Today’s guest post is by Rob Blair.
Thank the Gods of Writing that I’m no longer a full-time freelancer.
Those six years of writing to pay the bills very nearly killed my passion for the craft. What’s more, my productivity on creative projects came to a dead halt. The last thing I wanted to do after a stressful day of writing was write some more.
Still, despite all the harm those years did to my writing life, they also helped me become more productive and effective. My current creative output—about twenty-five pages a week on my main novel project—is far higher than it was prior to my freelance experience.
I’d like to share five of the most valuable lessons I learned during my freelance career that I believe will help you be more productive in your novel writing.
1. Be Aware of Daily Willpower Fatigue
In the early months of my freelancing, I constantly felt on the verge of a breakdown. The struggle to overcome the mental barriers between myself and my work felt like an attempt to scale The Wall from A Song of Ice and Fire. In response to this struggle, I started researching motivational psychology and willpower.
My most practical find was that willpower is a real, useful, and measurable thing. And, what’s more, it diminishes over the course of any given day. As a result, delays in starting the work means that work will be harder to start.
For me, this created an awareness of what now seems like a self-evident truth: prioritizing it early in the day makes consistency far easier. If I tell myself I’ll get to it later, I’m probably lying. And if I’m really feeling anxious about a project, the best time I can possibly start working on it is in the twenty or so minutes right after I wake up.
2. Ritualize Your Writing Routine
Another way I got past the anxiety hurdle was to make some tea and put on a favorite album. I don’t think this is because tea is magic, or because music destroys anxiety, or even because I’m dosing myself with caffeine (I often drank herbal tea). Rather, it’s because it became a soothing ritual that let me ease into my writing.
The idea of jumping into a big, intimidating project can stop me in my tracks. However, when I think of each step as an independent part of a longer process, I find it much easier to get going. And when I make the first step a calming one, such as brewing a cup of tea or choosing from among my favorite musicians, the anxiety barrier nearly disappears.
3. Regular Practice Is the Key to Improving
While I did almost no creative work during those freelancing years, there is a notable difference in the quality of my writing before and after. While it seems obvious that writing thousands of pages of freelance content would improve my abilities, the reality still surprised me.
Why would this surprise me? Simply put, I was writing stuff I didn’t care about and was worrying about quality as little as I could get away with. Even so, the work proved to me the old Buddhist saying that “there is nothing that practice will not improve.”
The takeaway for me has been that writing as much as I can, as often as I can, is the most important part of getting better. Even if the pages I churn out seem awful or the stories I work on go nowhere, simply bringing myself to the keyboard over and over again has helped me improve. And, what’s more, I’ve been surprised at how much worthwhile production has happened thanks to this “keep starting” strategy.
4. Pithiness Leads to Potency
I worked with a few dozen editors over the years, and many were happy to let my content reach the client with only minor revisions. One editor in particular, though, bugged the crap out of me. Every time I sent a submission her way, she would cut out as much as a quarter of the verbiage. Sentences with content too similar to other sentences, unnecessary phrases, introductory clauses, fluffy paragraphs, lists that went on too long . . . you get the idea.
Why would she do this? I was getting paid by the word! I needed that filler in there. But as time went on and I habituated the more pithy and direct style that she insisted on, I noticed that my content was significantly more readable and powerful.
When I came back to my creative work, I did my best to implement this lesson. I am by no means perfect at trimming all the fat from my prose, and I even think a some fat can make for lovely curves in certain pieces. Even so, I believe practicing brevity has greatly improved my work’s potency.
5. Write What You Love
I may have not been clear in my opening paragraphs, but I felt pretty miserable as a freelancer. Yet I convinced myself, month after month and year after year, to continue down that path.
Why would I do this to myself? Ego, of course. I had wanted to be a writer since I was a child and this career path allowed me to assert that I had succeeded.
But, when I was a child, I did not want to grow up to write about unicycles and glock accessories and this summer’s bikini fashions. I did not want to write about hot dog machines or hotel amenities or even open source software. I wanted to write stories that made people feel things. I wanted to write the sort of books I read as a child: the sort that seemed to leak over the pages and make the whole world feel more colorful, complex, and real.
These days, I work the night shift as a hotel—a job that pays me less and puts me on a somewhat awful schedule. But it’s been a worthwhile sacrifice because it allows me the chance to work on the projects I care about.
I have been amazed by how much happier I am when I do regular work on the stories that matter to me. It feels as if my brain has shifted back into alignment and that the currents are flowing correctly again.
Whoever you are, if you’re putting off the work that matters to you, I hope you can take this lesson to heart more than any from my experiences: your life will feel richer and more complete if you demand the time and space you need to work on the projects that you love.
Rob Blair runs the Creative Writing Guild, a website that includes craft articles, writer interviews, and much more. Rob received his undergraduate degree in creative writing and motivational psychology. He currently lives in Wyoming and is pursuing his master of fine arts in fiction.
Hey, writers! If you’re hoping to write great novels and want to fast track to success, join my email Novel Writing Fast Track group!
You’ll get lots of free books and resources sent to your in-box, along with insights and tips to help you become a productive, effective novelist. And you can opt out at any time.
Already getting my bimonthly newsletter? Just click on “Update Your Preferences” at the bottom of any email and click JOIN to be a part of the Fast Track group.