Before I sat down to write this, I cut a soft green guava and a ripe mango for my daughter and me, peeled off half a slice of cold Emmental cheese (she had mozzarella), munched on some sour cream and onion potato chips (sinful but delightful), and poured a cup of tepid peppermint tea (so I wouldn't have to wait). I also glanced at my LinkedIn notifications, checked my work email, and wiped the table where I'm writing this article.
Procrastination? Probably. Writer's block? Perhaps.
Getting into that state of "flow" where I tune out the world and focus on transmitting my thoughts onto the screen can be really hard, especially with all the distractions I have to contend with.
While I find the process of putting good prose on the page pleasurable, like most writers, I usually have to do it with an externally or self-imposed deadline looming over me. This complicates things.
That's why I sometimes seek strategies and tactics for wrestling with my bad habits and mental demons in the pages of writing craft books. I've read several of these volumes over the years, and I can attribute a good chunk of my ability to go from blank page to published article to the sound advice I gleaned from them.
Here are five books that helped me punch through mental blocks, enter that dreamy and intensely-focused state of creative "flow" where I happily forget the time, and get more writing done. The lessons contained in these books are applicable to any kind of writing, including business communications:
1. Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life's Work, by Steven Pressfield
Ever since reading his classic book, The War of Art, I've read every book about writing by Steven Pressfield (and I will continue to read every one he writes, including the one he's publishing soon, which he's generously serializing on his blog). In that book he gave a name to what every writer grapples with. He called it "Resistance."
To fight the Resistance, writers (and other artists, for he was addressing artists broadly in that book) need to give up their amateur mindsets and habits and "turn pro." In Turning Pro, his follow-up to The War of Art, Pressfield fleshes out what he means exactly when he tells writers to "turn pro."
"The thesis of this book," as Pressfield explains, "is that what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs. The solution, this book suggests, is that we turn pro."
Pressfield then lists the habits and qualities that the professional possesses that the amateur doesn't. Here are just a few: "The professional will not be distracted," "The professional is ruthless with himself," "The professional has compassion for herself," and "The professional lives in the present."
Pressfield promises rich rewards for those willing to do the work: "What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out."
2. The Art of Nonfiction, by Ayn Rand
As the late novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand describes in The Art of Nonfiction, an edited collection of lectures she gave on the craft of writing, part of the reason why it took so long to finish her second novel is because she often suffered from severe bouts of writer's block. What Pressfield calls Resistance, however, Rand calls the "squirms."
"The 'squirms' is a term coined by my husband, Frank, for a state of writing which is universal. It describes the following situation: you are writing, and suddenly, on a given sequence or chapter, you find yourself completely paralyzed mentally. This strikes at unexpected moments."
For writers struggling with the "squirms," Rand advises you to trust your subconscious when writing your first draft; stop writing, but let your subconscious continue to work on the problem you're tackling; don't edit until the words are on the page; and don't take it personally.
"So far, there is no way known to avoid the squirms. But if you view them as a professional hazard and maintain your calm in the face of them, that is also the best way to foreshorten the torture. The reward, when it comes, is worth it."
3. Lifelong Writing Habit: The Secret to Writing Every Day, by Chris Fox.
In Lifelong Writing Habit: The Secret to Writing Every Day, Chris Fox describes the 12-step process he created that has allowed him to make the transition from part-time writer to full-time author of several bestselling thriller novels and nonfiction writing guides.
At the beginning of the book, Chris describes what a habit is, and explains how you can reprogram your brain just like a computer to install new habits. Habits live in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, and they consist of three parts: The trigger, the routine, and the reward.
The key to changing your habits is to identify which ones are good for you, which ones are bad, and then "flip" the bad ones to good ones.
Among several actionable tips, Fox suggests that you engineer your writing habit. "Take a good look at your daily routine. Where would the writing habit fit best? Can you re-purpose an existing habit, or do you need to create an entirely new one? Write out a promise to yourself about your new writing habit. It needs to include how and when you plan to write, how often, and what your reward will be."
If you're like me and you're trying to carve out time to get your writing done while holding a full-time job or taking care of a family, it can be really tough. Monica Leonelle, a novelist and author of several writing craft books, has written a book that speaks directly to writers like us who are struggling to get our writing done while balancing our other commitments at work and at home. She calls it The 8 Minute Writing Habit: Create a Consistent Writing Habit that Works With Your Busy Lifestyle.
In the first part of her book, Leonelle describes several "blockers" that get in the way of our getting writing done, like "writing might not pay off," "I'm not good enough to be a writer," and "I'm stuck in the planning/writing/editing phase." For each blocker, she offers several practical tips for overcoming them.
In part two, she shares nine strategies the pros use to write consistently. These include an unconventional approach she introduces that is aimed at helping you get past your excuses around lack of time, space, and energy. "Write for an 8-minute timed session...In this timed session, you write for only 8 minutes, one time a day."
Eight minutes? How could that be enough time to write? "Eight minutes is plenty of time to make a substantial contribution to your writing goal and manuscript word count," argues Leonelle. "I have heard numerous accounts from authors who can write 500-750 words in 8 minutes. If you were able to do even half of that during your 8 minute session, you would add 250 words to your manuscript every day. Over the course of one year, you would have 90,000 words, or one full-length novel!"
5. Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, by Sarah Stodola
In their books, Pressfield, Rand, Fox, and Leonelle tell their very personal stories of how they struggled against the Resistance, battled the "squirms," and became highly productive, professional writers. They share the exact strategies they worked so hard to distill and document, strategies they share in exchange for just a few dollars that will appear on your next credit card statement.
In addition to these excellent reads, there's one more title I'd like to introduce to round out my list of books that I believe can help you become a more productive writer: Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. It's a look into the techniques, inspirations, and daily routines of 18 iconic authors of the 20th century, including Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
After profiling so many mega-successful authors, what did Stodola learn about their writing process? "Genius, I have concluded, is the presence of not one ability but several that work together in tandem. Genius is far more tedious, far less romantic, far more rote, far less effortless, than we imagine it. The great writers in this book do not by and large put the right words on the right page in the right order on the first try. But in the place of perfection, they possess the quality of perseverance and a willingness to recognize their own shortcomings. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer known to write with otherworldly facility, in fact rewrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise, three times completely before having it accepted for publication."