How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Four: Write

Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, said: “If you wish to have a faculty for… writing, write; if you wish to acquire a habit for anything, do the thing.” Two thousand years later that’s still the best writing advice going.

typewriter

If you’re jigging around, unsure of where to start, here are five steps to help acquire the habit:

1. Think small
Leave the “dream big/reach for the stars/give 110%” bullshit for high school football coaches. Your only ambition, as Steinbeck said, is to finish a page. Especially if this is your first book.

Vine Lives is about 30,000 words, but that is a terrifying amount when starting at zero. Once you have rough idea of your total word count, forget it. Focus on units of a manageable size. I’m a feature writer so 1500-2000 words is a comfortable range. I framed my task as 15 chapters of 1500-2000 words each. Voila: a reasonable assignment. I’ve written god knows how many features. All I had to do was crank out another 15.

If you’re embarking on a book you will, ideally, have an idea of your writing capacity. How do you work best — 500 word blog posts? 3000-word white papers? Adapt your project to your writing style, not vice versa.

2. Give yourself a deadline
It isn’t enough to want the book done, you have to give yourself a deadline. When you’re indie publishing you have to be your own taskmaster. My Vine Lives research sat untouched for several months before guilt sparked a sense of urgency. I sent my brother/publisher the first profile in October. Once he gave it the thumbs up I set a deadline: 11 February (the day I had to move out of my house). Despite some slack weeks, I delivered as promised.

3. Create a routine
As a writer, routine is your best friend; routine will save you. A day in my Vine Lives life went like this: Wake up, feed cat, drink coffee, read a chapter of Epictetus, go for a run, flirt with the gardener, shower, cook breakfast, eat, clean teeth, then write.

You might think: “Surely it would be quicker to just roll out of bed and start writing.” Perhaps. But I’ve learned, through trial, error and abortive attempts to be more “productive” that abridging this routine makes me sketchy and distracted. Maybe it’s indulgent to spend four-plus hours warming up for work but I’m Thoroughbred, not a carthorse. If sitting at a desk and grinding it out for eight hours works for you, by all means do. If you need to prance around the paddock first, though, don’t be down on yourself. Results are what matters.

4. Be calm but disciplined
Don’t worry if you begin the day blank and afraid (I do). If you don’t know where to start, read and highlight your notes. Find an arresting phrase or image. Then “only begin”. Start writing. Even if it feels awkward and wrong, push on. I’d invariably sit down and think, “There is no fucking way I can write 1500 words today.” I’d cajole myself into doing 500 words. Usually that was enough to get into a flow. The rest was more or less easy.

Some days writing seems impossible. Take 50% of these days off to recharge your batteries. The other 50%, write anyway. Teach yourself that you don’t always have to feel good about writing, you just have to write.

5. Take up long-distance running*
Writing calls for stamina, courage, resilience, pain resistance and self-belief. The cheapest, easiest way to cultivate these qualities is to run. Especially if you don’t like running. Every time you lace up your shoes and step out the door you show yourself what you can accomplish. Every time you huff and puff up a hill you prove you can overcome obstacles. Every time you start off wishing you were doing anything else and come home buzzing you remind yourself of the rewards of discipline. Running also calms your nerves, clears your head, steadies your pulse, and keeps your arse from overflowing your chair.

*Yoga, swimming, hiking, cycling, rock climbing, free-diving, boxing or martial arts work too

Ready, set, run

Ready, set, run

What’s your best piece of writing advice? Share in the comments!

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