Some of our best writing comes when we least expect it–our brains often find solutions when we allow them to wander and don’t think too hard. So you have to be ready to write anytime, anywhere and not force the story, article, or other content to come. But if we work only based on when our brains wander, then we’d never meet a deadline. If you promise an editor you’ll have a draft by the end of the week or in a few months, well, then at some point, you can’t wait anymore.
So how do you balance the need for spontaneous creativity with the planning you need for consistent productivity?
I’ve found that it can help to surround yourself with or get involved in areas related to what you want to write about. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery, play some sleuthing games or go on a scavenger hunt, watch crime documentaries, or read content connected to the mystery (e.g., how a specific forensic technique works). The idea isn’t to find a specific solution so much as it is just to get more information, get some deeper, emotional and experiential knowledge of the topic and become really comfortable with the elements of the mystery world. You might find what you need to move forward without consciously realizing it. Even if the facts don’t fit what you’re currently aiming for, they might work for something later, so literally file them away.
Secondly, set yourself some boundaries. It is extremely easy to keep researching and researching or rewriting and rewriting–drafts can get better the more you learn or tweak. But it’s generally not a matter of whether you can add or adjust. It’s a matter of whether you should. Ask yourself what the piece you’re writing really requires. If your draft is clear and convincing with just six reliable sources, for instance, then don’t waste your time looking for a dozen. And if two transitions work equally well, then just pick one and move on. Have a vision or goal for your message, but don’t let what could be get you stuck or distract you from what you actually need.
Then there’s the idea of outlining and chronology. I think outlines and structure do help. But nothing says you need to work through your outline in order. If you get a great concept for Chapter 13 while you’re writing Chapter 2, then go ahead and flesh it out as much as you can. Because any writing moves the draft closer to complete. Yes, you might have to smooth out transitions later, and you might decide that your concept doesn’t work after all. But the practice of just going after the idea and rounding it out will help you everywhere else.
Connected to the idea above, don’t be afraid to work in bits and pieces. If a single sentence comes to you, then record it. With simple pocket notebooks and tools like voice-to-text and Google Docs available through smartphones 24/7, you really don’t have any excuse not to. Let go of the idea that you have to write a lot to be doing something significant, because often it’s that epiphany sentence that flashes in front of you as you stumble for your coffee that ends up being the cornerstone for entire pages or chapters, or that encapsulates the heart of your entire manuscript.
DO set some time aside for writing every day. But don’t necessarily force yourself to work on anything specific during your writing session. Instead, try to have multiple irons in the fire to choose from. Then ping around based on what feels the most complete in your head, or what best suits your mood. And if you have an idea for something else while you’re working on one manuscript, let yourself stop long enough to jot that something else down. I guarantee that this will improve your result, because you’ll always feel like you have more of a choice. Feeling forced or confined never put any writer in a good mood, and bad moods generally aren’t conducive to getting into a great state of flow.
As you work through a writing session, try super hard not to judge what’s on the page. Just get the concepts out and trust yourself to pull out the best pieces when you’re done. Try a couple different approaches or phrasings and see which one you keep coming back to later. That’s probably your winner. If you’re having trouble choosing between two options, try to identify what keeps speaking to you from both and then do a reasonable merge. Plenty of times, I’ve written the main idea more than one way and realized the best solution was to splice two versions together.
Lastly, submit your work for feedback. Often others can see what we can’t, and all we need to continue well is for someone else to get us thinking in a different way, or to point out something we perhaps hadn’t considered. And by finding and using good feedback forums, you’ll get in the habit of feeling obligated to create something without necessarily feeling like that something has to stay as it is. And much of the time, simply defending what we already have on the page shows us how committed we are to a certain description, plot line, or thesis. The more confident you feel in your defense, the more likely you are to keep on refining/promoting your work and querying even through the trolling of the worst naysayers.