For the most part, I love writing. I’ve dreamed about being a writer since the third grade. I’d rush to finish my work in class just so I could write and make little books out of stapled notebook paper. I would write whenever I had the chance. With the exception of a few super-boring classes, I even enjoyed my college writing assignments – I was happy to write papers in lieu of a final exam – semesters ended a week early for me just for that reason. But as much as I loved to write, I soon discovered that there would be times when I would absolutely dread writing!
How could that be so?
It sounded like the perfect opportunity when I took a 9-5 as a technical writer. My yearly salary was decent and I’d be able to do what I loved all day long – write. Right?
Well, Monday came and I took my place in a cubicle for the very first time. Around 8:15 A.M., my supervisor handed me a writing assignment and I cranked up MS Word and was set go. I looked over the instructions, cracked my knuckles and aligned my fingers on the home row… time to wow my new supervisor with a masterpiece! Around 8:21, I thought perhaps before I got too deep into writing, I should check my email just in case something important had come through over night. Around 8:36, I’d clicked on to Twitter to respond to a tweet and share some links to great content I’d discovered in my inbox. 8:49 – Probably a good time to start the project, so I returned to MS Word where I stared at the blank screen for another 5-10 minutes. I was supposed to have a draft ready before lunch time at 11:30 – at the rate I was progressing, that wasn’t going to happen. Absolutely nothing would come. I spent more time reading over the information. But still nothing. What was the problem?
I discovered that there were four major problems I was facing:
- Lack of Inspiration. First of all, I was totally bored with the dry content I had been given to research and use to produce what would become an instructional text. It would be my job to liven it up, but I just wasn’t inspired.
- Lack of Information. The material I had been given had a lot of missing information. If I was going to be able to add anything of value to it, I was going to have to do more research.
- Poor Environment. I absolutely hated the cubicle! The walls were covered with the most uninspiring green fabric. The fluorescent lighting did nothing to enhance it. The ambient noise from typing, ringing phones and distant conversations were distracting.
- Low-level of Brain Function. I was still drowsy. I’m not a morning person – never really have been and probably won’t ever be. I’ve always been able to condition myself to get up and function throughout the day, but it was never without frequent yawning and an ample supply of coffee.
Writing is different from all other work tasks. It is a very mind-intensive activity – it requires perfect conditions and a level of alertness that I imagine as high as that needed to perform brain surgery – you need that much concentration to fully get into flow and write well. Those four hurdles came together and fully sidetracked my writing abilities. If I was going to be able to do my job well, something was going to have to give. I didn’t make my lunch-time deadline, so I had to figure out how to fix my problem and fast.
Here’s what I did:
For lunch, I took my food down by the river and ate there, staring out at the glistening river under the noon sun. A few bright sparkles of light stung my eyes – it was irritating at first, but I realized for the first time that day, I felt fully alert. I took a short walk along the water’s edge before heading back into the building where I cranked out several pages in just a few minutes. My brain was finally working! After reflecting more on my writing habits I discovered what worked best for me and helped me produce the best writing.
Here’s what I learned to do:
Pay Attention to My Internal Writer’s Clock
I’d never thought about it before, but I finally figured out the optimal writing hours that my internal clock preferred. My best writing happened at night. After some reflection, I realized that most of my college papers were produced after 9:00 P.M. – that’s after the kids had gone to bed, at a time when the house was most quiet and when my brain was the most creative and alert. Whenever I attempted to write outside of those hours, it usually proved to be a waste of time. So I developed some strategies to stay productive even during those non-optimal writing hours.
Here are some strategies that helped me overcome those four hurdles:
- Found inspiration. It was a quick dose of new scenery that helped me realize that every good piece of writing needs context or a setting to help readers dive into the content. Readers need to quickly understand the scenario to ground them and taking some time to think about that gave me a good starting point for writing. Whenever I needed inspiration, I spent some time flipping through relevant magazines or browsing relevant blogs to help me latch onto to the setting or context that I needed to create.
- Spent time researching. Whenever I can’t write, rather than waste time staring at a blank screen, I spend that time researching instead. I start out looking for answers to my questions and let that guide my research. Once I get a better understanding of what I’m trying to write about, I’m able to write more effectively about that topic.
- Created a more inspiring environment. I couldn’t get rid of that green fabric in my cubicle, so I decided to cover every inch of it that was in my direct lines of vision. I covered it with family photos, inspiring quotes, calendars and other framed art. When I needed more inspiration, I’d take a few moments and walk down the hall to look out the giant picture window. To block out the ambient noise, I brought my headphones and played soft music.
- Wrote when I was most alert. There’s no need in trying to write first thing in the morning, if I know I’m not alert during that time. You might be just the opposite, so do what works for you. During that time, I took care of other tasks that required less brain power. When I really needed to perk up to meet a deadline, I’d take a 15 minute walk. Exercise gets the blood flowing to the brain and helps increase alertness.
When I took that job I had no idea that I’d be so challenged and that the environment would sap my creativity, but the above strategies helped me write and stay productive even outside my natural optimal writing hours. Hopefully, they’ll do the same for you. What strategies do you have for squeezing out great writing even outside of your natural writer’s clock?
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