Motivational Techniques that Work

by Philip Martin

For some of you, writing is a daily habit. You are at your desk, on time, each day. You turn in work on schedule – lots of it. Not surprisingly, you get regular checks in the mail: book royalties and payments for articles, columns, short stories, or poems.

But even professional writers have dry spells or need help to keep producing even when things are slow or uncertain. Here are six favorite tips to get yourself to write. I use them all.

1. Pick a microscopic piece to accomplish next.

Set a tiny goal. Break a larger project down into pieces. Then convince yourself to tackle the smallest bit possible.

My favorite trick is to tell myself I will sit down to write just 15–20 minutes. In fact, once I am at my computer, I’m seldom inclined to stop after such a brief period. Soon, an hour has passed, and I’ve done a good piece of work.

And even tiny sessions quickly add up.

2. Pick a specific time to be at your desk working – and write it down!

Studies show that choosing a specific time in the near future when you intend to tackle a task can double the likelihood that you will actually do it. Writing down that intention further increases your chance of success.

So, for the coming week or month, set a goal – perhaps to write 500 words a day. Personally, I set a modest target of 2,000 words a week, which gives me flexibility to write most but not all days, or to write shorter or longer in each session. Then, I block out four hour-long writing sessions on my weekly planner. I tend to prefer to start around eight o’clock in the evening for most of those, so that’s my target time to be at my desk, ready to write.

3. Create a Positive Metaphor for Starting to Write.

I like to have a mental picture of what happens when I sit down to write. My image is based on the concept of flow; I know that once I start writing, the words will flow. For me, the trick is to get that going.

So, as I sit down to begin, I focus less at that moment on the desired outcome — writing, say, 500 words – and just hold in my mind an image of getting going.

For me, it is the metaphor of the faucet. This is what I “turn on.” I know I have that simple if imaginary switch. I sit down, turn it on, and the writing begins. My mental image is one of reliability; it reminds me that I have creative forces, I have unseen reserves. I just need to get the words moving and out into the light of day.

Others may choose different images or metaphors, such as a visit from a muse. For me, the idea of a muse seems too external and unreliable. As a professional, I know that the main thing at first is not quality but a certain quantity of decent output. Bruce Holland Rogers, author of Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, a great book on the writing process, hit the nail on the head when he said, “My own motto during [a first] draft has been, ‘It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be done.’ Good comes later, in revision.”

4. Bribery

Self-bribery – you can call it positive reinforcement if you wish – is an essential part of my writing life. During the day, it involves strong coffee. Pouring a cup of java means it’s time to get back to my desk. After five, the liquid turns into a glass of a dry red wine. A small nibble of chocolate is a nice complement.

A more puritanical approach would award delectable morsels later, after the work is accomplished. For my part, I’m in favor of small pre-rewards. I grab one and go happily to my computer. Like a good Pavlovian, I salivate, sip, and write. Again, for me, the hard part is sitting down, especially when tired in the evening after a day of editing other people’s work.

Besides, a bit of dark chocolate and a nice earthy Rioja is now recognized as a healthy choice. Yes, there is a kind god in the heavens, after all.

5. Have Two Projects Going.

As a creative person – with passion for writing but some resistance to writing under pressure – I love to have multiple projects underway. Unless a deadline is imminent, this gives me a choice of which I want to work on at a given moment.

In truth, it’s often the other project than the one I planned to tackle when I first sat down. (For instance, I didn’t plan to work on this piece when I first drafted it some months ago! But considering my choices, it suddenly had a lot of appeal.) Serendipity works for me; it makes me productive, if not predictable.

The ability to choose helps to prevent writer’s block. If I hit a wall on one project, finding myself without enthusiasm or good ideas, I just close the file and switch to another project. You’d be surprised how often the avoided problem works itself out smoothly when revisited later. Don’t wallow in projects that are stuck; look for ones that are most exciting.

6. Write, schmuck.

This is from award-winning fantasy novelist Peter Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and other novels. In an interview a few years ago, he told me that he posted this sign in a prominent place over his desk to remind himself just what his job was. It’s a Yiddish version of the Nike slogan, “Just do it.”

In the Midwest, our version is: “The cows aren’t going to milk themselves, you know.”

This is not an affirmation. It’s a little swift kick in the butt.

I heard another rural Midwestern version somewhere: “The thing that makes the crops grow best is the shadow of the farmer on the field.” For writers, this translates to the reflection of the writer on the computer screen.

Some of you, of course, may prefer positive affirmations.

I will write well.
I will finish my big book project by the end of this year and see it on the store shelves in the bestseller section soon after.
I will send a flood of short stories to the best magazines and have them begging for more.
I have published much and will publish much more.
I’m better than other writers at telling my stories.
I am writer, hear me roar.

I am a writer. Often, though, this means being a tired writer. But I know that a session at the computer, once I get there, makes me feel better. It perks me up.

I hope these small suggestions help give you a boost, too.

The cows aren’t going to milk themselves, you know.

This article is by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

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