I had a blog post due yesterday.
I had an idea for a serious topic that was incredibly important to me. The moment I sat down to write it, I knew: This was it. This was gonna change the hearts and minds, gonna be the best thing I’ve ever written, the Blog Post to End All Blog Posts, gonna be perfect.
I sat down to write. Hit my flow. Things were good.
Then the phone rang.
Twenty minutes later, I hung up and resumed writing. Picked up my rhythym. Found where I left off.
Then the email came, asking me to do something more time-sensitive. I sighed. Switched over.
90 minutes later, I picked up my writing again. Then the phone rang again. More emails. Lunchtime. A coworker came over to ask me if I’ve seen The Avengers. Emails. A meeting. Dear God, still more emails.
By the end of the day, I had 1,200 words that I’d written in fits and starts. Unfortunately, the narrative showed it: It was disjointed and unfocused, just like my workday. In the end, I was forced to scrap it. An entire day’s work, relegated to the recycling bin.
And the worst part was I knew exactly how it had happened: I broke all my own rules.
Every writer – whether you’re writing in a bustling office, a busy coffeeshop, or in between naps – needs his or her own set of rules to make sure the Work Gets Done.
Though I may have broken them yesterday, I stand by my rules. They’re the one thing that stands between productivity and workday insanity. With any luck, they’ll help you, too.
- You are nothing without an outline. This is the most controversial rule on the list, and I’ll admit, when I’m doing personal writing, I sometimes like to see where the writing road takes me without an outline. But when I’m on an assignment, I need the road map in case I get driven off the rails by distractions. It ensures I end up exactly where I intended to go with the piece, and it helps stave off wandering tangents.
- Have your purpose and audience in mind before you start. Remembering who my writing is serving helps my focus stay sharp and direct.
- Turn off the email notifications. Nothing’s more distracting than being in the middle of a sentence and seeing the first sentence of a demanding email pop up. I am weak: I have to click and read the rest of the message. Turning off the notifications helps me write in a blissful state of ignorance.
- Start your assignment first thing. Don’t go through your email, don’t check Twitter, don’t check comments on your last blog post. Sit down and start writing while your focus is clear. When your mind starts to wander after lunch, you can tackle that inbox.
- Come in early or stay late. If your regular working hours are too filled with distractions, you may need to sacrifice an hour or two of your day in exchange for pure, productive silence. When I worked as a freelance writer, I started my day at 6 a.m. I’d get three solid hours of writing in before the business world stirred to life and assignments started pouring in at 9.
- Always get to a good stopping point before switching gears. If not, your train of thought goes right off the rails, and the writing will show it. Even if you get a last-minute emergency request, it’s rarely something that can’t wait a simple five minutes while you wrap up your current thought.
- Set boundaries and say no. If you’re on deadline or in the middle of a piece, let people know. Say, “Sure, I’ll get to that after I finish this article,” or, “I’m actually in the middle of something right now – I’ll work on it as soon as I get to a good stopping place.” Tell your coworkers or your editors if you’ll be going off the grid to finish something. Communication is essential: No one else knows what’s on your plate but you. If you exert your intentions right off the bat, everyone will know to give you space.
- Invest in earplugs or headphones. If you need silence or an ambient bubble to write, wear earplugs. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones. Don’t worry about what people may think: Creating a productive workspace is important, and your coworkers will respect that.
- Hand-write if necessary. Childish, perhaps, but having your head bent over your desk as you furiously scribble away sends a nonverbal signal to others that you’re in the middle of something, whereas typing something on the computer could be anything: An email, an Excel spreadsheet, a Google search.
- Give yourself permission to not answer the phone. Go on: Hit the mute or ignore button. Callers can and will leave a message if it’s important. Preserve your focus and soldier on – you’ll call back as soon as possible with full attention.
- Escape if necessary. Get out of the house, go to a coffee shop, lock yourself in a closet, whatever you need to do. If you work in an office and you’re on a tight deadline, talk to your manager or editor about working from home or stepping out to a coffeeshop to wrap things up. They want you to make your deadlines as much as you do, and they certainly want you to do your best work.
- Make time to write for yourself. If I don’t write for myself, if I don’t make time to tell my own stories on my own time, they start to come out in my work whether I want them to or not. This quickly turns an informative piece into a self-serving one. Writing for myself helps to clear the pipes and makes me more clear-headed and focused when it’s time to write something for a work-a-day audience.
- Remember what you’re here for. You’re a writer. Not an email-composer, an invoice-creator, a socializer, or a number-cruncher. Those things may be part of your job, sure, but the writing must come first. It’s what you’re here for. It’s what keeps you going and makes your heart beat a little quicker each morning. There will always be one more email, one more request, one more chore that needs done. You’re here to write, so make sure your writing owns its rightful place at the top of your priority list.
What are your own rules to make sure the writing gets done?