How do I stay motivated through a big writing project?
July 10, 2017 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Am I writing a book? I think so? How do I stay motivated through this project?

I have been taking advantage of my summer break to write for about two hours per day. This is a non-fiction project - a series of reflections and some theoretical work related to my profession.

It is happening in fits and starts but I am starting to make some progress, my ideas are coming together, and I am realizing I have a lot to say. As a result the scope of this writing project is starting to feel very ambitious and a bit intimidating - I want to keep going but I am not sure about the best way to proceed. Writers of metafilter, help me map the road ahead.

I know that I will eventually be able to produce something worthwhile. I am not sure how long that will take or what the final product will look like. What I need to do is stay motivated, and that's a bit hard right now. I am writing only for myself - this is not an assignment, there isn't yet an audience.

What should I do to help myself keep going?
Should I turn this into a series of articles or blog posts so that I have a semi-finished product and something to show for my efforts?
Would having an audience help in the medium-term?
Should I try to find a writing group or share it with some readers in order to get some feedback?
Should I set deadlines for myself?

A few things to note about me: I have never written anything longer than a college thesis essay (about 50 pages). I enjoy writing but I haven't been in the habit in the past few years because work has been too busy. I am very, very self-critical - critical feedback from others at this juncture probably isn't going to tell my much I don't know. But some kind of feedback could help me clarify my thinking.

Thanks in advance!
posted by mai to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
YES to having a writing group. Not all groups are created equal, so try a few before you give up.

I read a great article that I can't find now about a writer who emailed her chapters to a friend as she wrote them. The friend would excitedly ask to find out what happened next, so the writer would continue. I love this idea, but if you try it, make sure the friend knows their job is not to critique the first draft as you write it.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:08 AM on July 10, 2017

Remember that discipline comes before motivation. You will not be able to motivate yourself through this project... but you can definitely discipline your way through.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:04 PM on July 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

> I enjoy writing but I haven't been in the habit in the past few years

The only way to write is to start writing, and writing every day. Even if only for yourself (as a journal), develop that 'voice' even if the audience is just you.

You have several things going for you, which are 1) you are discovering you have a lot to say, 2) you've committed 2 hours / day to this effort and 3) you have some ideas. So what's next?

One is to set that 2-hour daily habit so it's automatic. Write daily, as a routine. When I started a personal/professional blog five years ago I remember the iteration of Wordpress at that time had a watermark that read 'Just Write.'

Of course part of that 2-hour daily habit should be outlining, refining outlines, coming up with new ideas and angles, and doing requisite research. One missed opportunity is the kind of reading you do - are you challenging yourself with the content you are consuming? There is a close relationship between the quality of what you read and the quality of your thinking (and writing). So you can afford to be very discriminating, as well as reading widely around your particular interest.

As far as publishing goes, a series of blog posts may be a very good outlet that you can point others to in order to get feedback. For me blogging has paid off in myriad ways, and I don't bother with any direct monetization at all; it's a way to build a personal brand and develop a unique voice.

Feel free to Mefi mail if you'd like to hear more particulars. Good luck!
posted by scooterdog at 1:17 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You don't actually state your goal or desired outcome. Do you want it to be a book? Do you want to shop for a publisher? Do you want to self-publish? Do you want a magazine or web publication to run it as a series? Do you expect/hope to get paid for this or is it a passion project or a portfolio piece? Your headline is about motivation, but your questions also seem to be about getting the right final product, but you don't indicate what you think that is. If you expect this to be some sort of published, for-profit piece, I'm not sure you'd want to release any of it publicly before it's ready. If not, you could, but would people read the blog posts you shared? Maybe you'd need a more formal feedback system. Depending who this is for, an editor, professor, etc. could give you feedback.

I would definitely set loose deadlines and reserve blocks of time for working on this project. It sounds like you're doing it on the fly, but an outline of not just what you want to write, but specific research and writing steps could help keep you on track and organized.

I think the most important part of writing is just starting and seeing what flows. Of course, sometimes you'll go back and read it and want to revise. In a large project, revising after it's all done seems daunting to me. Just an idea, but maybe you write for X days, and then on the Yth day or after a certain point, you focus on reading what you've done and where you need revision, whether it's tweaking language or adding missing components, etc. That way, maybe it won't overwhelm you. Just a thought.

Good luck on the project!
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:09 PM on July 10, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the thoughts so far. Follow up regarding writing groups - how do I go about finding a good one?

Just to clarify, I really am asking for advice about staying motivated. I am not asking for advice about how to be a better writer or have good habits. For the time being, I *do* have good habits, but I think I will only be able to keep it up if I stay motivated. So that's what this question is about. Motivation and self-discipline are obviously related but they are not the same thing. (Ironically, that's part of what I am writing about).

Regarding my goals - I don't exactly know. This project is in its infancy.
Regarding writing a blog - yes, if I wrote a blog, some people would read it, maybe a few dozen at the outset.
posted by mai at 3:28 PM on July 10, 2017

I think it would be a good idea to plan ahead for what to do when you have a setback. Creating habits is helpful, but not foolproof, and I feel like they can also feed into perfectionism and set you up for self-sabotage when the chain inevitably gets broken, particularly with all the hype about how they should magically make everything easy and automatic.

Maybe write up a gently encouraging script you can read to yourself if you miss a day or a week because of life stuff/low motivation/low inspiration that reminds you that setbacks are inevitable and everyone faces them, everything you've already accomplished is still there, and you're not going to give up, you'll get a good night's sleep and return to it when your time and energy has replenished (maybe set a default target/goal day here if it feels reasonable, like within two days after anything tangibly preventing you from working has passed).

You could also write notes for your future self for when you're just feeling crummy or blah about your work and need a pick-me-up. Talk about your hopes and inspiration that you're feeling now and why this project is important to you. You could keep them around you as post-its for everyday encouragement, but I also feel like they might have more punch if you created like a "vault" or something so you could bust into them in times of need (like stuff them in a box, real or virtual).
posted by space snail at 3:39 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The thing that tends to keep me motivated is succeeding in my goals, and so I try to choose goals that set me up for success. Generally, that means goals that:

• Are objectively achievable. "Write 250 perfect words that are ready for publication" is a goal I'm going to fail in most days-- and even if I succeed, I might not know it. However, "Get 250 words on paper (which may or may not need major revision before they're ready)" is something I can do even when I'm uninspired, and confirming my success is just a simple matter of checking word count.

• Do not depend on anybody else. "Submit 10 short stories to publishers" is entirely within my control. But a goal like "Get one of my short stories published" will succeed or fail depending on the decision of a total stranger.

That said, writing is a weird personal thing, and motivational techniques that work for other people may or may not work for you. All the things you ask about -- blog posts, writing groups, etc -- are helpful for some writers sometimes, and may or may not be for you. The best advice I can give you is to view this as an ongoing experiment. Try all sorts of techniques, and pay close attention to the ones that seem to move you in the right direction.
posted by yankeefog at 2:20 AM on July 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Instead of figuring out how to stay motivated, you need to clarify what your actual motivation is. You have one, or you wouldn't have begun this project. If you have trouble staying motivated, there's likely a counter-motivation.
Finishing School calls this "motivational dissonance."
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:53 AM on July 13, 2017

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