Getting More Writing From Yourself–Without the Use of Force

I am against forcing myself to do things that I supposedly enjoy doing. I’m against force, rules, and quotas because I reliably get terrible results every time I forget that “being disciplined” doesn’t work for me. When I tell myself I have to write x number of words a day, I quickly have an algebra problem that starts like this: “Let x equal 0.”

If discipline worked for me, I’d be the Jack LaLanne of quotas, jumping through quota hoops day in and day out and urging you in a panting voice to do the same. I’d be the Quota Queen, pounding out the pages with a dozen books to my name. I’d rename every day of the week Quota Day with a trademark sign. But, in fact, quotas and rules bring out the worst possible type of foot-dragging behaviors in me. I give myself a quota and 20 minutes later I’m driving across town to buy a coat I don’t need.

But I’m not here to dispute the worth of quotas. I know that they do work for some people. I know this because I’ve heard these people talk about quotas and have subsequently witnessed the mountain of work they’ve produced writing three pages or 1000 words a day or at some other measured rate.

My fundamental problem with quotas is that the mere existence of them suggests that writing is a thing to be endured like sit ups, that writing is something I must do instead of something I want to do. In the absence of force, though, I have needed to develop some reliable means to get myself going. Below are some of the methods to increase production I’ve used with good result. Each rests on two assumptions: 1) Writing is an activity that I actually want to do–even if I need a nudge to get started–and 2) Humans are actually good and can be trusted outside of the constraints of rules.

I invite you to try some of them yourself. Or better yet, develop a list of your own. Such lists are created by watching yourself and taking note of the conditions conducive to writing and making it a point to create those conditions more often.

1. Indulge my reading interests.

Because clicking on various links is how I usually procrastinate, I tend to feel guilty whenever I am spending an hour letting one article lead me to another. But I’ve realized that not all instances of clicking around are equal. Yes, sometimes I am wasting a bunch of time on click-bait articles that are poorly written, but at other times, I am following  a topic that interests me. One of the things I’ve had to develop as a writer (which I’ve written about here) is my sense of the importance of my ideas and interests. Even if I can’t see where it’s headed, I try to let my curiosity lead the way.

2. Notice ideas bubbling up and follow up on them ASAP.

Lorrie Moore once said something like this about being a writer: “Story ideas visit you and it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to make room for them in your life.”  This paraphrased quote revisits me quite often. I think it’s a great description of that moment of choice that occurs when an idea bubbles up. I can either get myself to a piece of paper or I can let the idea pass through me. If I don’t follow up on the idea right away, I can be sure that the next day the window of opportunity will have closed. It’ll be a “somebody I used to love” idea. Yes, I can see the appeal but the desire to pursue is  gone. But if I do make it to the page during those crucial few hours, I find the writing is often effortless. I don’t have to worry about writing a certain number of words. My only worry is whether or not I can get the words I do have down fast enough.

3. Go outside my writing comfort zone.

When I write stuff that scares me–that pushes me in some new way because of either its form or content–the writing magnetizes me, allowing me to stay on the page much longer than when I’m writing something that feels like well-trod territory.

4. Write with a friend.nat writing

I’m doing this one right now (Look! See friend in pic!). It’s pretty easy for me to stay on task when my friend is across the table from me typing away. Even though she’s writing a piece for the magazine she edits and I’m writing this, her presence makes me feel like I’m on a team called Team Writers. If I shut my laptop, Team Writers will lose the game to Team Enertia. Must not let down team. Must keep writing.

5. Walk somewhere pleasant to write.

Sometimes I walk to a cafe fifteen minutes from my house to write. On the way there I think about what I want to write. On the way back, I think about how I want to edit it. Usually when I get home, I get one more inspired writing session out of myself before calling it a day.

6. Create a deadline.

Julia Cameron says in the terrific book The Right to Write that deadlines create adrenaline and adrenaline helps us to override our censors. As our deadlines approach, we no longer have time to indulge in the voices that say our work isn’t good enough; we just have to bust out the pages. How can you create deadlines? Take a writing class with a workshop component. Join a writing group. Sell a book proposal. Find literary contests and circle their deadlines on your calendar and promise yourself you’ll submit.

7. Speak my mind.

This is related to #3. If you write about the things that make you angry, the things that you’re normally afraid to say, you’ll find that the words pour out onto the page like lava. No need for quotas. You can rely on ire to up your word count.

8. Offer myself freedom.

I’m not quite sure how or why this works, but when I’m in the middle of a chapter, a book, or an essay, I tell myself, “I can take this anywhere I like.” This sentence intoxicates me as if I’ve just been handed the keys to a magical kingdom of which I will now be sovereign. Drunk with power, I find it pretty easy to keep going.

9.Buy myself expensive art pens.

I write by hand a lot, and I find having the right pens (Faber Castell is my current favorite) makes me want to write more. Pens make me happy. When I’m happy, I work longer.

10. Set the timer for 15 minutes.

And when I really can’t get going, I circle back to the trick I learned from Virginia Valian’s essay “Learning to Work” twenty-five years ago. I tell myself I only have to write for 15 minutes. I set the timer and I write. When the bell dings, I often find myself thinking, “But I don’t want to stop!”

And then I tell myself I don’t have to.


wimd-34You can read more tricks for increasing your productivity the easy way in the book  Writing Is My Drink.




About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
This entry was posted in More Stuff for Writers, Theo Finding Her Voice, Writing Tips. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Getting More Writing From Yourself–Without the Use of Force

  1. amyk1960 says:

    This was fabulous, helpful, insightful and got me off my butt and to my computer.

  2. Jason Poole says:

    Aloha, Theo! It’s almost as though you have a camera that follows me around. The timing of your posts never ceases to amaze me. Sitting at my computer this afternoon, I’m struggling with inertia. (Again!) I’m stuck in the world inside my head instead of putting something–anything!–down on the page. Thank you for your consistent nudging and helpful tips. It’s time for me to set the timer…

  3. hbksloss says:

    I love the idea of walking to a cafe to write! Will need to try that. Thanks for the idea.

  4. Theo Nestor says:

    Walking is the writer’s friend!

  5. This post resonates with me a lot. Force does not work for me either, and mow instead of wasting energy trying to figure out how to “make myself be more disciplined”, I will remember your ideas.

  6. Mandy Len says:

    I was just having a chat with a friend last night about this very topic, Theo! I like the idea of blocking off time and, if I can’t or won’t or don’t write, just saying to myself: what productive writing-related thing CAN I do right now? And then I do it. Your list is basically that same concept, but more organized. 🙂 I’ve also found that publicly announcing a deadline was really helpful. Even if no one cared that I met it, I didn’t want the shame of saying I hadn’t. It was incredibly motivating.

  7. starroberts says:

    Ms. Theo,

    I love this post. I accepted the Hugo House writing 30 minutes for 30 days challenge then promptly cut my right index finger (my most important writing finger) as a way to “let x = 0” as you most succinctly put it. Now, almost 10 days into the challenge I find I can truly write again but am acknowledging yet again that challenges like this are not so much in my wheelhouse. My writing style has more ebb, more flow and (another concept stolen from you) more fallow. It’s comforting to know others who I respect and admire come at their writing in a less than formulaic way. I love the writing with friend suggestion and also the walking to writing suggestion. Both work for me. My expensive of pen of choice is the Tumi fine point. I’m obsessed with it in much the same way my architect husband is obsessed with Sharpies… whatever works, yes?

    • Theo Nestor says:

      Ah, yes, the fallow times. I am now getting so I can not freak out during the fallow times and trust that they will….eventually…end. Thanks for your loyal readership, Ms.Star.

  8. Jean Vertefeuille-Cutler says:

    As always, sound thoughts on this art of writing! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s