If you’re a writer who has writer’s block, frustrations coming up with ideas, need practical tips, tools, and strategies— I hope this letter will benefit you:
This works for me
To preface, all these tips and strategies are what I personally use. They probably won’t work for you, but hopefully you can experiment, and derive some new ideas:
1. Hip hop instrumentals on loop
I have a hard time concentrating, and filtering out outside noise and distractions.
The best way I’ve been able to focus, especially in places where I over-hear people chatting about distracting things, is to listen to hip hop instrumentals on loop.
I realized the following: when I listen to hip hop music, I feel focused, empowered, pumped up, and ‘in the zone.’ But the problem is that I have a hard time writing while listening to lyrics. Therefore I wondered to myself:
“Is there a way I can benefit from the music, without getting distracted?”
Then in a flash of insight, I hit my forehead and told myself: “Eric— you’re a dummy. Of course you can. Just download the instrumentals (the music without the words).”
Therefore I thought up my favorite hip hop songs, and went on YouTube and downloaded them into mp3 files, and listened to them on loop on my computer.
Some songs I dig:
- That Part – Schoolboy Q
- 30 Hours – Kanye West
- Real Friends – Kanye West
- Otis – Jay-Z and Kanye West
- Saint Pablo – Kanye West
Even as I’m writing these lines, I got “That Part” on repeat, and I’m crazy in the zone.
As for you, I’d recommend some music that gets you in the zone — whatever genre of music that might be. Preferably without words, not to get distracted.
2. Don’t eat breakfast or lunch
This is the biggest tip I have about writing — the best writing happens when you’re hungry. Physically hungry.
For me, I feel more motivated to write when I’m hungry.
For example, I heard a story that apparently Hemingway purposefully fasted, and didn’t eat food — so whenever he would smell croissants, it would motivate him to work hard, write, so he could get a buttery croissant as a reward.
I feel the same is for me. I have experimented eating breakfast, not eating breakfast, as well as eating lunch, and not eating lunch.
As for me now, I am pretty convinced that humans weren’t designed to eat before expending energy. Rather, humans should expend energy before eating.
A lion doesn’t eat a granola bar before hunting a gazelle. The same is for humans, it doesn’t make sense for us to confuse our bodily signaling process, by eating food before “hunting” (aka, working).
Also for me, whenever I eat a meal, I get a little bit tired afterwards. When I am fasting, and a bit hungry — I am sharper, more keen, more focused, and I write faster with more clarity.
And finally as a reward for my writing at the end of the day, I will have a really big and delicious dinner. And the food tastes 100 times better.
3. Don’t allow any interruptions
For me, I need momentum in my writing. It is very difficult for me to get started. But once I get started, I am like a moving locomotive or train. Starting is always the hard part, but when my wheels get moving, it is easy to stay in motion.
However once I get interrupted, it is like my train runs at 100 miles per hour into a brick wall. It takes me probably another hour to re-gain my focus, energy, and momentum.
Therefore for me, I have to eliminate all sources of distractions. For me, that means turning off wifi, turning off my phone (completely), and being in an environment where I won’t be distracted (I prefer working at cafes).
We all know what our main distractions are. Some of us are distracted by email, text messaging, checking Facebook or Instagram, certain blogs or websites. As for me, I am addicted to checking tech blogs, so I installed a website blocker on my browser to prevent looking at those sites. The same goes with checking social media on my phone (I uninstalled all social apps and email from my phone, not to lose my focus).
For the extreme, I have installed the ‘Freedom’ app on my computer, which turns off your internet completely for a certain period of time. And no matter how many times you restart your computer, you can’t turn on your internet again. For times I am very distracted, I will turn on freedom for 1-3 hours, and not get distracted by the internet.
4. Write in a cafe
I don’t know why, but cafe’s are the best place for me to write. Perhaps it is the ambiance of the wooden chairs, walls, or the fact that I don’t feel cooped up in my tiny apartment.
I also feel that cafes are great places to do work, because you can have (strong) coffee, and it is an environment where you are less likely to be interrupted by family members, your kids, or anybody else.
5. Drink a shitload of coffee
I haven’t figured out how to get a lot of writing done without drinking a lot of coffee.
When in doubt, drink more coffee.
I know for me, coffee stimulates my thoughts, focuses my mind, and encourages me to type.
6. Don’t count your word count
The other day I wrote a lot. I wrote an essay titled: “The Art of Photography” and also another article titled: “How to Master Street Photography.” I wrote literally for 6 hours that day, and I was curious how much I wrote.
I wrote around 10,000 words that day.
Which made me wonder— a lot of writers set themselves writing goals each day, in terms of word count. For example, my friend Jeff set himself a word count of 750 words a day.
But honestly, I think that is silly.
I know for myself, by not setting a word count, I end up writing more.
I think the reasoning is this: we are intimidated by numbers. Are we slaves to our numbers, or are our numbers a slave to us?
I also don’t believe in putting pressure in yourself to write. You either want to write, or you don’t want to write.
I think writing is the best when you write for fun, without anybody forcing you to write. Especially you don’t want an arbitrary rule like 750 words a day to force you to write. Then you won’t stick with the habit, because you have no passion, enthusiasm, or soul.
I use the “IA Writer” app in full-screen on my Mac, in ‘focus’ mode. This allows me to only look at what I’m writing, without any distractions like word count or whatever. And the words just flow.
7. Publish as a page (not a post)
This advice is for bloggers who use WordPress.
In WordPress, you can either post your blog posts as ‘pages’ or ‘posts’.
A ‘post’ will directly be shown on your home page, in your ‘feed’ of blog posts.
A ‘page’ won’t be shown on your home page. But it will still exist.
A new hack I’ve found that works for me: when I write something (regardless of how good or bad I think it is), I publish it as a ‘page.’ Therefore, I know that it exists on the web somewhere. Therefore one day someone can Google the article and perhaps find it.
I am often reluctant to publish my writings immediately as ‘posts’— because I don’t want to publish too much directly to the front of my blog.
So what I do now is this:
- Write blog post in IA Writer
- Copy and paste blog post text into WordPress ‘page’ and hit publish
- Copy and paste blog post text into WordPress ‘post’ and schedule it into the future
On the last point (point 3), I try to limit my blog posts to 1-2 a day. Therefore, if I write a lot in one day (one day I actually wrote 19 blog posts in a day), I can schedule them out into the future. I generally schedule my first blog post of the day at 2am (Pacific time), so my readers can have something to read first thing in the morning, over a cup of coffee. If I have a second blog post I want to publish, I schedule it the same day at noon (12pm).
Sorry I got a bit off-track, but the point is when you hit ‘publish’ as a page— you remove friction. You remove some fear.
The more you hit ‘publish’ — the more confidence and courage you will have to write more.
8. When you get tired of writing, do some physical exercise
When I’m at a cafe all day, and starting to get exhausted from writing, I will do some physical exercises as a break.
For example, I will take two stools, put them close together, and do body-weight dips, to get the blood flowing.
Or, I will do 1-legged squats (pistols) as a break, to also get the blood flowing. This also works well, because if I’m writing all day, my back hurts like crazy from sitting down all day.
Or another thing I do is lift my body off my chair, and stick out my legs straight (I think they call this an ‘L seat’) to work out my abs, and triceps.
When I used to live in an apartment back in Berkeley, and let’s say I was writing at home — I would do kettle bell swings as a break in-between my writing. I would alternate between doing 2-legged kettle bell swings, and 1-armed kettle bell swings. Buying a 70-pound kettlebell on Amazon (free 2-day prime shipping) was one of my best investments. Saves time, compared going to the gym to do deadlifts.
My theory is that if you want to continue being productive in writing, you need to have some sort of physical exercise, to get the blood going from your body to your mind.
If I don’t have any equipment, I also like to just do normal push-ups on the ground. I don’t count them, I just do them until I get tired, stop, and get back to writing.
I haven’t written about this before— but one of the best writing hacks is to use ‘markdown’ (which is a way you can format your text while writing).
For example, if you want to write a ‘Header 2’, you just use ## in front of the title.
Therefore, you don’t get distracted to use Microsoft Word to format your text while you’re writing.
It is a bit hard for me to explain, so I would recommend just checking out some Markdown tutorials on Google.
10. Don’t use Google or Wikipedia while writing
I have a problem — often when I’m writing, I need to fact-check something, find a date of an event, or find the actual quote from a person.
But the problem is I will open up my browser, Google the information, check Wikipedia, and suddenly get distracted, and lose my flow.
Therefore my rule is to no longer do that. I just try to write whatever I recall, and say in the text that I’m quoting from my mind. This way I am less likely to get distracted from the writing process.
11. Only write what you’re passionate about
For me, I cannot force myself to write about something that I’m not passionate about.
When I write about what I’m passionate about, the words are effortless. They flow from my subconscious, to my finger-tips, unto the digital screen.
If you have to force yourself to write, and you’re not passionate about the topic, you’re probably better off not writing it.
You need to write with your soul, about something you truly believe in.
For me, I am passionate about writing about street photography, photography in general, philosophy, psychology, and similar topics.
When I’m writing, I’m writing as if I’m writing a letter to a friend. I try not to be eloquent. I try to write like I’m just talking to a friend. This makes it a lot easier to have the words flow.
Not only that, but I imagine like only 1 person is going to read it. This way, I have a lot more focus in terms of the person I’m going to help. So even this letter, it is written thinking of my buddy Wilder, who has some writer’s block (although he has great ideas).
12. Write about what you already know
Another tip about writing — only write about what you know really well. Don’t research before writing. Rather, just write with all the knowledge and information which is already in your mind.
You’ve had decades worth of life experiences. You’ve read a lot of books, articles, had wonderful conversations, met interesting people, lived life, and listened to podcasts and watched movies. You have a huge database of information in your mind already.
Write about what you already know.
As for me, whenever I write about street photography, it is pretty easy for me because I’ve spent a long time shooting street photography. So I just write tips as if I’m writing them for my old 18-year-old-self.
13. Write to your past self
Going back to the prior point — if you have no idea what to write, just write yourself a letter to your past self.
For example, I’ve written letters to my 18-year-old self, giving myself life advice— or stuff I wish I knew before-hand.
This is a great technique because nobody can refute what you say. Because you’re not writing it for the benefit of others, but the benefit of your past self.
And it also humbles you. It makes you more personal. It is real, raw, and visceral.
And if you write a letter to your past self, and you publish it for the public to see— I can guarantee there will be at least 1 other person in the universe who will find it useful.
So as an example prompt, you can start off by saying:
Dear 18-year-old-Eric, this is 29-year-old-Eric writing you some life advice. I have 11 years of experience over you. Listen closely, this is some advice I wish I could tell you:
14. Publish ideas-in-progress
No idea is ever fully-formed, or perfected. Every idea we have in our minds is a work-in-progress.
Don’t feel you need to publish perfect ideas. Because no such thing exists.
I want to see your works in progress. I want to know what you’re currently thinking about. I want to know how your day was. I want to know what books you’re reading, what shows you’re watching, what music you’re listening to, and your personal thoughts and reflections.
Treat your writing like a personal diary, that you publish for others to see.
You can keep it simple. Just start off by publishing bullet-points of what you did today. Or just copy-and-paste some interesting quotes or passages from a book you’re currently reading. Or just share a photo that you shot today, and write a sentence on why that photo is meaningful to you.
Try to publish an MVP (Minimum viable product). That means, try to publish the simplest possible thought you have. And don’t worry whether it is perfect or not.
Remember what Voltaire said:
“Perfect is the enemy of the good.”
15. Write now
The last advice is this: write now.
No matter who you are, where you’re from, how busy you are, how many kids you have, how many emails you get a day, or whatever— you can write now.
I literally mean right now.
We send hundreds of text messages and emails a day. Why not capture some of that information, and write that information for your own benefit, and for the benefit of the wider-public?
My buddy Wilder has tried a new technique: Writing emails to himself, and publishing them as blog posts.
Another thing I’ve personally done: written blog posts on my smartphone in either Evernote or IA Writer, while waiting for a bus, while standing in a crowded bus or subway train, or while in an airplane.
We have no more excuses. We can write whenever, with whatever.
Write on your smartphone, your laptop, your tablet, write in a notebook, or a napkin.
Start rolling the ball now. Remember the saying by Publilius Syrus:
“The rolling stone gathers no moss.”
You just need to start rolling the stone.
You got this,
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