Want to Be More Productive? Start by Being Honest About the Type of Writer You Are

Understanding what works for you only requires taking an honest inventory of the way you relate to your everyday to-do list. Writing is a practice, sure, but so is getting dinner together every night, staying on top of the laundry, or making time for some exercise, and I bet you make some semblance of those things happen with reasonable regularity. Take a moment and consider the you that’s off social media—the one who’s #notwriting, with a messy house and plenty of obligations beyond your writing life—and make a judgement-free plan of action based on the kind of motivation you respond to.
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Samantha Sanders suggests taking a moment to consider the you who’s #notwriting, and make a judgement-free plan of action based on the kind of motivation you respond to.

Everyone knows that the best way to finally write a book is to set challenging goals and stick to them. Sick kid or leaky roof, let nothing deter you from your 1,000 words per day. Wait, that sounds kind of hard. Sorry! The real best way to tackle it is by being ... gentle on yourself. A few perfect sentences a day, no more no less. Easy does it. Hmmm, but that might take a while. How about you just let yourself write when the mood or inspiration strike? You’re bound to be in the mood and inspired a lot, right?

 marchmeena29/ iStock/Getty Images Plus

marchmeena29/ iStock/Getty Images Plus

If your goal is become a more productive writer, odds are that some variation of most of this wisdom has buzzed around in your head like a kind of advice tinnitus as you write or, more likely, struggle to write. While the advice may differ, the throughline is self-doubt. You (and you alone!), the advice sometimes seems to imply, are not doing this whole writing thing quite right.

But that’s only because every piece of wisdom about writing is correct—for someone. Understanding what works for you only requires taking an honest inventory of the way you relate to your everyday to-do list. Writing is a practice, sure, but so is getting dinner together every night, staying on top of the laundry, or making time for some exercise, and I bet you make some semblance of those things happen with reasonable regularity. Unfortunately, our “hustle harder” culture often makes many of us feel shameful or guilty about our relationship to our work.

Consider instead a practice that takes into account your habits, motivations, and life rhythms as the valuable data it is rather than something to be squeezed into someone else’s version of idealized productivity. Take a moment and consider the you that’s off social media—the one who’s #notwriting, with a messy house and plenty of obligations beyond your writing life—and make a judgement-free plan of action based on the kind of motivation you respond to.

What type of writer are you? See if any of the archetypes below fit your writing style, and try the advice that tends to help these types of writers.

The Externally Motivated Writer

Recently, I edited the novel of a friend who was trying his hand at finishing long-form fiction for the first time. The quality of the manuscript blew me away but, knowing he’d stopped and started novels in the past with little traction, I wanted to know what made this time different. He confided the following: “I saw a lot of people who were worse writers than me getting published and it finally made me mad enough.” Tactful? Um, he did ask to be quoted anonymously. Powerful? Absolutely!

Suspect you’re the kind of person who needs to throw a party to finally clean your house or get an invitation to to your high school reunion to kickstart an exercise plan? Great! Now you know what gets your gears turning.

One of the best ways you can continue to fuel that fire is to follow the trade publications such as Publisher's Weekly. See what’s being sold, to whom, and why. Think you could do better? Then get writing. OK, need to think more outside the box? No judgments here. Find a worthy competitor and keep score (mentally, that is; you should probably skip telling them). Even Roxane Gay keeps a nemesis (or 5) around.

The Completist Writer

If you’ve ever started to Kon-Mari your house but instead found yourself deep into Amazon results for drawer organizers 10 minutes in to the tidying, you might also recognize this behavior in your writing life. Knowing things makes you feel safe and in control. In your writing life, that need might be met through exhaustive research or extensive world-building. And when you finally submit a manuscript, it’s a polished one.

Holding yourself to a high standard is laudable, but can sometimes be immobilizing. To you, I gift a writing partner, a critical reader you can trust. OK, I can’t actually give you one, but finding a solid partner on your own might be easier than you think. Conferences are a great place to meet like-minded people, but local writers’ groups can be just as fertile ground. I’d prioritize personality mesh over genre match, because this is someone you want to trust with tender feelings and imperfect words. Try to find someone on the same path as you. Their goals don’t have to be lofty, so long as they align with yours. If you want to finish your book this year, whereas they want to publish “someday,” they won’t be able to offer you what you most need: accountability.

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The All or Nothing Writer

Oh, you beautiful, misunderstood genius (can you tell this is my type?). When you commit you really commit. And that’s fantastic. Until you burn out. You’ve Whole 30-ed and squat challenged with the best of them, but your stick-to-it-ness won’t amount to much if you can’t keep it up. When you push yourself too hard, it can be a sign that you’re more focused on results than process.

For someone as productivity-focused as you, sometimes writing simply needs to look different. Carve out 20 minutes during your commute to daydream about the absolute worst obstacle you could throw in front of your protagonist (and then maybe do it). Instead of reading the internet during your desk lunch, Google Street View your setting. Sit outside with a notepad and scratch out a character’s family tree. Writing doesn’t always have to look like getting words down on paper. The more fun and low-stakes you can make it, the more momentum you gather.

The Pencil It In Writer

You diligently track your workouts, doctor’s appointment, and meet-ups with friends. Why should writing be any different? For some of us, Microsoft Word (or Google Calendar) is bond. If you say you’re going to do it, you will. So how can this hard worker possibly follow through any harder? Take a second and double-check that calendar. Are you valuing your writing goals enough to dedicate time solely to your work? If not, it might be time to throw some metaphorical elbows and make space in there.

Already doing that? Then, it’s time to play beat the clock. Writing sprints, either on your own or with an online group, might be just the thing to get your heart beating. Or, stoke your competitive spirit (and honor your need for clearly delineated boundaries) by doing NaNoWriMo or its spring or summer cousin, Camp NaNoWriMo, and add a little community to your solo goals.

This list of writing archetypes only scratches the surface. There are as many approaches to writing as there are writers. Few of us fit neatly into any single category, but isn’t that the point? No singular piece of advice will work for you in every situation, but once you learn to recognize your patterns without judgment, you can make a little peace with yourself. And once you make peace, you can finally make progress.