A little while ago, I wrote a piece about how working in the service industry could help make you a better writer. At the time, I was working in the service industry. Now, though, I’ve transitioned into a job that pays me to write (a weird thing for me, considering it hasn’t really happened before). That being said, I’ve had to learn to how find time to work on my creative pieces while still having the mental energy to sit in front of a computer eight hours a day and work on the projects I’m assigned.
I’ve come up with a few things that have worked for me and, hopefully, will work for you too, if you’re looking to find ways to keep creative writing in your life when you’re being paid to write for others.
1. Schedule, Schedule, Schedule
The biggest thing for me—and something I’ve only come around to in the last year or so, ignoring the fact I’ve been hearing this for years now—is keeping a schedule. Every morning before work I force myself to get up and read or write or work in some capacity on whatever project is currently sitting on top of the pile. Sometimes that is a book review and sometimes it’s a short fiction piece (or in this case, a post for Dear English Major).
I honestly hate getting up earlier than I have to, but I make myself do it and, just like working out, I feel better after. I’m allowed to dump whatever work has been kicking around in my head, clearing space for the workday ahead. It’s almost never easy, but it’s necessary.
- Discipline, or sometimes a lack thereof – A point to further that is the need to develop discipline (and learn when to forego it). Keeping yourself honest and disciplined in this process will help immensely. Even when I don’t want to, I drag myself to my desk, turn on some music and put the coffee on. I’d much rather still be in bed, but through the discipline I’ve been able to accomplish projects that would’ve otherwise sat dormant for months. There are times, though, that are cause for breaking discipline. Sickness, obviously, is something to pay attention to. If you’re ordered to rest, then rest. It isn’t noble to ignore doctor’s orders in such a way. You’ll only screw yourself over later on because the sickness/pain/whatever will linger. So if you need rest, rest.
2. Set Goals
It’s January, the time when everyone sets goals that are promptly left abandoned on the side of the road like cigarette butts by early February. Being a writer is no different. Setting goals helps with the discipline. If you know you’ve got certain heights to reach, it’s better to know where and how high those heights are. It’s also important to set shorter-term goals (in academia, SMART goals) so that you can keep going on a day-to-day basis.
For me, I shoot for around 500 words a day on days that I write (there are days that I only read, as well, and on those I shoot to read at least 100 pages). Most of the time I’m good with hitting these goals. Sometimes I don’t and I’ve learned not to beat myself up over it. An image I keep in my head constantly is a description that comes out of George Plimpton’s interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Review:
"He keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid myself”—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream."
If Hemingway is okay not doing the same number every day, so am I. Many writers aren’t, but you need to experiment and see what kind you are before making any rash decisions on self-flagellation for blowing a goal on a given day.
3. Accountability (or if you watch South Park, have an Accountabilibuddy)
Invoking an episode of South Park may not be the best lead-in to this point, but bear with me. It’s hard for me to get stuff done when I don’t have someone berating me about it. The motivation is not always there to follow-through on a project when it comes to creative work. This is where I find someone to hold me accountable. Another writer works great. He or she can hold you accountable and vice versa for finishing a project in a pre-determined amount of time, et cetera.
If nothing else, this person can function as a sounding board for story ideas. It’s good to have one or two friends who you can trust to not only keep your ass in line, so to speak, but who you can trust to offer honest opinions and constructive criticism on pieces when, more than likely, they shouldn’t yet see the light of day.
4. Read & Read Some More
This one shouldn’t really be a surprise, but you don’t get to be a better writer by only writing. You need to read, too, and probably read more than you write. In this case, taking some time you would use to write and using it to read is also a good thing to do, as you’re continually exposing yourself to new types of literature. In the same vein, read widely. Classics are great, as are contemporary works, as are works written by writers not from the United States as are…you get the point.
You may not like everything you read—let’s be real, you more than likely won’t, and you’ll probably hate a good amount of it—but if you don’t read it, you won’t know what you want to write and what you don’t want to write (and to push that further how and how not to write what you want to write).
Being involved in a literary magazine or something like that helps, too, because you get to read both good and bad writing (again showing how and how not to write). I guess what I’m saying is, read more than you write. When you train for a marathon, you don’t only run long distances every day. You run short, you run long, you do sprints, you do weight training, you change your diet. You do a lot of different things. Writing is no different.
5. Keep a Notebook Handy
There are moments throughout the day that someone will say something and something in your brain will go “I need that. I must have that. I must use that.” For those instances, keep a notebook handy. Or note cards. Something, as long as you can write on it. I use a mix of scraps of paper, note cards, and a steno book. At the end of the day, I’ll take whatever scraps I’ve accumulated (usually two or three per day) and toss them into a shoebox that I keep under my desk at home. The box is the accumulation of a couple months worth of ideas and I go back to it often, looking for something to mine. Stay observant and write things down. If you don’t get to a sustained period of writing in a given day, you can take solace in the fact that you’ve scribbled a few lines down to use later.
6. Embrace the Unknown
I’ve been surprised countless times at the direction my day takes sometimes. Be open to that. If you get so locked into your schedule and discipline, you’re going to miss a lot. This is counterintuitive to much of what I’ve already said, I know, but that’s okay. Like a lot of writing advice, mine ends with the caveat that all my advice is subject to change. If it changes, that’s okay. Follow the change and have that notebook ready.
About the Author
Sam Slaughter is a writer based in Central Florida. He's worked a variety of jobs in his life from grave digger to professional beer brewer, but currently gets paid to be a copywriter for a health and wellness company. He's had fiction and nonfiction published and serves as a Contributing Editor at Entropy and the Book Review Editor at Atticus Review. He was voted the Best of There Will Be Words 2014 and his debut chapbook When You Cross That Line will be published in 2015. He can be found on Twitter @slaughterwrites or on his website: www.samslaughterthewriter.com.