The two kinds of procrastination

When it comes to writing, I see two separate kinds of procrastination.

The first is the inability to actually “get started” writing. You’re going about your daily activities and you know you need to sit down and start writing, but you keep delaying it. Or you’re sitting at the computer and doing something else (probably just web surfing or watching YouTube videos) and you know you need to start writing, but again, you keep delaying it.

The second kind of procrastination occurs after you’ve finally made the leap and announced to yourself that you’re actually starting on your writing, and maybe you make a little progress (or not), but ultimately you really can’t focus and you keep distracting yourself with web surfing or other unproductive activities.

In upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some tricks and techniques that I’ve started using to try to break through both of these barriers to becoming a really productive writer.

How to focus and get warmed up when sitting down to write

Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting at your computer to work on your writing project… And you’ve started to write… But you’re having trouble concentrating and focusing? You’re really struggling to get into the “writing mode”?

Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal. Everyone who wants to become a writer struggles with this!

For most people, it takes a good 15 minutes or so to really get into a “flow” state of focus and productivity when writing or doing other tasks that require concentration.

Here are some tips and techniques for getting warmed up and into a productive writing mode:

1. Start by doing a flow-of-consciousness writing exercise, in which you just start writing down whatever comes to mind. Preferably this would be on your topic, but anything is better than nothing: just writing about how you feel or describing something that you saw or did or experienced recently works too. This will get you generating text and then once you’re into the writing mode, it should be easier to switch into your real writing project.

2. Shut off distractions. If you find yourself frequently surfing the web as an avoidant behavior, unplug your Internet cable or shut off your WiFi connection. You might want to install a software program such as SelfControl, Freedom, or FocalFilter that will block you from accessing the web (or at least certain websites) for a certain period of time.

3. If you need quiet for writing, then make sure your work environment is quiet. Some people thrive on working in noisy coffee shops, but I find myself distracted by overhearing conversations nearby.

Likewise, I’ve found I need to avoid listening to music that has vocals as it can make it hard to focus on words and thoughts when writing. When your brain hears spoken words, and if you concentrate on them, the words will occupy your short-term memory, which is the same place in your mind where you’ll be trying to generate the words you want to write down. On the other hand, classical or other instrumental music can be good for concentration as long as you don’t find it distracting.

4. Make sure your bodily needs have been taken care of; for example, if you’re very hungry, the bodily sensation of hunger can be a distraction (on the other hand, being a little bit hungry can be good for productivity). And it’s normal to feel a little sleepy after a big meal, so if possible, time your working sessions appropriately, or don’t overeat.

Note that the body can manufacture bodily discomfort as a manifestation of your difficulty in concentrating. For example, my body is making me feel very tired and sleepy right now which is making me feel like I should shut off the computer and go to bed. While it’s tempting, the sleepiness only came on once I started actually making progress in doing some writing!

5. When possible, don’t start with a completely blank page or screen. If you are continuing a longer-term project, it can be good to leave a sentence or paragraph incomplete when you end a session, so that you can start your next session by finishing off those thoughts. If you’re starting a new project, article, or chapter, then get started by rushing as quickly as possible to get some initial thoughts down in point-form notes. You can then work on revising these into sentences and paragraphs.

6. Try to have stuff on the go — for example, material for several different chapters or blog posts — in different stages of completion. Then if you sit down and don’t feel like writing from scratch on one topic, then you can switch to a partially-written item and do some revising/editing. Once you get into the flow of that, you may be all warmed up to do some new writing.

7. Don’t get hung up on trying to write perfect prose the first time around. When you’re starting with a blank page, just get your thoughts down in the most basic form as they arise in your head. Point-form notes are more than adequate. Then once you have a mass of rough notes, you can then start working on revising and editing them into coherent prose.

8. Some writers get into the “writing mode” by performing rituals, such as wearing a special hat, reciting some incantation or prayer, etc. Although these often seem kind of silly, humans do put a lot of emphasis on ceremonies and rituals, and if you can find or create something that works for you as a psychological trigger that tells you “hey, it’s time to write!”, then give it a go. Talking to other writers can give you some ideas.

9. The best way, longer-term, is to make your writing a habit. Try to schedule a writing session for the same time every day. It will be a struggle for the first two weeks or so, but once it becomes a routine, your it will come naturally.

Welcome to my new blog on becoming a better writer!

Hi, I’m Kevin Matz, and this is my new blog, focusing on topics of interest to writers of all kinds.

It’s very meta to write a blog about writing, but there seems to be a large audience for blogs catering to aspiring and active authors.

I’m actively working on shifting my career out of the software industry and into working on writing and selling my own series of books and information products, full-time.

I’ve already written one book, Designing Usable Apps, and I’m planning to write several more, some perhaps on software engineering topics, and some in other areas. I’m currently working on a book on personal finance, for example, and I’ve been exploring a couple of potential collaborative projects with friends and fellow authors.

As you can tell, my interests tend to lie more in the non-fiction side of things, but a lot of what I’ll be discussing in this blog will be useful for fiction authors and novelists as well.

So just what is this blog going to be about?

I have always enjoyed writing — or perhaps I should say, I enjoy the end-product of writing. I like the thinking part. I have lots of ideas. And yet for someone who likes writing and wants to be a full-time author, I often struggle with getting motivated and focusing on writing, because, truth be told, it’s such a painful and often emotionally draining process. Writer’s block is real; figuring out what to write down when you’re staring at a blank page is really tough, and it’s hard to keep going when it feels like everything you do write down is crap. And after a lousy writing session like that, you start to dread the next one, and procrastination and avoidance sets in.

So a big part of this blog will be exploring techniques for motivating yourself to sit down to write, overcoming discouraging thoughts, and becoming more productive as a writer.

For a long time I’ve been really interested in what I call, for the lack of a better term, the “science of explanation”, or how to structure and write an explanation so that it is completely understandable to the target reader. So this blog will also explore patterns and techniques that you can use to make your writing more understandable and easy to read.

Writing that sells tends to be written in a style that’s conversational and fun to read. Shifting from an academic/technical style to a more fun and conversational style is one of my goals, and I’ll discuss tips and techniques — as well as document some of my struggles — for finding one’s own authentic voice.

And I’m interested in making money from my writing, so I’ll be exploring and discussing market research, copywriting, and SEO optimization techniques. I’ll also talk about my self-publishing experiences and we’ll explore all the possibilities with e-books and packaged information products.

You may be wondering why this blog is called The ChapterLab Blog. Let me explain. I’ve long been interested in improving the tools that writers can use to produce their work. A couple of years ago I quit my job to start building a software program called ChapterLab, with the aim of creating the perfect writing environment that would support and even coach you through the planning, research, writing, and editing process on a large project like a book or an academic thesis.

I launched an initial beta version of ChapterLab and used it to write Designing Usable Apps, but the tool is still in its infancy and there are many, many things I want to do to improve it. In fact, I want to fundamentally redo how it works. Unfortunately, when my small company ran out of capital, I had to return to the dire drudgery of another full-time job, and the project has basically languished for over two years now. I’m eager to get back into working on it again though, and in this blog I’ll discuss some of the features and changes that I’m planning. And I’m hoping to get feedback from writers and users of the program to make sure I’m on the right track!

Many of the features I want to build into ChapterLab revolve around the issues I discussed above — getting motivated, staying focused, and so on. Word processors like Microsoft Word have never offered any real help or support in going through the writing process on a big project like a book. Can a software tool help you get your project organized and even coach you into becoming a more focused and productive writer? Well, I’m going to find out, and I hope you’ll join me for the ride!