How to Write More Often

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 11 of 100.


An old friend of mine recently messaged me out of the blue with a question I get from time to time from all kinds of interesting people: What advice do you have about writing more?

It’s rarely a question about writing better; it’s a question of production. How do you begin to move? Once you are moving, how do you stay in motion? And how do you do both of those things when you’re throat-deep in ten trillion other things?

First of all, I should say that when it comes to writing, I am a bit of a freak. I was simultaneously unable to make and uninterested in making friends as a child, and I was non-athletic and loathed the sun. I became very chubby and bitter, but I did have to fill my waking hours with activities, and the only thing I ever really wanted to do was write. I think this had to do with wanting the warmth of entering into another world that wasn’t as boring and painful as the one I was stuck with. (I know — there’s nothing worse than living in a big house on a quiet neighborhood in ultraliberal Portland, Oregon, with parents who let you get the good pizza from Pizza Hut every Friday night even if you were being bad.) 

I filled at least a hundred spiral-bound notebooks with this ongoing story about a girl named Fern and her sister Greenie who lived in an abandoned hotel/bakery in the woods and who both had extremely long hair. I could go on for pages and pages about the breads and muffins they made in their big kitchen. There was no plot for a thousand miles, but I relished writing inside the corners of their home, wandering through the possibilities of room decorations and romantic friendships and doughnuts. Fantasizing about baked goods was a huge part of this endeavor.

Anyway, I never got over the writing itch and still at least 75 percent of everything I write is composed without the intention of ever finding readership. For some people, there is apparently a similar compulsion towards exercise, which I cannot begin to comprehend and seems like it must be made up. I guess what I’m saying is that we are all probably a little freaky in our own obsessive ways.

That said, I do have some advice about getting yourself to the page. It depends on your specific monster. There are four, by the way: four primary monsters whose entire reality hinges on a savage drive to keep you from writing anything ever at all. Here they are:

The Mirror Monster

Says to you:

“Nothing you write is good enough.”

“Your ideas are all stupid. Are those the best ideas you have?”

“Oh look! You’ve started something! Let’s read it. (Pause.) Huh. That sounded a lot better in your head, didn’t it? Let’s scrap that and start again; you can do better.”

Battle this monster:

This is the same monster that knows exactly how much you weigh and reminds you that you are the only common thread in all your failed relationships. I’m pretty sure that even if you decided to live in an ashram in the Swiss Alps and meditate nine hours a day, this monster would be still be able to sniff you out and tell you all your faults.

So rather than go head-to-head with him every time, change your goals. If your dream is to get published in the New Yorker, think of your current writing as necessary reps. Put another way: You’d never run a marathon without training, and everyone knows you shouldn’t beat yourself up over the practice runs.

One of the big secrets here is to stop re-reading. When I was writing my book, I told my adviser that I didn’t think I had it in me because until then I’d always written everything in one sitting. I couldn’t imagine putting something down and picking it up again and continuing to like it enough to want to finish it. She gave me the following piece of advice, which I have used ever since.

When you’re done writing for the day, leave yourself a little note at the end of your writing explaining what you’ve just done and what you’re about to do. You are not allowed to re-read your early material at all until the project is done. Always stop when you are excited to keep going and you know just what will come next; NEVER stop when you are stuck. 

The best writing comes in surprising moments when you’re not expecting it. It pops up between paragraphs you thought you wanted to write and it startles you. The only way to write anything you’re going to like is to write anything. Focus on quantity over quality until you have a practice in place. 


The Monster Who Lives In The Clock 

Says to you:

“Holy shit there are ten million things to do! You’re WAY too busy to write today!”

“Ugh, do we REALLY have to get up at 5 a.m.? REALLY?”

“You don’t have enough time to sit for the two hours required to get any deep writing going.”

Battle this monster:

Start small, but give yourself scheduled uninterrupted writing time. There are rules:

  1. You have to physically put the scheduled writing time in your calendar. For the first week, do this every day for 30 minutes. Like, you have to put, “9:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.: UNINTERRUPTED WRITING TIME.” And when Sadie texts you to see if you can do a 9:30 morning hang-out with her, you have to say, “No, I have something at that time; can you do 10:15?”
  2. Set an alarm if you don’t trust yourself with a calendar.
  3. Put your phone in airplane mode and turn the internet off on your computer. I know you think you need to research stuff while you’re writing, but you don’t. Make a note during your UNINTERRUPTED WRITING TIME that you want to research Skittles or the origin of accordions or whatever, and you can research it later. There is somehow always time to browse the internet for information. It’s the actual writing there is no time for.
  4. Set a timer. For those 30 minutes, you have to be writing. When you don’t know what to write, you write, “I don’t know what to write, I’m really feeling stuck.” Those paragraphs can always be moved or deleted. You just write through the 30 minutes and you don’t look back.
  5. When the timer is up, you’re done! Make a habit of stopping there, at least at first, because you want to teach your mind that really, writing doesn’t take that much time at all, and even a little goes a long way.

The Social Monsterite 

Says to you:

“What’s the point of doing this if no one is holding you accountable for it?”

“None of your friends write.”

“If you’re going to do something as tedious as writing, you should be getting paid for it.”

Battle this monster:

Join a group, and if you can’t find one to join, start one. has tons of these — just, scads and scads. But it is most helpful for me to do a Facebook search for exactly what I’m looking for: “women’s writing group Chicago”; “creative non-fiction writing group”; etc. Starting a group is also a surprisingly easy and interesting endeavor; in the past, I’ve posted on my social that I want to do a monthly writing group and then I watch friends I had no idea were writers come out of the woodwork.

Also, consider starting a blog. You don’t need me to tell you that there are no shortage of platforms — Tumblr! Wordpress! Blogspot! Squarespace! LiveJournal is technically still a thing! — and there’s something about hitting the “Publish” button that makes all that solitary time with words feel more meaningful somehow. Plenty of people have figured out how to monetize their blogs, but if self-marketing isn’t your thing, just know that big publications that pay you like to see clips of your previous work; the more you have available for them to read, the likelier they are to hire you. If you want to be published, publish yourself.

The Monster of the Mind

Says to you:

“What are you gonna write? Huh? Your brain is empty.”

“OK, so you want to write a memoir. Where are you going to start? Huh? Your brain is a dumb shell.”

“You have nothing worth writing in that stupid, vestigial brain of yours.”

Battle this monster:

You, my friend, are an excellent candidate for MORNING PAGES. I have already blogged about Morning Pages. I will advocate for them until the ends of the earth.

Julia Cameron says you need to wake up an hour earlier than you normally do, and I have to agree with her. You need to be up before everyone else is up. You need to be up and sitting at your notebook before you have checked your email and gotten sucked into the seductive lies of all that “needs to get done.” This will change your life: I promise.

It may also be worth going through a book of written prompts, or filling out a guided journal. Your ideas will spring forth once your pen is moving; it’s weird — as soon as you’ve really started something in earnest, all these NEW ideas start flooding your brain, and they’re all better than the CURRENT idea. (Like, today I feel like writing a blog post about king cake. But instead, I’m doing this one, because I started it and it deserves to be finished.) Follow the rule: Work on one thing at a time. As Henry Miller put it, “When you can’t create, you can work."