to do.
If you really want to be a prolific writer, you have to be selfish enough to defend your writing time. Your writing schedule is a series of appointments with the most important person in your life: you. Those appointments should be blocked out on your calendar, and you should turn down other meetings, appointments, and obligations that conflict with it.
You should also banish distractions as best you can — close the door, put on headphones, and tell your chatty colleague that while you’d love to hear about his bachelor’s party, right now you have a project to finish. You should say this even if you’re not writing on an official deadline. Other people may struggle to respect your writing time because they’ve also been taught that creativity happens thanks to magic rather than diligence. Don’t be afraid to lie or obfuscate about why you’re so “busy,” if that’s what you have to do.
If you really want to be a prolific writer, you have to be selfish enough to defend your writing time.
3. Don’t binge write
In his book, Silvia cites a lot of research about the perils of something called binge writing. Binge writing is what happens when a person tries to finish a writing project in one long, painful cram session, rather than by chipping away at it for days or weeks. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter to finish a paper for a class eight hours before it’s due, you know exactly how excruciating and stressful binge writing can be.
Binge writers tend to believe that they need a rapidly approaching deadline in order to have the motivation to write. They’ve become addicted to the adrenaline of being almost too late, and so they don’t know writing can be a more gradual, contemplative process.
Because binge writers only ever write in huge, sleep-deprived spurts, they come to associate writing with panic and suffering, which makes it harder for them to self-motivate to write in the future. And research shows that binge-writers write a smaller amount, and less creatively, compared to writers who use a more consistent “chip away everyday” method.
The only solution to the nasty, punishing feedback loop of binge writing is to stop treating writing as a mysterious, dark art that happens only late at night, and to start treating it the same way you treat going to the gym or flossing. You just do it. Regularly.
4. Don’t reward writing with not writing
Binge writers follow a boom-and-bust cycle of creative output. They are project- and deadline-driven, and inevitably get burnt out whenever the project is done. They work themselves incredibly hard during a few anxiety-fueled all-nighters, and then don’t write again until another deadline is breathing down their neck.
If you want to write regularly, you have to develop a more healthy relationship to making creative work. Writing is not an ordeal to recover from, it’s a fun activity you get to enjoy for an hour or two every day. But in order to really believe this, you have to act like it’s true — by writing in regular short bursts instead of torturous binge sessions.
You also have to keep on writing even when your latest big project is done. Stick to the writing schedule, and find something new and fun to work on. Every writer has their fair share of unfinished projects and half-developed ideas and if you schedule regular writing time, you may actually get the opportunity to work on some of them.
5. Accept imperfection
Creativity is messy. As Ira Glass once famously said that if you have good taste, you will end up hating a lot of your own work. First drafts are never what you hope they’ll be. If you let imperfection get to you, you will never write a lot.
Inhibition kills creativity. When people are constantly filtering and judging their ideas, they put a lot fewer of them on the page. If you are constantly self-censoring or self-editing as you write, you’ll end up getting a lot less writing done — and you’ll end up hating the act of writing a lot more. To move forward, you have to truly believe that a flawed, completed draft is superior to the imagined, perfect, nonexistent one in your head.
Creativity comes when you consistently make time for it .
One of the “rules” of National Novel Writing Month is that a participant must write daily, without self-censorship. The goal is to churn out 50,000 words of fiction in a single month in an unbridled, unfiltered way. The Artist’s Way recommends writing three pages each morning without stopping to judge yourself. These methods are great for getting a quick-and-dirty first draft done. And believe me, quick and dirty is way better than pristine and nonexistent.
Some days, I sit down for my regularly scheduled writing time and produce really boring, confusing crap that goes nowhere. In fact, I did that yesterday! I couldn’t seem to get anywhere with the essay I was working on. It sucked. Doesn’t matter. I brushed myself off and returned to the keyboard today with a renewed sense of purpose. And as a result, I wrote this whole piece!
Creativity comes when you consistently make time for it — and when you trust that your effort will pay off over time. It isn’t magic. It isn’t something outside of your control. It isn’t an act of martyrdom. It’s just a healthy habit you can develop, day by day.
If you enjoyed this essay and you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend reading How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia.