Reflections from day 75 of writing every day

Lately, I’ve been in a bit of a funk. I show up every day and write. But I feel like I’m not writing the things I want to write.

Must be drinking the wrong kind of coffee.

I wonder if I’m approaching a point in my experiment with writing where I need to add additional structure. This is day 75 of writing every day. Since 29 January I have sat down to write in a focused manner for at least 20 minutes every single day. Most days it’s been closer to an hour.

That’s the extent of structure to my approach. No guidelines on what to write about. No topical assignments. Just sit down and write. It usually ends up with me going down the path of least resistance. Which is to say, I pick one of the following two approaches:

1. Word vomit: Transfer words from my mind to the page.

2. Write what you know: Try to document what I know about something in a way that might be useful.

Or, perhaps more often than not, a combination of the two. It has worked well up until this point. It has helped me form the habit of writing every day. 

At the same time, it feels like I am at a crossroads, because I am not particularly happy with what I’m writing. Not in the same way as when I asked What’s the point? More in the sense that I feel like I can and should be doing something else. Something more fulfilling. Something better.

But what is that? 

What is better? 

What makes writing something more fulfilling than writing something else? 

It is not about visitors and page views and acclaim and other forms of external validation. It is deeply internal. A feeling that I am harbouring something. Working towards something that I cannot even recognise. Because I am lacking the required understanding to even recognise it.

Perhaps it is knowledge I lack, or perhaps it is skill. Maybe neither, or both. I cannot say.

Whatever the nature of this vague sensation, it feels like something I should heed. As such, I find myself wondering if it isn’t time to shake up my approach. Time to add focus. Time to substitute a new document every morning for something more substantial. Questioning the output of my efforts, I come back to the advice Kimberly shared:

As Austin Kleon says, problems of output are problems of input. If you feel stuck, maybe reading something new would help.

So, now I find myself wondering, what kind of input do I need to figure out where to go from here? Suggestions are most welcome.

Course of action

Despite the funk, I won’t make wholesale changes yet. However, if the problem is, as I partly believe, due to a lack of focus, it makes sense to implement some changes that can help with that. One particular aspect I’ve been struggling with, is grabbing hold of and articulating ideas.

Throughout any given day, I will have many different ideas for subjects about which I can write. Come next morning, however, I struggle to recapture the essence of these thoughts. Which makes it impossible to write about them. Instead I fall back to my default word vomit. It means I lose out on one of my stated goals for establishing a writing habit. On the Writing page, I say:

By expressing our thoughts in writing, we force clarity. When we write, a vague notion doesn’t cut it. What made sense in our heads won’t hold up to the scrutiny of being put on a page.

While even a brain dump forces you to clarify your thinking to some extent, I think this may be at the core of what I am experiencing. I wish to explore the ideas that pop into my head throughout the day. That struggle of taking some half baked thought and crystallising it into something worth reading is the trip.

I need to tweak my process to better facilitate writing of that sort. 

Change 1: Take better notes

My note taking has room for improvement. After being a perennial note taker who doesn’t write for years, I have ended up downplaying the importance of taking notes. I was likely doing notes wrong then, and I am likely doing notes wrong in a different way now.

In fact, I don’t really have a process for note taking anymore. I spent a lot of time thinking about my structure and setup for writing. (Note to self: A topic worth exploring in a future post.) My note taking, however, consists of creating new notes in an old notes folder on my phone.

I have to think more about what my complete setup for taking notes should look like. I know I want to use pen and paper to capture notes. To that end, I have decided to jot down and review potential topics to write about in my physical notebook every evening. Light preparations in this form might alleviate some of the mental effort required to 1) pick an idea and 2) start deconstructing it from the early morning writing hour. 

Change 2: Write more

I’m not thinking about getting up at 4AM instead of 5AM. Instead, this relates closely to taking better notes. I need to become better at “micro writing”. To use the little pockets of space in my daily life to formulate thoughts on the page. This too, I believe, will involve more extensive use of pen and paper. Or, perhaps opening the text editor on my laptop.

Whichever approach, I know that my phone is not the solution. Specifically, I don’t like writing on the phone. Even for notes, I believe there is something about the form factor that just makes it difficult for me to write in a way that truly captures what I’m thinking.

My first and foremost change will be to simply take more notes in my physical notebook. But, as with #1 above, I need to devise a more structured system for taking notes before I can fully realise this change.

Change 3: Embrace the struggle

I’ve become too comfortable with the easy part of writing. Sitting down and writing whatever comes to mind is easy. Struggling to find the right word, to compose the right sentence or figure out if what you’re truly trying to say even makes sense is hard.

To write better, I need to struggle more. 

That starts with being more conscious about what I want to write. Total freedom is great for establishing the habit. However, focus and direction eventually becomes important to make sure you’re exercising all the relevant muscles. If you want to become a better runner, easy runs are your bread and butter and make up the majority of your training. But if you skip out on the harder workouts, progress will stall.

In fact, I am thinking about borrowing more extensively from running in my approach to writing. A weekly plan in which I dedicate some days to free form writing, and other days to certain specific topics. For instance, I want to explore copying writing that I like. This can be done in two ways. Either by reconstructing the essence or idea of a piece I enjoy with otherwise free form writing, or by copying the style of someone’s writing outside of their usual domain.

This approach lends heavily from music. Learning to play an instrument is all about copying. Through doing this, you end up acquiring your own style. I believe it can work in writing as well and I want to try it. But it requires me to embrace the struggle of writing in an entirely different manner.

Change 4: Spend more time with each piece

Lastly, I need a change of perspective. Or, more precisely, I must mend myself. I’ve been avoiding editing or revising the pieces I write because I want to be productive. More words, more pieces of writing, more everything is better. This culturally acquired mindset is flawed. 

Mastery is the opposite. True craftsmanship is all about polish. It is embracing the time you must spend with what you make to get it as close to its ideal as possible. I want to be on the path to mastering writing. Even if I never get there, I want to be on the path. To make mastery of the written word my Sisyphean mountain.

I must spend time refining and polishing what I write, and I must consider it part of the act of writing.

It’s testament to how damaged I am that my instinctive reaction is to add another session for revising every evening. Because that way I can keep producing just as much as I already do. Only make it better. Challenging myself in these two areas at once will suck. Both my incessant need to be productive by some arbitrary yard stick and my dislike for re-reading my own words are deeply ingrained. But, as it is, I believe these two tendencies are impeding true progress.

Those are the alterations in my approach that I believe can make my effort even more rewarding. Now all I have to do is implement them.


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