Anyone who has a difficult time getting their butt in a chair so they can write has probably seen endless articles, all saying the same thing, about how they, too, can be a prolific writer. Unfortunately, the advice, while it may work for some people, doesn’t take a lot of other aspects into account when they talk about being prolific and how to cultivate this ability.
To be honest, a lot of it makes it seem like you have to be so ridged and disciplined the only people who could manage the advice are those without jobs, families, lives, even pets.
I’m a prolific writer (how prolific? I once wrote 50,000 words in four and a half days) and I follow few, if any, of these “requirements”. Let’s break down some of the rules that you apparently have to follow in order to be prolific and how I manage to be prolific without following any of them.
The reason why I can manage to follow almost none of those requirements and still be incredibly prolific is partly because I am mentally ill and my bipolar disorder makes me obsessive about projects I enjoy and also sometimes gives me excess energy to use when I’m working. I get very dog with a bone.
While I realize my mental illness contributes to my output in some fashion, I also realize there are plenty of ways one can be productive without following common advice and also the limitations someone like me has with said advice. Let’s take a deeper look at how to be prolific and why sometimes the expected answer is not the only one.
1. Have a strict writing routine
I get that making time in your day, organizing your life so you can carve out some time to write is important. Even the ritual of sitting down to write can be important. However, many people take this too far.
Instead of trying to cultivate a place or time you feel comfortable writing, some advice gives you instructions on how to set up a distraction-free writing haven, away from any possible interruption. As if we all have, or even need, dedicated workspaces, no distractions, or a specific ritual involving the right cup of tea, the fuzziest cozy socks, and the perfect set of pens to take notes with at your side.
I write whenever I can. My writing is all digital so I use whatever is at my disposal to get going. I carry a notebook in my purse if I want to jot something down, and have so many notebooks in my house, I will never probably need to buy a new one (although I definitely will). I have a notes section in my phone dedicated to my random thoughts and ideas.
I write on my computer, I write on my phone, I write on my tablet, I print things out and edit them on paper sometimes. I write in the morning, afternoon, evening, whatever fits in my schedule. Sometimes I wake up and go immediately to my computer after my morning routine to start writing. Sometimes I end the night at my computer, writing. Sometimes I do both.
The 2000 film Quills struck a particular chord with me. This fictionalized account of the life of the Marquis de Sade after he’s put in a mental institution was probably not something I should have been watching as a teenager, but what really resonated with me was de Sade’s dedication to his craft.
He wrote and and when they took away his paper, he wrote on his clothes. When they took away his ink, he wrote with his own blood. When they took away everything, he smeared his own excrement on the walls.
This is not to say he’s a role model. But the point is, nothing could stop him from writing. As long as he had walls and poop, he was going to create words. I don’t go to that extreme, but I try to keep the same spirit. As long as I have something to write on, I can work on something. If not the actual body of work, then taking notes, plotting what comes next, doing edits, etc.
I don’t have a favorite pair of writing socks. I don’t need a particular piece of music playing while I write. I don’t have any of that and it doesn’t slow me down.
If you’re someone who needs some of the ritual, but all means indulge, but realize that not all of us are in a point in our life where we can carve our the same time, space, and practice to write. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t mean that you don’t write. It means you get creative and write anyway.
2. Write Daily
If you’re trying to build a writing habit and have never written regularly before, this could be helpful for you. But if you have a life, like many people do, and it involves many things, writing every day might not be possible. It’s also important to note that if you miss a day of writing or can’t manage the daily schedule, this doesn’t mean you’re not a writer, you’re bound to fail, or you’ve already lost before you finished your work.
I don’t write daily. In fact, I sometimes go through phases, where I will write obsessively for months and then stop completely for the months following. At first, I thought it was bad, even dangerous, that I didn’t write daily. But even if I stopped writing, even for months, I would always go back to it. It would get done, one way or another.
But this is the difference between forgetting to write and purposely putting it off until I’m ready to write again. I didn’t stop thinking about writing and I may have even jotted down notes in the meantime, but when I was ready to start again, I went back to it like I had never stopped.
Writing daily is great, if it works for you. If you can’t find the time every single day to carve out some writing time, don’t worry. That doesn’t make you a bad or lazy writer. It just means you have a life and that’s fine.
3. Outline Extensively
When it comes to rules of writing, there are general practices, good ideas, and personal preferences. Outlining is a wonderful tool for setting up a story before you even start actually working on the story. But the world will not end if you start putting words on a page without having the work essentially written in outline form.
I write mainly poetry and sometimes short story, with a little bit of everything else sprinkled in. For a novel, I think outlining is great idea. Although, I have written novels with just some ideas in my head. But when it comes to poetry and sometimes even blogs or articles, extensive outline can be an effort in futility.
Sometimes when you’re writing a chapbook, the work changes as you write. I also find poets are more adept to dealing with this change and won’t get bent out of shape if they need to reconsider part of their project because it took on a life of its own. I think a work changing as it starts to breathe is a beautiful thing, no matter the genre.
When I’m writing a chapbook, I usually pick a title and start designing a cover early in the process. That is to say, before the work is finished. I often end up changing one or both, but this I look at as part of the process. Not something that detracts from it, or work I’ve had to do over. The tile and the cover help shape the piece and when the piece shapes itself, I adjust the title and cover. (Also, I find covers are really fun to do and enjoy playing round with pictures and elements, so even if I end up doing it over, I really don’t mind.)
4. Have formal education in writing
I’m going to discuss this topic in greater detail in another blog and video, but right now, I am specifically writing about having a formal education in order to be prolific. While taking classes, whether formal or informal, is a great way to expand your writing, you might not write more just because you took a class. There could be a variety of reasons for this.
I love to take classes at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. I’ve taken art classes, poetry classes, fiction classes, writing software classes, so many, I can’t even remember them all in the 6 years I’ve been attending their workshops. I always come away with lots of ideas and sometimes starts to a poem or short story or even a different perspective on my writing. These classes help me to be more productive, because they are high-quality, well structured, and the instructors are vetted professionals.
Meanwhile, if I had a nickel for every ad I get on social media for writing classes, conferences, and publishing schools, I would have paid off my student loans by now. Unfortunately, not all writing classes are the same and some charge thousands of dollars to go through a course that may not end up helping you at all.
It makes me uneasy to think people are promoting any conference or class or school to help someone become more productive, when so many of them are poor or dubious quality. If getting your butt in a chair and writing is your problem, you might need more butt in chair time, and not another conference or class.
5. Don’t wait for inspiration
I have to roll my eyes when someone encourages writers to just write write write even when it’s just not happening. If you’ve glued yourself to your desk and you are insisting on writing something because you feel like you have to, you’re probably going to hate the process of writing rather than become a prolific writer.
There are deadlines sometimes or other time constraints that put you at your desk while you’d rather be somewhere else. However, getting yourself into the habit of sitting at your desk to either stare at a blank screen or write nonsense, is just going to make you resent writing and want to do it less, not more.
I will freely say that if I have an idea for a poem or story and for whatever reason, it’s just not working, I will put it down. I will sleep on it. I will come back in a day, a month, a year, and I will write it when it’s time. I hate to feel like I’m forcing every word on the page, because, quite frankly, the reader can probably tell it’s forced.
Giving my brain a break every so often makes me more prolific, not less. The important part is that I write the idea down somewhere and I do return to it. It will get written, just not on that exact day.
Bonus: Never Get Writer’s Block
I’ve seen the idea that true creatives never get writer’s block bandied around like if you’ve ever gotten it, you are clearly not a creative or a writer and should feel deep shame. There are a lot of ideas on how people never get writer’s block, but it always comes down to that writer’s block is for beginners and those who aren’t very good writers at all.
I get writer’s block. I happen to be a human being with a brain that sometimes limps around, and I will occasionally get writer’s block. Whether I get a block on a certain piece that I’m working on, or just sit down at the computer, wanting to write and nothing happens, I get writer’s block.
The trick to overcoming writer’s block is not to stop it from happening all together or just keep writing until your fingers bleed. It’s giving yourself the time you need to rest, relax, and come back to your writing with a set of fresh eyes. No one benefits from you torturing yourself when you need sleep, a good meal, some down time, or some time to take care of something else in your life.
Another tip to overcoming writer’s block is to give yourself that break, figure out what you need to do, do it, and then come back to writing when you’re ready. Again, the coming back part is where people seem to get lost. If you have to set a reminder on your calendar or phone, then do it. But come back to writing and reevaluate where you’re at.
You might find the idea you’re stuck on needed a new angle and you could happily type away for hours on your new prospective. You could find the idea just doesn’t work and discard it for other ideas that will fit in better with what you’ve already written. You could even take a bad idea you had, turn it into a better one, and rework what you wrote previously to give it a completely new life.
My Tips for Being a Prolific Writer
I want to put a disclaimer on this before I start, I was seemingly born a prolific writer. I have never had a problem with output that I had to overcome. How I managed to produce what I’ve done is sometimes a mystery to me. Other times it’s very clearly because I’m bipolar.
However, here are some practices I have that have served me well throughout the years.
- Be persistent: I am a prolific writer, at least partly, because I am mentally ill and become obsessive over projects and tasks. Persistence pays off. Little by little you can find yourself working towards a novel or a book of poetry. Remember that this is a big project and take it in small chunks. It’s the best way to look at it.
- Find a writing/life balance: It’s important to keep track of how your writing time is affecting your life and how your life is affecting your writing time. While lots of advice will say to abandon all for your writing, if you need to work to live, that’s just not possible.
- Be flexible: Sometimes your writing situations are less than ideal. It happens to everyone. Keep working on finding the time and space you need to write. Make adjustments where needed and even when it’s hard, keep working towards your goals.
- Put your butt in your chair and write: So much of this advice prolific advice seems to have little to do with actual writing. If you want to be a prolific writer, you have to write. It’s not anymore complicated than that. Is it easy? Not all the time. But no matter how many rituals you come up with or how well you outline your novel, nothing is going to happen if you don’t get that butt in chair time and get some words down.
- BE PERSISTENT: Nothing has helped me write more than always going back to it. No matter how life gets in the way, no matter the stops and starts, no matter what’s going on with my own mental health, I always go back to writing. That’s why breaks don’t bother me anymore. If I need one, I take one. Because I know I will find my way back in time.
Yes, I Wrote this Blog in One Sitting
See? Butt in chair time. It gets things done.