Keeping the bum in the chair

For our first blog of the New Year, I’m going to talk about a topic suggested by a writer who came to see me for feedback.

“How do you stay motivated and focused so you can finish a project?” this writer asked, adding that “I have lists and lists of ideas for stories, but sitting down and completing one can be challenging!”

How do you get your butt in the chair and keep it there for long enough to write your story/novel/memoir?

When I started out as a writer, there were many mornings when cleaning the oven seemed more appealing. Writing is hard work—there’s no getting around it. In the beginning I found that sometimes I had to ‘trick’ myself into doing it. Here are some strategies for working on that pesky first draft.

  1. If possible, write at the same time every day or week. Make it a habit. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.
  2. Begin with a regular ritual, one that works for you (e.g., having that second cup of coffee, reading a passage from a book on writing, taking a walk round the block). When the ritual is finished, go to your desk. (Or, if you’re the kind of writer who works best in cafés, go there.)
  3. I find the best way to get started is to read over what you wrote the day before and lightly edit. Whether you’re thrilled or horrified by what you wrote, keep going. Leave major revision to the next draft.
  4. If you hit a block (‘I’ve no idea what happens next’), try writing a different scene. Or step away from your desk and write somewhere else so it doesn’t feel like work. Another suggestion I’ve heard is to give your problem to the character. What is the character trying to tell you? Are you trying to impose a solution rather than allowing it to flow organically from the material?
  5. Allow yourself breaks. Stretch, get another coffee, whatever. I find I can write solidly, with focus, in two-hour ‘chunks,’ but everyone is different. (And yes, I do check my email!)
  6. Set a time or word limit. Once you’ve reached that, stop. It’s better to leave your desk when the writing is going well than when it’s fizzling out.
  7. Provide yourself with a ‘carrot’ or reward of some kind when you complete your day’s work. (Mine, unfortunately, tends to be something sweet to eat!)
  8. Some days will be less productive than others. C’est la vie. If you’re really struggling, leave it for another day. Sometimes you need to back off and let the subconscious handle it. Being playful instead (‘I’ll go sit on the sofa with my notebook and a pencil and fiddle around’) can sometimes help.
  9. Don’t beat yourself up if (a) you have to miss a scheduled writing period or (b) the writing doesn’t go well. You’re human, not a machine. Creative work requires a lot of trial and error.
  10. After a writing session, give yourself a pat on the back for showing up. To quote the writer and teacher Janet Burroway: “Writing is mind-farming. You have to plow, plant, weed, and hope for growing weather. Why a seed turns into a plant is something you are never going to understand, and the only relevant response to it is gratitude. You may be proud, however, of having plowed.”

Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, now in its ninth edition, is the classic text for those of you interested in writing guides. And the techniques outlined are equally useful for creative nonfiction.

The good news is that the practice of writing gets better with time. I gradually came to love being at my desk every morning, and now I get very edgy and irritable when I’m away from it for too long.

So hang in there! And if you have questions, or comments, please email me at


Next WIR blog post: January 27, 2016

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