It’s a dirty, messy business.
This difficult craft of ours doesn’t respect boundaries.
If you’re a new writer, you’ve got to crack open a part of yourself and spill it on the page. You can’t do this if you’re working in chaos and you don’t know where anything is.
Even if your writing isn’t personal, your desk, floors, and even your walls belong to your research, notes, and your ideas.
Those who want to improve their writing value clear space.
The American novelist John Cheever wrote most of his best works alone in a basement in New York wearing just a pair of boxers.
The British children’s author Roald Dahl wrote much of his work in a shed dedicated solely to writing at the back of his garden.
Writers know they’re about to make a mess, and they can’t do it if they’re working in chaos.
Here are five ways you get the clear space you need to improve your writing.
1. Spend Five minutes Preparing Your Workspace
File your notes, wipe down your desk, pair your pencils and fill your pens.
If you use a computer to write, close everything except the writing application on your computer and disconnect from the internet — research and writing are two separate activities that you should carry out at different times.
You could even take off the doorknob and bring it into your study — William Faulkner did just this to avoid being distracted while he worked.
Doorknobs aside, prepare where you work in advance so that when you sit down, and the words start to flow, you don’t have to stop because you need something or because you are distracted.
2. Sweep Out Your Mental Junk
Lots of writers enjoy working late at night, but this can be a challenge as your monkey mind may be already full of useless thoughts, preoccupations, and ideas.
You can get around this by meditating or exercising for a few minutes before you sit down to work.
Wear your monkey out. Distract it. Write. Tweet this.
Those who prefer writing in the morning have an advantage over night time writers. Your willpower is at its strongest after sleep, and this is when the mind is most creative.
Seize this opportunity to write before you check email, listen to the news or attend to the one hundred and one other things in your day.
If when you start writing, your mind is preoccupied with the demands of day-to-day life, it’s going to be difficult to write anything useful. Get around this problem by writing down your worries, ideas and thoughts down on a long list.
This writing exercise is a double win. Firstly, you’ll clear the rubbish from your mind and feel better and more open to new ideas that are about to come your way.
Secondly, this writing exercise will help you warm up for the page ahead of you.
3. Borrow A Great First Line
‘Call me Ishmael.’
‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
Writing down a great first line by another author is an effective writing prompt because, like any good writing prompt, it gets your hands moving and the words onto the page.
Stand on the backs of successful writers you admire, and start writing.
You can use these writing prompts as entry points into your stories, as workarounds for writer’s block, and simply as ways to start free writing.
Up there, the view is clear, and you can see for miles. When you’ve finished writing, give the line back but keep what you’ve written. I won’t tell them if you don’t.
Even if you’re not writing fiction, you can still use first lines from articles you’ve read or non-fiction books that you admire. Or you could take a proven copywriting formula and adapt it to improve your writing.
4. Break Out of Your Writing Routine
I’m all for the stability of a writing routine, but sometimes the baggage that comes with working in one place is too much.
The lightbulb in your office needs to be changed, yellow paint is peeling from the wall, and the phone keeps ringing. Or perhaps wherever you write is just too distracting to get any serious work down.
It’s good to write in a new environment every now and again.
Take your writing and go to a coffee shop or a library. These places are usually free of the subconscious baggage that comes with working in the same place repeatedly. And sometimes the brain craves a new writing environment.
Ambient noise encourages creativity too. JK Rowling would agree — she wrote the earlier parts of the Harry Potter series in a coffee shop.
(Tip: If can’t leave wherever you write, Coffitivity will recreate the ambient sounds of a coffee shop for you.)
5. Shed Yesterday’s Baggage
The War of Art — Essential reading for new writers
In The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield compares the job of a writer to the job of hunter — both must go out each day afresh in search of new game.
“Do I really believe that my work is crucial to the planet’s survival? Of course not. But it’s as important to me as catching that mouse is mouse is to the hawk circling outside my window. He’s hungry. He needs a kill. So do I.”
When you turn up in front of the blank page, forget your past accomplishments and failures. You may have written a hundred, a thousand words or even ten thousand words yesterday. Or maybe you didn’t write at all.
What’s more important is the blank page ahead of you, the words you’ve yet to get out onto the page, and the ideas you want to shape and form.
Today, you are starting afresh. You are going on the hunt, and you can’t afford to be weighed down by what you did or didn’t do yesterday, last week or last month.
Don’t let your prey get away.
A master craftsman tidies up after themselves and prepares their work for the following day in advance. They do this because they know creativity is a long-term game, and it’s their job to turn up day after day and do the work.
Ernest Hemingway at work
Ernest Hemingway, for example, stopped writing in the middle of a sentence so he’d know here to resume from the following day.
You don’t necessarily need to stop writing in the middle of a sentence, but it’s helpful to have a clear idea of where you want to resume from tomorrow. Perhaps you want to finish your introduction, expand on a certain chapter in your book or work on an outline.
Tidy up your work, organise your notes and put your writing space back the way it was. Tip the waitress in the coffee shop if you need to. Make it easier to find the clear space you need to improve your writing day after day.
What unexpected tips do you have for improving your writing? Share them below.