I recently began writing again with a somewhat ambitious goal, after several years of writer’s block. Not long after I started up again, I found myself repeating some of the same things I did when mired in that block. Much of this consisted of rewriting the same passages over and over again while still in the first draft. This led to a lot of words, but little forward progress, like a tricked out car, spinning its rear wheels, but doing nothing but burning rubber. This time, however, with my goals in mind, I set out to solve this problem once and for all. And so far, my solution seems to be working.
I had tried to simplify my environment, stripping the tools I use down the studs. Instead of an elaborate word processor like Scrivener or even a lighter model like Google Docs, I’ve been doing all my writing in Obsidian, which is a text editor. This way I don’t have to worry about how the document looks and can focus entirely on the content. But I found that even in a text editor, it is too easy for me to go back and make changes, and worry about what I’d already written. In a first draft, the most important thing for me is to figure out the story and move it forward. I type quickly and it is easy to eliminate and rewrite a few paragraphs. I needed a way to prevent myself from doing this.
Tactic 1: Write the first draft in longhand
I decided to go in a completely different direction. I pulled out a blank Leuchtturm 1917 I had on the shelve, and decided I’d use this book for the first draft. I’d do it longhand. By doing so, I am much less likely to go back and change things in the first draft. It is not nearly as easy to “cut and paste” and rewrite in a notebook than it is on a computer.
Tactic 2: Print instead of cursive
I can write longhand much more quickly in cursive than by printing. But I have deliberately chosen to print because it slows me down. Instead of rushing into things, I am trying to think more deliberately about what I am writing, to think ahead a little more before I put pen to paper.
Tactic 3: Alternate ink colors
I think I read somewhere that Neil Gaiman does this. I started with black ink one day, and the next day, I wrote in blue in. Then I switched back to black ink. Switching colors give me a clear picture of how much I managed to write on a given day. If I have special notes that I want to make to myself, I do those in red ink so that they stand out from the alternating day-to-day colors.
Tactic 4: Low tech word counts
Writing long hand makes it a little more tricky to get word counts, but words counts are important to me when I am working toward a goal. It would be nice to ignore them completely, but I am trying to learn how to write a novel length piece in a way that I can reproduce again and again, year after year, making refinements along the way. The data is important.
To simplify this, I averaged out the word count of the first few pages. My handwriting is consistent so I was comfortable with this measure. It came to about 370 words/page. I think created a table at the beginning of my notebook giving my words counts by page (and fractional page) counts:
This chart allows me, at a glance, to see how much I wrote on a given day. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote 2-1/2 pages, which according to my table says I wrote about 925 words. I can also use the chart to see how much I have written in total. (50 pages = ~18,500 words, etc.)
Tactic 5: Distraction-free writing
Writing in the notebook gets me completely off the computer and removes any distractions that might be associated with that. Often, when I get stuck on something, I’ll start browsing, go down some rabbit hole, and then call it quits. With the notebook, I at least have removed that distraction.
So far, this seems to be helping, but the proof will be when I have a finished first draft in hand later this year. When that happens, I’ll post an update and add any refinements I’ve made along the way for others who might be interested.