whitefox’s former editorial assistant Josephine joined the team while she was writing up her thesis. She’s tried every gimmick under the sun to get those words out; here are ten of her tips for conquering that blank page and blinking cursor.
1. Find a way to hold yourself accountable. Whether it’s a weekly email to a friend or a daily #wordcount tweet, keep track of whether you’re actually achieving the goals you’ve set. If you’re not, forgive yourself – we’ve all been there. Take a look at tip no. 2…
2. Set realistic goals. It sounds great: if I get through a chapter a week, this thesis/novel/memoir will be done by Christmas! But as soon as you fall off the wagon, the cycle of guilt and procrastination starts up again. If your only writing time is a snatched half-hour on the train home from work, accept that you probably won’t get more than 500 words done, max. This gives you some breathing room and sets you up for success.
3. Make your tasks specific. A to-do list that just says ‘finish the thesis’ won’t help – that’s exactly where you’re getting stuck! Instead, list tasks like ‘summarise argument from Philosopher, A. (2010)’ or ‘describe the bookshop where Harry meets Sally’. You need a concrete achievement to tick off at the end of the day.
4. Plan in writing time. Many authors find the Pomodoro method works for them – twenty-five minutes of focused work feels doable, and you get to look forward to a five-minute break. I found I needed a longer period of writing time and a longer break; you can set whatever interval works for you.
5. Remove distractions. Turn off your email notifications for an hour, block those websites and ignore those WhatsApp chats. If you can, try getting away from it all completely – sometimes a new setting really helps to clear your mind. There are formal retreats for novelists and academics, or you can fire up your search engine and organise your own escape from the day-to-day. I can recommend the lovely writing studio in Frome.
6. Find some company. Sometimes I needed to talk to others going through the same thing, just to maintain my sanity! Regular writing groups with friends or even just a coffee and commiseration session can help. If your writing friends are spread out across the globe, you can get together online: try the popular NaNoWriMo or set up your own support community like ShutUp&WriteTuesdays. You’re not alone.
7. Establish your motivation. Do you respond to the carrot or the stick? Maybe the anticipation of tea and cake will help you get those words out. Or the fear of missing out might help you persevere – if you don’t finish this section in time, you won’t get to go to your friend’s birthday party and your social life will be doomed to failure.
8. Try out apps to help you focus. You can plant a tree, collect badges by writing every day or risk losing your hard-earned cash if you don’t achieve your goal. Drastic measures may be needed – the most dangerous writing app will delete your words if you hesitate too long…
9. Go analogue. Sometimes that blinking cursor is just too paralysing, or app-finding has become your favourite way to procrastinate. Try going back to pen and paper and writing down whatever comes into your mind. You might start off with your shopping list, but it’s surprising how you sometimes end up breaking through the block and pinning down that argument or dialogue you were missing.
10. If all else fails… Don’t give up. It’s okay to realise that a certain strategy just doesn’t work for you! Whether you write 500 words every weekday at 5am, or binge-write once a fortnight and get down 5,000 words before you treat yourself to a G&T – the outcome is the same. Dust yourself off and try again tomorrow.