As someone who writes for a living — we’re talking producing, editing and publishing tens of thousands of words every week — there’s one question I get all the time:
How do I do it?
More precisely: How am I able to just sit down and let the prose flow off my fingertips, onto the keyboard and into the open document in my word processor?
It’s a difficult question for me to answer for a few reasons. First, everyone’s writing style, habits and starting point will be different, as will their experience and/or educational background in this area. Second is the fact that, just like singing, dancing or any other creative pursuit, certain people have “it” — a repository of innate talent — that allows them to perform at a higher level than everyone else.
Third, and perhaps most importantly of all, is the realization that great writing is about hard work. In my experience, that unavoidable commitment is the deal breaker that scares most wannabe scribes away. As much as we all want a shortcut to success, there really is no substitute for sitting down and putting in the time and effort to grow your skills through repetition.
Someday My Muse Will Come
In a world now irreversibly shaped by the chemical need for instant gratification, that commitment to countless hours of hard work is, to put it mildly, disagreeable. It’s much easier to sit down, jot down a few disjointed paragraphs and hope for a spark.
Something. Anything. A sign from a higher creative power.
I know this because I used to be a writer who sat and waited for that elusive “lightbulb moment,” a fleeting instant where my creative muse would descend from the ether and flip some kind of switch that would make the long, laborious process of writing suddenly make sense.
The bad news is that the concept of a creative muse as a mysterious, omniscient force that you need to rely on for the inspiration that fuels your writing is a hoax. I’ve spent years searching for it, leaving no mental or emotional stone unturned in the process and have yet to discover this force of nature that guides towards creative fulfillment — not to mention a polished piece that’s ready for publication.
The good news, though, is that there’s just one simple trick that you need to do in order to make yourself a better writer. It boils down to one word: consistency.
A Valuable Writing (and Life) Lesson from Jerry Seinfeld
The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten came from Jerry Seinfeld. He’s a legendary live performer, TV actor and, above all else, one of the most prolific comedy writers in the history of the known universe. He’s also someone I’ve never met.
The advice in question came from a famous Lifehacker article in which software developer Brad Isaac described an easy, stripped-down approach to streamlining your productivity:
“He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself […] He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.’”
Seriously — it’s as simple as that. Write every single day.
Simple Goals = Consistent Results
One of the great things about this writing and productivity hack is that Seinfeld never makes the goal more complicated than it needs to be.
There’s no mention of word counts or obsessing over material that you’d deem acceptable, usable or even “good.” In fact, there’s really no insight into the content of your writing at all. The only requirement is to live up to that consistency and write every day, without fail.
The wall calendar technique is something I started employing at a point in my life where I felt creatively drained. Too many projects, both at and outside of work, had left me struggling to engage with my ideas and put them into words on a regular basis. That all changed once I started seeing those days accounted for visually.
When I get a decent-sized chain going, it happens exactly like Seinfeld said — you don’t want to bring your momentum to a halt under any circumstances. So, instead of trying to bend my writing time to accommodate my busy schedule, I started doing the reverse and moving my schedule around so I could follow through on the task of writing every day.
This hasn’t come without its share of short-term obstacles. There are early mornings and late nights that have me up against physical and mental fatigue. There are days and sometimes weeks where I know that what I write isn’t good and will more than likely never be seen by eyes other than my own. In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me; in fact, feeling rudderless now feels like an inevitable but only momentary setback when it used to drag me down.
These days, I recognize it as just another part of the growing process.
A Transcendent Writing Trick
There are lots of specific writing tips that can help you with the nuts and bolts of your creative workflow, ones that focus on things like grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary and using either an active or passive voice. A few pieces of insight, like Seinfeld’s brilliant calendar trick, surpass circumstance and enter the realm of the universal.
The consistency of writing every day is one of the hallmarks of every great writer. It supersedes talent and experience to become the great equalizer in this and any other creative domain. Those who have some innate skill can use hard work to rise above those who may have more natural gifts for the medium but who refuse to put in the time and effort necessary to grow their skills that dramatically.
So, if you’re wondering why your muse hasn’t tickled you today, or this week (or maybe even this month), stop waiting and hoping for lightning to strike. Instead, just sit down and write.
Then tomorrow, same thing — sit and write. The day after that, same thing.
Once you have even a little bit of a streak going, do everything in your power to make sure that you keep it alive. I’m literally looking at my version of the Seinfeld calendar right now and I’ll be honest: Gazing up at those rows of X’s gives me the satisfaction of knowing that, if I just keep the chain moving, the results will be there.