Why Aren’t I Writing?

Why do you write?

by Suw on March 22, 2023


Understanding your motivations can provide a solid foundation for writing during times of despair.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the potential impact of so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ such as ChatGPT on the literary world, in particular, the potential for AI-generated spam to drown out works by real human beings. Since then, I’ve had a number of interesting conversations with people in publishing and tech about these tools and the ways in which they can be abused.

I have to say, it has left me feeling quite depressed. It feels like the best time to have begun taking my writing career more seriously was 20 years ago, when advances were still reasonable and AI still the stuff of science fiction.

But it has also made me think about why I write.

For me, writing is an expression of a fundamental part of my personality. I know that I’m quite good at it. I know that I’m much happier when I’m writing. But most importantly of all, I know that I enjoy the entire process. I enjoy everything from having the initial idea to working up a first draft, through editing to sending it out into the world to be read. I love analysing other people’s work, whether that’s books, film or TV, and thinking about how they achieved the effect they were going for. I love thinking about character and plot and story mechanics and structure.

Really, I love the whole nine yards. There’s nothing about writing that I don’t enjoy. It doesn’t matter that sometimes it’s like pulling teeth or that I sometimes I feel tremendous self-doubt, because I will always come out of the other side just as in love with writing as I always was.

I get the impression, though, that for a lot of people the aim is not to write but to have written. Given their druthers, they’d prefer to skip to the end, to the bit where they present their book to the world whilst fanfares play and everyone tells them how fabulous they are.

This is somewhat supported by the stat from a decade ago that 81 per cent of Americans want to write a book. That’s about 200 million people who think they’ve got a book in them. A more recent study found that 15 per cent of Americans had started writing, 6 per cent got to the halfway mark and 8 per cent have finished. I suspect that a large chunk of the 85 per cent who have not started writing are people who’d very much like to have a book with their name on but aren’t so keen on the process of actually writing it.

Another class of author for whom LLMs are attractive are those who are trying to publish books at a tempo that would crush most of us. There are self-published authors on Kindle who are writing and publishing full-length novels within 49 days, from conception to publication. That is a ludicrous schedule, and yes I know Barbara Cartland wrote a book a week, but she had amanuenses to take dictation and someone to edit her (short) manuscripts before they even went off to the publisher. If you’re under the kind of pressure that these high volume writers are under, LLMs are going to look attractive, to assist at the very least.

I suppose I’ve been wondering if my stubbornness to hand craft everything I write is just idiocy. It’s true that, if given an easy way to do something and a hard way, I will always choose the hard way. Is this resistance to, even rejection of, LLMs on my part merely me taking the hard way? Or is there something more?

I don’t write to have written, I write to be read. Sure, it’s a nice feeling when you can wrap up a book or short story, but that comes from knowing that you produced the best work you could, that you expressed an idea that was uniquely yours in a way that only you can. But, for me at least, the majority of my motivation comes from the hope that my readers will enjoy it. Being read is a fundamental part of my writing process. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I feel that there’s a social contract between writer and reader, or storyteller and listener, that goes back eons. I promise to write the best story I can, and you promise to give it a fair chance. And I feel that using an LLM breaks that contract because it would not me writing anymore, it would be an algorithm. It has no heart or soul to put into its writing; it’s just a giant autocomplete.

When I read about LLMs and think about how they put writers’ livelihoods at risk, it does make me wonder why I bother. Why do I put so much time and effort into what I’m writing? Is there going to be anyone, anyone at all, who will care?

I have felt quite disheartened the last couple of weeks. But then last night I did some work on my current script and reminded myself that I do, indeed, love writing. And if I love what I do, perhaps that love will come through in my words and, somehow, reach my reader. That would be worth it, wouldn’t it?

Ultimately, I think it’s important to know why you write. What is it that really motivates you? What gets you excited when you sit down to write? Because when you hit a slough of despond, knowing why you write can help you pull yourself out of it.

Understanding your foundational why? gives you a way back to yourself, to your purpose, to your writing. And there’s no writer alive who doesn’t occasionally get lost and need to find their way home.


The font of all knowledge

by Suw on March 15, 2023

Your brain craves novelty, so changing even tiny things can help creativity.


There were times during the writing of my pandemic novel where I got really, really bored. Not bored of the story nor of the telling of it, but bored of the act of sitting at my computer and typing out what was in my head. I wished I could just get the words out faster, without all the tedious typing and deleting and typing again.

Then I read an article about research by Daniel Oppenheimer, Connor Diemand-Yauman and Erikka Vaughan that showed that we remember more of what we read when it is presented in a more challenging font.

The authors theorized that by making the font harder to read the information would seem more difficult to learn. Based on the concept of disfluency, the students would concentrate more carefully on learning the material. Disfluency, which occurs when something feels hard to do, has been shown to lead people to process information more deeply.

At about the same time, I also learnt that the human brain is a real sucker for novelty. Anything new or unusual is catnip to our attention. Novel stimuli prompt the brain to release dopamine, which encourages you to continue doing whatever you’re doing because your brain is now expecting a reward.

A study by Dr Emrah Düzel found that:

A region in the midbrain (substantia nigra/ventral tegmental), which is responsible for regulating our motivation and reward-processing, responds better to novelty than to the familiar. This system also regulates levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, and could aid learning. This link between memory, novelty, motivation and reward could help patients with memory problems.

That made me wonder what would happen if I added a bit of disfluency and novelty into my writing practice by using unusual and slightly hard to read fonts. Could I fool my brain into being more interested in writing than it currently was?

I set my document to Alex Brush, which is a nice swirly font, and sat down to write. Sure enough, that particular writing session went far more quickly and successfully than the previous. Soon, I was combing Google Fonts for the most flamboyant, exuberant and ornate fonts I could find. After all, it’s the novelty that’s important, not the font, so if I used Alex Brush all the time, the novelty would wear off and I’d be back to square one.

Some of the fonts that I used were Allura, Dancing Script, Great Vibes, Italianno, Parisienne, Pinyon Script, Rochester, Tangerine, and Zapfino. I picked these for two reason: Firstly, I like script fonts with ligatures and other embellishments and, secondly, they aren’t quite as easy to read as Palatino, which is Scrivener’s default font.

You could just as easily use various serif, sans serif, or display fonts, as long as you pick a font that’s both harder to read and different to the one you usually write in.

Every time I sat down to write, I picked a new font. Sometimes, when a new font wasn’t quite enough, I changed the colour too. I personally like deep, jewel colours which work well for writing because they have a lot of contrast. So when a fancy font in black didn’t tickle my midbrain, a fancy font in dark purple did the trick.

And it worked. That simple act of regularly changing font, and sometimes font colour, got me through that mid-novel marathon.

Of course, any novelty will work. A different word processing program. A different writing environment. Listening to different music. Smelling different smells. Anything that makes our midbrain perk its little ears up and say, “Oh! This is new! This is exciting!” will do.

So the next time you feel a bit bored of the act of typing, ask what you can change.

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It turns out that typing and handwriting aren’t the same. Are you choosing the right one for the job?

One of my favourite insights into the writing process is this short talk from tech journalist Clive Thompson about the cognitive difference between handwriting and typing. If you have ten minutes, take a look.

If you don’t, the tl;dr is that the brain works differently when you’re writing something by hand compared to when you’re typing, and you need to be mindful of what you’re trying to achieve when you choose whether to type or handwrite.

Handwriting is good for taking notes, for example, when you’re listening to a talk. People who take handwritten notes understand and remember more than those who type, possibly because you have to synthesise the information as you go along. People who type (this used to be me!) merely transcribe.

Handwriting “also seems to work very well for big picture thinking” says Thompson. “Whenever I’m writing a big article or a chapter in a book or even designing this presentation, I need to work on paper to sort of organise the flow of ideas and architecture.”

Typing, and particularly fast typing, is the best way to get out ideas that have already formed in your head.

“Fast typing is significant because it’s something that psychologists who study composition call ‘transcription fluency’,” says Thompson. The faster you type, the easier it is to capture the flow of your thoughts as your brain has them. Indeed, studies have shown that the faster you can type, the higher the quality of your writing.

I can type at 85 words per minute (WPM) with an accuracy of 97 percent, but if you can mange more than 24 WPM you’re probably typing fast enough. Faster is better, though, so it’s always worth learning to touch type.

One of my most common experiences of writer’s block has been down to using the wrong tools at the wrong time: Sitting with a blank document and trying to type when I ought to be sitting with a blank sheet of paper and scribbling ideas and notes on it. And it still is my most common block, but I’m faster at recognising and correcting it.

But what I’ve also learnt over the years is that there are two other positions on the scale of handwriting to typing. The first is slower than handwriting and that’s diagramming. Thompson touches on this in his talk, but I want to delve into it more deeply.

Before I can get to handwriting, in the sense of making notes or plans, I sometimes need a more abstract handwritten step. As I mentioned last week, I do not do well when linearity is imposed upon my thought processes, whether that’s by traditional notebooks, lists, bullet points or anything else that expects a rational progression from A to Z.

This means I frequently fall back on mind maps or even just jotting random notes down on a large piece of paper until some of it starts to make sense. This phase is one of expansive or divergent thinking. It’s getting down every idea that comes to mind, regardless of whether it’s any good or not, regardless of whether it fits with the others. There’s no judgement, there’s just jotting down your thoughts and letting them just be whatever they are.

Once I’ve emptied my brain out in this way, sometimes over several sessions, then I can start to write in a more structured way, which is a phase of convergent thinking. This is when I bring some level of logic and reason to bear, sifting through the ideas, discarding whatever won’t work, working out how the bits that might work are connected, and then putting them together in a sensible and useful manner.

Now, sometimes I can go from my convergent thinking phase straight to typing. That might mean that I’m sitting looking at my mind map and typing whilst my brain does all the heavy lifting. But sometimes, I have to go through a second handwritten stage, where I convert the mind maps into a more structured list or outline. And sometimes, I have to do something somewhere in between.

When I got stuck on my novel, I went through a somewhat sludgy phase where the ideas were coming too fast for handwriting, but not fast enough for typing. I had just bought myself a Remington Streamliner typewriter and it turned out that it was perfect for this mid-speed typing. Slow enough that my brain didn’t run away with itself and end up painting me into a corner, but fast enough that I didn’t get frustrated with the speed I was working.

My method was to type out a scene, scan it, upload a PDF to Google, let Google OCR it, then copy the result into Scrivener where I corrected the many, many errors. It was quite tedious, but it was what my brain needed at that point in time.

So now I have a variety of tactics for dealing with my brain when it’s running at different speeds and doing slightly different tasks:

  1. Diagrams and mind maps for slow, divergent thinking.
  2. Handwriting for slow, organised thinking.
  3. Typewriting for moderate transcription when I’m not quite sure of myself.
  4. Typing for fast transcription when my brain is fired up and ready to go.

They say a bad worker blames their tools, but a good worker knows which tools to use and when.

This is a very timely reminder for me because, just before I wrote this, I sat down with the script for Episode 5 of my TV series, read through my far-too-sparse notes, thought “Oh, fuck” and put it away again. I had thought I was ready to do Step 2 with a rapid skip forward to Step 4, but in actual fact, I need to sit down with a large sheet of blank paper and start just tossing out ideas until I properly understand how to fix this script.

And that means breaking out my lovely Blackwing Palomino Ada Lovelace pencil and a load of A3 paper. Oooh, lucky me!

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It’s all in the notebook

by Suw on March 1, 2023

A Tul notebook and selection of accessories

Understanding how your mind prefers to work helps you find the right tools so that you can nurture your creativity.

Writing last week’s newsletter reminded me of a transformative moment in my writing life when, in April 2017, I discovered the existence of the disc-bound notebook. My husband and I were walking around Office Depot in Sheboygan when I first saw the T?l ‘customer note-taking system’ wherein a disc with a T-shaped lip holds paper that’s been punched with a similar T-shaped slot. I bought a book and refills there and then, and eventually bought more books, discs and even a T?l hole punch.

It was genuinely revolutionary.

Now, this is going to sound utterly ridiculous, but for many years my writing was hampered by the horribly linear nature of notebooks. No, really.

As I wrote back then:

Disorganised notes make me profoundly uncomfortable, to the point of causing creative paralysis, but there’s no functional way I can experience ideas in an organised manner. This means that traditional bound notebooks will always suffer not just from a lack of organisation but also negative emotional weight that’s hard to ignore. It’s just not possible to know how many pages to leave for a particular section: leave too many and it will feel like wasted space; leave too few and thematically related passages become separated and one has to search for and flip between pages when reading back over notes.

My mind is a disorganised creature that craves order. Traditional notebooks emphasise disorder and that caused a creative block that I found difficult to get around.

This became painfully evident last year when I discovered a trove of notebooks, each one containing the beginning of a novel or short story, or notes for same. In some cases, I’d left blank pages between sections of notes, trying to anticipate how much room I’d need for each topic. But each had been abandoned unfinished, the strictures of linear writing having strangled most of my ideas shortly after birth.

But when I discovered T?l, I no longer had to think about how many blank pages to leave because I could insert a page at will. I could take the entire notebook apart and re-bind it in a totally different order, if I wanted to. And that was immensely liberating.

(I am aware that I could have achieved the same thing with a ring-binder, but for some reason my subconscious doesn’t like ring-binders, possibly because I associate them with study.)

My use of my T?l notebooks has ebbed away over the last few years as Notability on the iPad has taken its place. But it’s exactly the same experience. I can create as many new documents in Notability as I like, and I can shuffle them about however I see fit. Because Notability allows for handwritten notes, I can scribble and draw diagrams and do whatever I would normally do on paper, and it’s available not just on my iPad but on every one of my devices that is capable of running Notability.

The bottom line here is not that T?l notebooks or Notability are some kinda of global panacea for all your note taking needs, it’s that you have to understand how your brain works and then find the tools to support it. You can’t fight the currents of your brain’s own flow, you have to find a way to swim with the rip tide.

As much as I love stationery – and I really do love stationery – the most beautiful notebooks in the world can’t help me if my brain is scared of ruining them by not writing linearly in them. About a decade ago, I did a bookbinding workshop where I made a gorgeous red leather notebook. It is exquisite. I will never, ever use it, because nothing I can write will ever live up to its physical beauty. So instead, I simply admire it for the work of art it is and I take my notes and write my stories elsewhere.

The lesson here is to experiment. If beautiful notebooks are too gorgeous to use, buy a cheap, scruffy one. If linear notebooks alarm your subconscious, use a disc-bound system. If writing notes on paper doesn’t work, try jotting them down on your phone. If writing doesn’t work, try using a voice memo app.

Your brain is in charge here. Learn how it works, what it likes, what it dislikes, and tailor your tools and processes to please it, because when your brain is happy, creativity becomes so much easier.

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It’s the end of 2016, and I’m living in Sheboygan, WI. I’ve spent about two years researching my novel about a global pandemic (oops), but I cannot write. I’ve read all about the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, bird flu, how vaccines are made, the Spanish Flu, cytokine storms and more. I have a huge stack of index cards with scene ideas on, but when it comes to sitting down and actually writing, nothing comes out. Words form in my mind but evaporate before they get to my fingers. 

I am in a deep funk. 

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All of my creativity has left me. I don’t even want to read about pandemics anymore, and my high-concept airport book of a novel feels like an impossible thing to write. I’m scared of getting the science wrong and looking like an idiot. I’m scared of focusing too much on the science and ending up with flat, soulless characters. I’m scared that it’s going to be too depressing and that I won’t find hope amongst the sea of bodies. I’m scared that I’ll never finish it. 

(I was not scared that I’d get gazumped by a real pandemic and have an unsellable doorstop on my hands. I should have been.)

I’d been living in Sheboygan for 18 months and was really enjoying it. We had a lovely house with lots of space – it was the biggest, nicest house I have ever lived in – and we were going out and making friends. My business was doing well and I’d just paid off the last of the massive debt I’d accrued when a previous business went under. I had the most financial stability and the highest disposable income that I’d ever had.

Every duck was aligned. I should have been feeling extraordinarily creative. Instead, I was creatively dead. The world had gone to hell in a handbasket and I was feeling, to quote myself from back then, ‘demoralised and unhappy’. 

Then, at some point in December 2016, I realised that I had only two choices: Give up or Jedi mind trick myself into a better mood. 

So, on 29 December, I launched Creative 2017 – my plan to spend ten minutes every day doing something fun. Ten minutes felt like a doable commitment. I could (almost) always find ten minutes, no matter what my day turned into. 

January was spent playing around with a brush calligraphy set that my husband had bought me in Singapore in 2015. I was terrible at it, spending days doing lines, squiggles, dots and little triangles. But such repetitive work rapidly put me into a state of flow, fully immersed in what I was doing. On Day 18, I wrote: 

I think one of the things that is so delightful about this project is that there’s no pressure at all. I’m not doing this for a reason. I don’t have an end goal. I’m just doing it because it’s there, because I find it enjoyable. It’s been ages since I’ve been creative for the sake of it, without thinking about whether there’s something to hang on the wall at the end of it, or whether the end result is going to be good enough to give as a gift. 

By the end of January, I had learnt a valuable lesson: 

Well, firstly, that there’s a lot of joy in doing something for the sake of it, without having a goal or any pressure. I’ve also learnt that you can improve rapidly with just a small amount of time devoted every day. I’m actually surprised with how much my basic skills have developed since Day 1. It’s really rather satisfying!

February was crochet month, during which I learnt a new stitch every day. March was cat month and I sketched our cats either from life or a photo. I loved that month. I’d like to do that month again. 

In April, I worked on world-building and planning for my novel. May was a month of general blogging, which was a way to handle a bout of travel that precluded regular crafting. That might sound like I slightly betrayed my premise, but it was a sign that the Jedi mind trick was starting to work:

As I said at the beginning of April, I started this project to try to get my brain back into a more creative mode, and it has worked amazingly well. I used that month to work on my book, a non-bloggable project, and I’m happy to report that I am continuing to find time to work on that almost every day. And I’m still incredibly excited by it, more so than any writing project I’ve ever worked on.

June was round hand calligraphy, July and August were both embroidery with some crochet. Then Ada Lovelace Day came knocking at my door and the blog posts and the work on my novel fell away as I got busy with that. But the lapse wasn’t permanent. Rather, the whole plan had worked. My final post, on 6 December 2016, explains: 

There was always an ulterior motive, though, to this whole project, and that was to try to get my authorial juices flowing. In that, the year has been a spectacular success. I started work on my current project in earnest a couple of weeks ago, and am really enjoying myself.

Over the year, I had done three important things: 

  1. I created the habit of giving myself time every day to do something creative.

  2. I associated that time with fun and joy.

  3. I nourished my creative mind until it was ready to write. 

Sometimes, with all the best will in the world, we’re not writing because there are other things we need to do first. And I don’t mean the world-building or the research, I mean feeding our creative selves with flow and bliss and delight. Reminding ourselves that we deserve to take time just for us, for our projects, for our enjoyment. And once we’ve refreshed ourselves the creativity arrives, not without work or effort but after we’ve put in the right work and effort. If it takes a Jedi mind trick and a year to do that, well, so be it. Whatever works, works. 

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Stock Image Woman knows that she can write whenever she damn well pleases.

Sitting at my desk yesterday afternoon, I found myself staring at my computer screen, mulling over whether to write or not. I didn’t really feel like it, but nothing on my To Do list was on fire and I’ve promised myself that I’ll make the most of this work lull to get my six-part TV series scripts finished.

I had the opportunity to write.

I didn’t feel like writing.

There was nothing else more important to do.

I wrote.

And, of course, as soon as I put my fingertips on the keyboard I became completely absorbed and ending up having a very productive hour in which I solved a fairly large issue with the episode I’m currently working on.

There is no mood

I can’t count the number of times I’ve complained to my online friends that I’m ‘Just not feeling it today’ and then gone on to get loads of words written. If I’m honest with myself, it’s because ‘I’m not in the mood’ is nothing more than an excuse. It’s a convenient way to let myself off the hook, even though I know I don’t actually need to be in any particular frame of mind to write, I just need to sit myself down and get on with it.

Indeed, the idea that writing well depends on ‘being in the mood’ is a pernicious writing fallacy which stops people being consistently and persistently creative. It plays into the extremely wrong idea that writing, and particularly creative writing, is a gift bestowed by the gods only on the most special of people at the most special of times. It rarifies the act of writing, turns it from an everyday activity into something anomalous, something exceptional. Only those blessed by the presence of a Muse can gather together those ethereal threads of inspiration and weave them into poetry or prose.

Slaps forehead with back of hand and swoons.

Well, bollocks to that.

If you want to write, I promise that you do not have to waste time waiting for Calliope or her sisters to show up. You have it in you to write whenever and wherever the hell you like.

Why do you think you need to be in the mood?

If you feel like you have to be in the mood to write, but you’d like to get rid of that unnecessary restriction, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself why. I don’t believe that laziness exists – there’s always something else going on. Have a dig and ask yourself what is preventing you from writing.

Perhaps you don’t feel very confident and worry that putting words on the screen will prove to yourself how bad you are. Whilst you’re probably much better than you think you are, it doesn’t really matter because we are all learning with every single word we write. Writing is a process. So is editing. Embrace it.

Maybe you don’t have much time, so you feel that you’ll just get frustrated if you start, get into your writing, and then have to stop before you want to. Every book was written one word at a time, so if you only have time to write one word, that’s still one word less to write later. Use even the shortest scraps of time to write and celebrate the fact that you have to leave your writing whilst you still feel excited and have more to say. It’ll be much easier to pick it up next time.

Or possibly you just don’t know what comes next. This is almost always down to a lack of preparation, so instead of writing words, spend the time working on your outline, background research, characters or world-building. There’s always something constructive to do that will move your project along. After all, writing isn’t just typing.

There are many other reasons you might not be feeling in the mood, but once you’ve identified what’s really going on, you can acknowledge the problem, solve it or set it to one side, and then sit down and write.

All words are equal

I’ve heard people say that if they don’t ‘feel it’ they produce lower quality work. Now, it’s true that writing is sometimes a breeze and sometimes like pulling teeth, but how it feels as you write has nothing to do with how it reads back later. What I write on hard days reads no differently to what I write on easy days.

But if you want to prove to yourself that there’s no difference, here’s an exercise:

1. For a week, write at least 50 words a day on a single project. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something you’re already working on or something you’re doing just for this exercise, as long as each day’s work follows on from the last.

2. In a separate document, make a note of what you wrote and how you felt at the time. Was it easy? Hard? Painful? Excruciating? If you happen to have an easy week, keep going until you have a couple of days where it’s hard, and if it’s all hard, keep going until you have an easy day.

3. Give your work to a trusted friend and ask them to make a note every time they notice the quality of the writing change. What reads well? What doesn’t? If you don’t have a trusted friend, set the work aside for a few weeks and re-read it yourself.

4. Compare notes. The chances of your friend’s notes matching up with your self-reported experience of writing are next to nil.

How we feel as we write is influenced by a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with our creativity. Are we tired? Rushed? Excited? Just had an argument? Hungry? Thirsty? Just had a pleasant surprise? All of those things influence our mood, but they don’t influence how our creativity functions so they aren’t reflected in our writing.

There’s always editing

If, after doing this, you still believe that you produce better work when you’re ‘in the mood’, remember that there are no words that can’t be edited, except those you haven’t written. Writing when you’re not in the mood is a skill you can practice. The more you practice it, the easier it will become. And the easier it becomes, the less you have to frogmarch yourself to your desk and sternly force yourself to write.

Soon, you’ll be writing whenever and wherever you like and getting a lot more done.

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With several creative projects on the go, plus a mortally wounded business to rescue, I am currently finding it a little challenging to get moving of a morning. I’m so used to my To Do list being on fire – with too many tasks that should have been done yesterday or, preferably, last month – that this current lull brought on by the end of Ada Lovelace Day is proving difficult to navigate.

So I’m going back to basics and looking at ways I can create some clarity and structure that will help me make the most of my time.

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Refining my To-Do list

To-Do lists are possibly the oldest productivity tool we have and many words have been spilt about exactly how best to maintain them. There are countless apps and websites to manage them, a lot of which let you set an incredible level of detail for each task such as allotting it to a project, adding a deadline, and defining multiple statuses that each task might progress through.

The dirty truth is that it doesn’t really matter which app you use or whether you prefer to rely on pen and paper, so long as you actually keep your list up to date and refer to it regularly. Equally, amongst all To-Do list tips, there’s only one that’s genuinely essential:

Each to do item must be a single, well-defined task that can be executed without requiring further clarification.

So ‘Write report’ is not a task, but ‘Draft report structure in bullet points’ is. Quite often, if you’re looking at your To-Do list and feeling overwhelmed by it all and unsure where to start, it’s because you have written down a list of projects, not a list of tasks.

Luckily, the fix is relatively easy: rewrite your list and make sure that each item is a single action that you have clearly defined and could begin without needing to think further about what it means.

My recent switch in focus has meant that I have had to throw out my To Do lists from last year because they were mostly ALD-related tasks that no longer need to be done. I have a single To-Do list for each creative project, and they look very, very different to my business list (fewer flames for one thing). It’s really quite discombobulating. But my lists are doing their job and that’s what counts.

Urgent vs Important

Rare is the person whose To-Do list isn’t, to all intents and purposes, infinite. As soon as you finish one thing, something else pops up to take its place. Equally true is that not all of the tasks on your list are actually worth doing. But how can you tell what you should focus on and what you should ditch (or get someone else to do)?

Once you’ve written your To-Do list, you can use the Urgent vs Important Matrix, or Eisenhower Matrix, to prioritise it. List your tasks in a two-by-two grid, classifying each task by whether it’s urgent or not urgent, important or not important.

Your main priority should generally be those tasks that fall into the urgent and important quadrant in the top left. Tasks that are not urgent but are important are next in line, or should be scheduled so that they don’t become urgent. Tasks that are urgent but not important need a bit of interrogation: Why are they on your To-Do list and what would you gain by doing them? Can you delegate them or not do them? Anything in the not urgent and not important quadrant just needs striking off your list completely.

You might not be surprised to read that I find this process much harder when I’m sorting through my creative To-Do list than my business list. For decades being creative was something I did when I had time, not during my work day. But now that I’m prioritising a creative life and, indeed, getting paid for it, I’m having to upend a whole lot of routines and mindsets that no longer serve me well. The biggest change is that it’s now OK for me to write my script or research short films or read writing advice books during the day, because that’s my job now. Crikey!

The Pomodoro Technique

On days when it’s really hard to get started, the Pomodoro Technique is perfect. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer – pomodoro means tomato in Italian – it is possibly the simplest way to force yourself to get on with your work:

  • Decide what you’re going to do.

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.

  • Start.

  • Stop when the timer goes off, and take a 3-5 minute break.

If I am really struggling with focus, I set the timer for 15 minutes – even I can focus for 15 minutes and quite often once I’ve got started I find it much easier to keep going.

The official technique, which was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, includes more details around counting pomodoros, which is what each bout of productivity is called, into sets of four, recording each completion with a tick, and taking longer breaks after sets. But ultimately, it’s really about just putting a timer on and not allowing yourself any distractions until you hear that alarm go off.


For challenging days, I buddywork with friends on Slack. We have a channel for it, and I’ll state my goals for the next half hour and then check back in at the allotted time to report on my progress. Holding myself accountable like this is very effective when I’ve got particularly tedious or gnarly tasks on my list that I really don’t want to do – telling someone what I’m going to do creates a commitment strong enough to push me through the difficult task. And my friends will nag me if I get distracted!

Time tracking

One thing that’s easier than losing time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea is not recognising when you’ve lost time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea. And worse, if you’ve had the wrong kind of busy day, full of unanticipated or involved tasks, it can be easy to feel as if you haven’t done anything.

The best way to tackle both of these problems is to track your time so that you know exactly how much time you spent doing what. There are quite a few time trackers available, although I use Toggl’s free plan. Using it to track work on particular projects or type of task gives me a clear idea at the end of the day of just how I’ve used my time.

I don’t get too specific with my tasks, so “Admin”, “Email”, or “Newsletter” are sensible categories, but “Sending an email to Scrooge McDuck” is too specific. I am scrupulously honest with myself and turn the tracker off when I check Facebook or go get a glass of water. That way, I know exactly how I’m doing. I aim for five hours of productive work each day, and I always know when I’ve reached that target.

Once you’re in the habit of tracking your time, you’ll gain a useful insight into how your days unfold. Are you taking a longer lunch than you should? Or losing time when you’re switching tasks? Or spending more time on social media than you imagined? A time tracker will help reveal these gaps in your day so that you can make adjustments, such as maybe moving your lunch earlier so that you get a clearer run in the afternoon, or giving yourself a defined break mid-afternoon so that you can regain a little clarity for the last part of the day.

Why Aren’t I Writing? is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

(This post is based on one I wrote for the Finding Ada Network, thus forming a bonus tip for you: Reduce, reuse, recycle! A wise marketing guru once told me to use every piece of content three times – you put the effort in to create it, so make sure you get the most out of it.)

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January was a month of some hardcore adulting. I did a host of things that I’d been putting off: Getting a dental appointment to check that the root canal and synthetic bone graft that I had done in Mexico at the end of December 2021 had healed properly and that the ache in my jaw was indeed, as I suspected, just tension. Renewing my driver’s licence photocard and booking a lesson to get me driving again after a 25 year gap. Getting an appointment with an optician. Seeing my physio.

I might sound like a hypochondriac, but this list of worries and ailments has accumulated over the last few years. It’s all stuff I’ve put off because either I was scared (driving), or because I was in the wrong country (physio), or because last year’s transatlantic move got in the way (everything else). But it’s also all stuff that has lived rent-free in my head for all that time, taking up space and taking focus away from other, more important things.

I once read that the point at which you overcome procrastination is the point at which the pain of not doing something becomes worse than the pain of doing it. The stress of not getting these health issues checked out has been eroding my energy levels for months. I’d wake in the middle of the night worrying about them, despite knowing intellectually that they were likely all benign and solvable problems.

The knock-on effect of that was not just disrupted sleep. It took up time I could have spent doing more constructive things and it literally wasted my energy. Thinking burns calories – the brain takes up about 20 percent of your daily energy usage – so every thing I worried about was draining my batteries. More to the point, absolutely none of these chores were as big of a deal as I had built them up to be and most were sorted quickly and painlessly. All of that worry was for nothing.

Now, I know this sounds like a very longwinded way of saying ‘Clear your head’, but we’re not talking here about clearing your head the way that you might half-arsedly clear a table. You’re not putting things on the kitchen countertop and ignoring them, you actually have to do the washing up.

I’ve had this sporadic dull ache in my jaw for three years and, despite several X-rays and a CT scan, I’d still managed to build it up in my head into something it wasn’t. Stress will do that. Getting it looked at again wasn’t so much about a medical diagnosis, but more about getting the worry out of my head, hopefully permanently this time.

Clearing your head means being honest with yourself about the things that are worrying you, (even if those things seem small or silly or irrational), gathering the strength to address them, and then putting them behind you. It’s about recognising the pain of not doing something and then getting it done, sooner rather than later.

Obviously some stressors are not easily dealt with. If you’re short of money, for example, or stuck in an awful situation, you can’t just fix that with a bit of willpower and a spare half hour. But you can start taking steps: See a debt counsellor, make a plan, or even just outline the issue. Actively addressing a problem can help you feel more in control, and that helps clear your head.

Clearing your head is important because it literally makes room in you brain for other, more creative thoughts. It really is that simple.

I have so many ideas when I’m lying in bed or walking into town or in the shower. Ideas don’t generally come when I sit down to write, they need time and space to incubate before then. But they won’t get the opportunity to sprout and grow if my brain is constantly ruminating about my achy jaw or getting the cats’ yearly vaccinations booked.

Life admin sucks, no doubt about it. But keeping on top of it and clearing those worries out of your head is essential if you want to have a consistently creative life.

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First, deal with The Fear

by Suw on January 30, 2023

Welcome to Why Aren’t I Writing?, my new Substack newsletter! Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to explore all of the things that get in our way when we want to write, including, appositely, the fear of the blank page. Which is what I’ve got right now.

I shouldn’t. I’m an experienced blogger and journalist. I’m used to sitting down with a blank page and a deadline and having to fill one up before the other expires. And yet here I am, sitting at my desk, filled with The Fear.

What if no one is interested in what I’ve got to say? What if I run out of things to talk about? What if my writing is boring and no one reads to the end? What if I don’t have enough time to do this newsletter justice? What if people think I’m full of shit? What if no one subscribes and I end up talking to myself?

Right now, it feels much easier to stare out of my window and watch flight KL717 from Amsterdam to San Jose pass by at 29,000 ft. (According to FlightRadar24, it turned around just south of Cork and began heading back to Amsterdam. I wonder why. Google doesn’t know. Twitter hasn’t mentioned it. Probably a mechanical fault. I’ll check back on it later.)

The Fear is, fundamentally, a fear of public humiliation. It’s something I used to talk about extensively when I worked as a social technologist helping companies develop adoption strategies for social media. We are all terrified of looking like an idiot, of being judged and found wanting. Rather than take a risk we freeze, we procrastinate (KL717 is currently over Colchester), or we avoid the task completely.

In the context of software adoption, the key was to ensure everyone was properly trained, that they had trusted people they could ask for help, and that the company’s aims for using this new software aligned with their employee’s personal aims – help people do what they want to do anyway and the tools you use become irrelevant.

In the context of one person sitting down to start a new project, well, there’s very little between me and utter terror. Only my ego, which tells me that I’m an articulate person with useful things to say, but which I rarely believe, encourages me on. My self-doubt, on the other hand, is telling me to select all and delete.

(KL717 is in the middle of the North Sea.)

I shall persevere, not just because I think this is a topic that a fair number of people might be interested in, but because I want to know more myself. I have learnt how to get past my demons and write, and I’ve been particularly productive over the last few years. But it hasn’t got any easier. I still struggle when faced with a blank page. And I still feel like I need someone to give me the A-OK before I publish an edition of my newsletter or a blog post.

I have wanted to be an author since I was a child but, despite being told that I was good at writing from pretty much the moment I picked up a pen, I internalised the lesson that normal people can’t make a living from writing. Especially not women. Especially not women writing science fiction or fantasy. Especially not women from the arse end of nowhere, with no network and no contacts and no mentor.

It’s not easy to throw away this ‘head trash’ that I’ve been carrying round for the best part of 40 years. Indeed, it’s a process, a recovery that requires daily effort.

(KL717 is coming in to land, 2 hours 30 minutes after it first took off. I suspect there are going to be some very pissed off people alighting at Schiphol shortly. Maybe one of them will tweet about what happened.)

So if you want to write, but aren’t, I understand you. I understand the fear. I understand the self-doubt. I understand the procrastination. And, as this newsletter progresses, I hope to develop a better understanding of these problems and their solutions. I’m optimistic that I can help you get past them too.

(KL717 has landed. No one on Twitter has said a thing.)

I’ll be publishing a new issue of Why Aren’t I Writing? twice a month and asking questions such as, What is confidence and where can I get some? Can I get rid of my impostor syndrome? And, What’s the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and which one should I cultivate?

So if you want to conquer your writing gremlins, sign up now and don’t miss a thing!

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