Jun 12 2007

Pages Before Play

Published by at 11:57 pm under On Writing

It’s said that most writers like to have written more than they like to actually write. I wouldn’t say this is totally true for me, because I love writing — you know, the actual process of putting words on the page and molding them into something that resembles a story — but I can relate to the challenges of actually getting the butt in the chair. I don’t know why this is. You’d think that when you love something, you’d look for every opportunity to do it, but I suspect it has something to do with writing being hard. It may be fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

For years, I tried everything in the book to get myself to write more. Nothing worked well until I realized that any rule had to be tied not to time or place, but to a specific number of words or pages. In other words, I couldn’t say to myself, “I will write for an hour each night from 6:30 to 7:30,” but instead, “I will write 1000 words every day.” Or 500. Or 100. It didn’t matter how small, so long as it was specific and achievable. Because if you tell yourself you will write for an hour, well, you may write, but you may write only a few sentences. If your goals are time-based, rather than production-based, then you’re creating the wrong mindset. You want to condition yourself that when you sit, you write, and not that sitting for any set amount of time satisfies your goal.

If I know I’m not letting myself up out of that chair until I’ve written my five pages, you better believe I’ll get cranking fairly quickly. I don’t want to be sitting there until one in the morning when I know my kids will have me up shortly after the crack of dawn.

Ah, but that brings me to the other critical adjustment I made that helped me go from being a dilettante to a doer: withholding rewards until the work is done.

Or, when it comes to writing specifically, what I call pages before play.

There has to be either punishment or reward tied directly to your goal. Since I’m not really into the whips and chains and the fifty pushups with the face in the mud, I prefer to go with the rewards. What type of rewards are best? Well, that’s for each person to decide, but usually they’re what you’re doing when you know you should be writing. For me, that’s a couple things: 1) reading, of course, which is the big one, 2) movies and television, and 3) Internet and email.

So what I did is lump all of those into the “play category,” and I don’t let myself do any of them until the daily quota is met. No checking email to see if I heard back from so-and-so editor at such-and-such magazine. No reading that John D. MacDonald I find so addictive. No watching that documentary that was getting all the buzz lately. All of that waits until the pages are done.

And this works. It works very, very well, in fact. You have to have the self-discipline not to cheat, but usually the guilt will prevent you from doing that. Because not only do you create incentives to get your butt in the chair (gosh, you really would like to see that romantic comedy you brought home from Blockbuster the other night), you also eliminate most of the easiest distractions.

Pages before play. The trick, of course, is really doing it. But then that’s what separates the wannabes from the achievers — not just in writing, but any pursuit in life that takes discipline and dedication.