Writing is stressful. I think Hemingway nailed it when he said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
I suppose we should be grateful we don’t have the added stress of using a typewriter (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for undo, cut/paste and autosave), but the writing process has many more sources of stress that are best to squash or avoid if we want to enjoy it.
Ok, so I’m probably not the best example of a stress-free writer – walk into my office at any random moment and there’s a chance you’ll find me staring out the window with two handfuls of hair. But it’s a small chance, because I’ve got a few stress busting moves to keep me breathing under the weight of a million words. Here they are, to keep us all calm during what’s left of Stress Awareness Month.
Deadlines. Oh, deadlines. I love them and I hate them. They hide in a dark corner silently for ages, then jump out and scare the monkeys out of me in the middle of the night. There are the ones that are far away, looking all tiny and harmless (but that get bigger and hairier until… aaaAARRRRGH!) and there are the ones that appear suddenly – other people’s giant deadlines, thrust onto my to do list. Individually they’re manageable and helpful, but in a pack they can become unwieldy and menacing.
Familiar? Then maybe it’s time to get organized. Having multiple clients, projects and deadlines can get really confusing, and the best way to keep on top of it all is with some kind of project management system or calendar. I use Asana and a simple spreadsheet, but there are lots of (free) options to choose from.
Asana holds all my main projects and sub-tasks, and my trusty spreadsheet has my daily to do list. At the end of each week I check in on the upcoming deadlines on Asana and make myself a list, broken down by day and deadline, so I can shift things around if I need to. (Because, you know, other people’s deadlines.) Of course, nothing is foolproof, but this way I know I won’t forget anything and I have a good idea of how much is on my plate before I take on more work.
Set yourself clear goals.
What’s worse than loads of deadlines? NO DEADLINES! Talk about the perfect way to make sure I get absolutely nothing done. My novel has no deadline, and that’s exactly why it’s languishing deep inside one of my computer’s sub-folders and not front and centre in all my favourite bookshops (I really should work on that…). Without deadlines I’m a flailing, flaky disaster.
That’s why I set myself deadlines! If a piece of work comes in without a clear deadline, I make sure I have my own, even if the client doesn’t know about or need it. This is particularly useful for bigger projects: if there’s a report or a book that’s stretching out over a number of weeks or even months, I make sure I set sub-deadlines. That way I avoid the cold sweats and silent screams in the middle of the night when I realize the big deadline is only a week away (flashback to my dissertation… ok, both of them).
Write something. Anything.
Then there’s the terror only a blank page can bring. Sure, it’s sometimes a blessing, but what if you’re completely out of inspiration, tired at the end of a busy week? You can almost feel the beads of blood gathering on your forehead, reluctant to drip onto the page.
What really helps me is to chew it up, one chunk at a time. I start by reading up on the topic and once I’ve gathered my thoughts, I draw (physically, with paper and a pencil) the skeleton of the story. What do I want to say where? I start with the big sections – the introduction, sub-headings and conclusion – and assign rough word counts to each part, based on the overall length of the piece.
Then I just get writing. I tap away, following my stream of consciousness, and eventually it starts to sound coherent. I don’t always start at the beginning, I often just pick whatever pops into my head first or whatever seems easiest to get on with. If it’s an article about bees, say, I might decide to start with a paragraph about what makes them the coolest insects in history – that’s easy stuff for me.
Fleshing out the skeleton this way is far less stressful than sitting down and attempting to ‘bleed’ thousands of words from scratch. Plus it means I’m not wasting time writing hundreds of (albeit inspired) words about one tiny aspect of the topic, only to slash them later. That’s always painful.
For #%@&’s sake, BLINK!
If I’m madly trying to make my fingers keep up with my brain while getting increasingly stressed out about the five other things I have to write that day, I can easily sit for hours without standing up, drinking, peeing or blinking. I mean, seriously, that’s just inviting stress to bubble up inside, ready to pop out at the tiniest thing. The same happens when I’m in a flow – I forget everything that’s going on around me, including the passage of time, only to emerge hours later with dry eyes and a full bladder.
This might help me get through something on nervous energy, but the next day I’ll be a wreck. Working in little bursts helps me (or if I’m in a flow, setting myself reminders to ‘check in’ with myself). I often work in Pomodori – 25-minute stretches of intense focus, followed by little movement breaks. When the egg timer alarm beeps in my ear, I blink, breathe and check in with my body to see what it needs. Thirsty? I grab water. Peckish? A mandarin. Then I blink and breathe some more, before refreshing the timer and diving in again.
No, Facebook, just no.
I’m waxing lyrical about a brand new material that could end our dependency on fossil fuels when POP! my phone makes a little noise telling me something important has just happened somewhere in my social network. I glance across then ignore it, because distractions take 15 minutes (or 25, depending on the study) to overcome. It’s probably just a photo of someone’s cat. Or maybe someone with a few days off checking in at a bar in Berlin. But what if it’s someone asking a question on my Tell Lucy Facebook page? Or someone Tweeting me about a piece of work? Actually, it would be really unprofessional of me not to look.
I look. It’s a cat. Granted, it’s a cat in a jumper with an inspirational quote, but a cat, nonetheless. It takes me 15 minutes to get back on track. I’m 15 minutes more stressed about my deadline.
There’s a simple solution: switch it off. Turn of notifications, pop-ups, noises, vibrations. Or go one step further like I have and delete the app altogether. Yes, today it’s important to be connected online for business, but that doesn’t mean you have to be on emergency standby in case someone posts a photo you need to like, especially not if that’s sending your stress levels sky-high. Carving out a bit of time each day – maybe five minutes in the morning, after lunch and at the end of the day – to check social media means your apps can leave you in peace while you’re writing.
Overcome imposter syndrome.
There’s another reason those pesky notifications bother me: what if it’s someone saying they don’t like my article? What if it’s a troll on social media? As a writer, I have the common but debilitating fear that my writing isn’t good enough – especially if I’m writing something that’s meaningful to me (like a children’s book, which has been collecting dust for months).
If you’re a professional writer too, the chances are you’re just experiencing imposter syndrome – the irrational fear that you’ll be ‘found out’. There’s an easy way to deal with this. Find a proofreader (or several) and ask them for feedback. Proofreading is absolutely vital if you want to produce decent work, and by asking someone you know will give you an honest critique while they’re finding typos, you can stifle that stress. Here are my tips for finding the perfect proofreader.
What’s stressing you out?
Are you sitting and trying to bleed over your computer keyboard, Hemingway-style? Is it stressing you out? As with most things, the key to eliminating (or, more realistically, reducing) stress is to identify your own pain points and take steps to tackle each of them. Share your biggest stresses – or your best solutions – in the comments so we can all keep calm and carry on writing.
Now I’m off for my ultimate de-stresser: a good old cup of tea.