A system is a collection of actions and rules that get you where you want to go.
Setting goals is important to the writing life. If you want to be prolific, it’s important to know how much you can do in a day or week, and always be striving to improve.
But as everyone who has made a New Year’s resolution on January 1st and dropped that resolution by January 31st can tell you, having a goal isn’t really enough.
Sure, you start with the goal. Write a novel. Or a non-fiction book. Or a collection of short stories. Or a memoir.
That’s the “what.”
But in order to actually achieve that goal, you need to create a system to make it happen.
What is a system?
A system is a collection of actions and rules that get you where you want to go. Systems specify how you’re going to achieve your goals.
For example, if your goal is to start exercising, your system might be to go for a 20-minute walk every morning after breakfast. Or to sign up for a different workout class each month of the year. Or to use one of those websites where you bet on your own success, and plunk down some money that gets donated to a charity you hate if you don’t show up at the gym three times a week.
If your goal is to add meditation to your routine, your system might be to set up a cushion in a corner of your bedroom and set a timer for three minutes every night before bed. You might add another minute every week until you’re up to a full half-hour per day.
What’s that, you say? Writing is so fluid and organic that it can’t possibly be systematized?
Sure it can. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a perfect example of a writing system.
The NaNoWriMo System
The parts of the NaNoWriMo system are:
1. Write every day (or most days).
2. Write 1,667 words each day (or however many words you need to reach 50,000 words based on the days you have set aside to write).
3. After you write, record your daily word count and see if you’re on track or if you need to adjust your daily writing sessions.
4. If you get stuck, go to the forum and ask for help.
In fact, that’s the bare minimum system for anyone who has to write a book on schedule. It covers all the bases by telling you how much and how often to write, how to tell if you’re on track, and how to get unstuck if you don’t know what to do. Systems are all about the “how.”
It’s not a coincidence that so many people succeed in writing 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo, and that so many of the people who don’t finish still discover that they wrote more words than they thought possible. The system keeps them on track. If you follow it, you almost can’t help but make progress.
And if you don’t have the four parts of the NaNoWriMo system available to you, that’s a pretty good sign you’re going to struggle to meet your writing goals. If you don’t write regularly — if you don’t have a way to tell whether you’re on track — if you don’t have a solution ready for those times when obstacles arise — your writing system is incomplete.
What if I want my system to address other aspects of writing?
One of the great things about systems is that they’re completely customizable.
If the only place you have to write is noisy, you could add “put on headphones or earplugs” as your first step.
If you’re not in the habit of writing regularly, your word count could be as small as 100 words per day.
If the pressure of hitting even a small word count is too much, you could set a minimum amount of time that you will write each day, even if that means you just add a sentence to the draft.
If seeing the word count go up every day isn’t motivating enough, you might also add a reward component for the days you’re using the system: time playing a video game or doing some other fun activity.
If you don’t have people to help you when you get stuck, your rule could be that you do a brainstorming exercise or go for a walk or pull a tarot card. Whatever works for you.
Another great thing about systems is that they’re diagnostic. For example, if your goal is to write two 90,000 word novels this year, but you’re only able to write 100 words per day, it’s clear that you need to come up with a more achievable goal, or you have to figure out how to build up your writing stamina so you can write more than 100 words per day. A good system makes it a breeze to calculate whether or not the goal is achievable.
You probably already have some systems around your writing.
Maybe when you get stuck on your story, you flip through a folder of writing exercises and prompts until you find one that’s relevant to your problem. Or maybe you draw a map of the problem scene and start sketching out your characters’ action with stick figures. Or maybe you have a buddy on speed-dial who’ll brainstorm you out of the corner you’ve written yourself into. Each of these could be an effective system for overcoming writer’s block, depending on how you work.
Maybe you dictate your first drafts into dictation software, but you edit them in Word the next day. Or maybe you get up at 4 am and write for an hour while your dreams are fresh and your kids are sleeping. Or maybe you scribble your rough draft in a notebook during your morning commute and retype each day’s new words into your laptop after dinner. Each of these could be an effective system for writing a first draft, depending on how you work.
Maybe you only write to a specific soundtrack for each novel, and you use that soundtrack to stay immersed in your story world. Or maybe you read through your story notes or the previous day’s scenes each night before bed, to increase the likelihood of dreaming about your story. Or maybe your writing corner is plastered with photos of actors who you’d cast to play your characters in a movie, and every time you walk by that corner, you get the urge to spend more time with them. Each of these could be an effective system for keeping yourself positively engaged with your current project, depending on how you work.
Here’s how to design your writing system.
Make sure your writing system covers the four basics spelled out in the NaNoWriMo system: how many days a week you’re going to write, how many words (or whatever your preferred metric is) you’re going to write on those days, how you’re going to track the day’s production and know how you’re doing in relation to you goal, and what you’re going to do when you get stuck.
Once you think you’ve got a working system, write it down. As a checklist or a flowchart or a list of rules.
Put it next to your computer, or make it your screen saver or post it in the place you’re most likely to procrastinate. Refer to it daily until following the system is a habit that feels natural.
What to do when you get stuck.
It happens to everyone in a creative endeavor, and it’s an important thing to think about before it happens, because while you’re in the thick of a creative block, it can be hard to think sensibly.
Fortunately, just as you can create a system for your writing, you can also create a system for how to deal with getting stuck.
Because we all work a little bit differently, one size doesn’t fit all here. What helps me might not help you. The first step in creating your “unblocking” system is to take a few minutes to think about how you’ve written in the past.
1. Start with the positive.
Think about a time when the writing was going well. What was true then?
Were you writing in the same location you are now, or somewhere different? If your writing spot hasn’t changed, has anything within that location changed?
How did you write back then? Paper and pen? On a computer without an internet connection?
When did you write? Lunch break? Early morning? Late night?
What were your other habits like then? Were you eating differently? Getting more or less sleep? Taking any supplements or medications? Exercising regularly? Meditating? Going to school?
Were you writing alone or with other people? Did you belong to any groups that were giving you emotional support?
Make a list or mindmap of all the things that were true of your life and your environment during that period where the writing was going smoothly.
2. Move on to the negative.
Think about a time when you were struggling or unable to write. What was true then?
What were your habits like?
Were you going through any major life changes?
How and where were you writing?
How were the people in your life supporting you or stressing you out?
Make a list or mindmap of all the things that were true of your life and your environment where the writing wasn’t working.
3. Think about a recent instance when you had the opportunity to write, but chose not to.
What was going on at the moment when you made that choice not to write?
What did you choose to do instead of writing?
What did you tell yourself to justify that decision not to write?
How do you feel about that decision? Was it the right decision for that situation?
What do you think would have happened if you’d chosen to write instead of choosing the other option?
4. What do you see as the five most common obstacles that keep you from writing?
Not sure what happens next?
Not feeling inspired?
Too many distractions?
Other people demanding attention?
Once you’ve answered these four questions, you’ll have a clear picture of the circumstances that support your creative processes and the circumstances that hinder you in writing.
Now you can start creating systems that make it easier to write and that eliminate distractions that keep you from moving forward.
For example, let’s say you realize that during the time when you were writing well, you were writing at a cafe with noise-canceling headphones, and that your struggles began about the same time those headphones broke. You might want to start saving up for new ones — and in the meantime, your alternate system might be to write at the library, where it’s quieter, or buy some heavy-duty earplugs so that the cafe noise won’t keep you from concentrating.
Perhaps that period when you wrote prolifically was when you were in college, and were being exposed to a lot of new ideas. You might want to set aside some time to read more, or read books in areas you aren’t reading now, or even sign up for a class that will stimulate you intellectually and get you thinking.
Or maybe you recognize that the period where you were completely blocked coincided with that period where you were working so much overtime at work that you never had time to cook, and you ate fast food or frozen food three meals per day, depriving you of the vital nutrients needed to concentrate. Your system might be to learn how to prepare meals ahead in bulk and freeze them so you won’t fall into that trap again, or start cooking in the crockpot so there’s always a healthy dinner waiting when you get home plus leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.
What if you realize that your number one rationalization for not writing is that your friends always want to go out after work and you can’t say no to your friends? This is a tough one, but it is possible to strike a balance between your need for writing time and your need for fun. Maybe your system is that you hang out after work Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but you stay home to write Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Or maybe shift your writing time to your lunch break so you’ve done your day’s writing before happy hour comes around.
Here are some examples of common difficulties and a possible system for overcoming them. Feel free to take them as is or alter them to suit your needs.
Writing obstacle: Can’t resist checking Facebook every 15 minutes.
System: Set a time and write for 15 minutes with Facebook disabled (or with all internet-enabled devices in another room). Then set a timer for five minutes and browse Facebook as a reward before doing another 15-minute sprint.
Writing obstacle: Every time you sit down to write, you end up staring at the blank screen, unable to type.
System: Start with a freewriting exercise related to your main project, or a few minutes of journaling to brain dump all the thoughts that are circling through your mind.
Writing obstacle: Neighbors are loud and distract you during your writing time.
System: If this is a regular occurrence, block out the noise with music, earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones, or write outside the home.
Writing obstacle: Too tired to write after dinner.
System: Make time to write earlier in the day, even if that means getting up before your kids do and falling asleep early.
Writing obstacle: Don’t know where to start.
System: Make a list of twenty places where you could start, without judging any of them. If you’re not sure which one you like best, write two or three of the best and see which opening grabs you.
Writing obstacle: Can only write 100 words per day because you rewrite every sentence a dozen times before you’re willing to move on.
System: Try typing with the screen turned off, so it’s impossible to go back and edit, or use your tablet/phone’s dictation software to speak the words instead of writing them. Remind yourself that you will go back and edit later, so it’s okay if these words aren’t perfect.
You may want to read about how other writers work, and experiment with their systems (which you’ll discover range from the boring to the bizarre).
But a system only works if you follow it — and you’ll only follow it if it fits with the rest of your life.
So be realistic as you’re designing your unique writing systems. Don’t try to force yourself to write at 4 a.m. if you know you’re a night owl, or to write on the computer if the words only come when you’ve got a pen in your hand.
What writing systems do you already use to get unstuck? What writing systems are you interested in trying?