Practical writing advice sought.

The kind of information I’m looking for, there’s a lot of it on the internets. But somehow it carries more weight when it comes from people I know personally, even if only through the blogosphere.

Say, hypothetically, you’re writing a dissertation (a book, any kind of long writing project). You were all set to dive into work, but life’s been uncooperative, and now that you can think straight again you’re dealing with fear, anxiety and vague waves of unattached guilt. How do you get from there to producing stuff of a quality at least good enough to propel you along?

Strategies I’m familiar with: freewriting, timed and non-; reward systems (I get to play videogames/have some ice cream/take a 15-minute walk for every X amount of work done); timed work schedules (must write 10-noon and not one minute more, every day); buddy systems; changing work venue every once in a while.

Freewriting works to a point, if I don’t let little things slow me down. Rewards work on a very limited scale. Timed work schedule works when I can stick to it and don’t have internet access. Buddy systems… well, they’re nice in theory but in practice there’s nobody I can do this with. Online venues like PhinisheD don’t really work for me either. Changing work venue actually works most of the time. But, although it helps deal with wanting to hide under the covers, it doesn’t help with the fear or anxiety. Or guilt.

So: aside from the above, what do you do?

7 Responses to “Practical writing advice sought.”

  1. Yulia Says:

    I’ve heard that exercise can do the trick.

    Sometimes, I can get past it by focussing on the knowledge that I will feel better after working on the project for 15-30 minutes. Also in the saying-stuff-to-myself is “Editing is easier then starting from scratch” – which helps motivate to get something out, even if it’s ugly.

    Doing something that inherently cheers you up – a conversation with someone who tends to lighten the mood, a trip to see green growing things (location/weather permitting, sadly), sometimes even reading tangentially related witty writing.

    And if I’m utterly failing, I sometimes take some valerian – if I’m not going to be doing the work anyway, it at least eases some of the negative mental processes for the evening.

  2. vika Says:

    Yulia – heh. Just yesterday E. came home from food shopping with several boxes of tea, one of which is labeled Sleepytime EXTRA!, because it contains valerian.

    That’s a good thought, herbal remedies for anxiety. Especially since I can sip this tea while attempting to work.

  3. Yulia Says:


    I wonder if/how they managed to make a valerian tea without the noxious valerian smell.

    & good luck!

  4. Fahmi Says:

    I have the same problem. To combat it, I tend to put “blinders” on. I cover up the clocks so I don’t notice the time – so no guilt. I put on a soft CD or a CD I like well enough I don’t need to listen to the words to drown out any noise (fire engine, drip drip of the water faucet). I curl up with a fleecy blanket so if it feels comfortable.

    The timed thing really doesn’t work for me, nor does the change of venue thing. If I am not in a chair at a table, I can’t concentrate.

  5. dr g Says:

    My work anxiety pretty much consumed the whole of the ‘festive’ period, so this subject has been at the forefront of my mind.

    This month I am trying the ruthless unbreakable repetitive pattern: drop the boychild off at university creche by 8.45, bag the seat in the library by the window by leaving all my notes and books there by 9; immediate gratification and pat-on-the-back with a coffee 9-9.40ish, writing by 10am.

    I do all my email, chores, meetings, and photocopying after 3pm when I’m all written out, and leave early at 4.30. The key thing is getting your work on the desk in the library by nine; everything else follows from there. Don’t start in the department because you’ll never get out.

    And Rescue Remedy (2X recommended dose diluted in water bottle) for the anxiety. Also works for the night terrors.

    On the bad days, I also often write in a hat.

  6. Douglas Says:

    Strategies that worked for me as I was in the final stretch of my book:

    1) Breaking down everything that had to be done to very small, manageable tasks, and then crossing them out with bold strokes of a pen as I finished them. Visible progress!

    2) Going to coffee shops, ordering a nice chai or something, and turning off my Wi-Fi before I left, with the understanding that I wouldn’t turn it back on again until I’d finished my work and returned home. I occasionally hit a really nice groove. One day I wrote an entire chapter in 3 wonderful hours.

    3) The goddamn Happy Lamp (I use the GoLITE they sell at Costco)–half an hour of that sucker in the morning and I find I’m much more productive.

    And guess what: the book got done! So will your project.

    Incidentally, Vika, there seem to be a couple of comments on this over on the LiveJournal mirror…

  7. Richard B Says:

    Make a very detailed list of everything you need to do to complete the dissertation. Break the big frightening tasks into smaller tasks. Include in the list lots of very small, five minute tasks. Stick the list on your wall. Do two things a day and cross them off the list with a very thick, bright red marker.

    On good days do one or two big tasks, on bad days do two five minuters. On very good days stop after doing two big things, and go out and pamper yourself.

    This way you have a persistent feeling of progress as the red creeps unstoppably across the list.

    Either that or you could spend your time handing out trite advice (that I’ve just noticed that Douglas has already given you) on the internet as a displacement for marking a huge pile of exam scripts. Like I’m doing at the moment.

    Good luck!

    Richard B