Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Play the Long Game When Writing

Here's a problem facing most writers: We want our writing to be better, so we turn our laser-like gaze on what we are writing, the product. In fact, what we really need to focus on is the process.

It's a bit like the difference between using a magnifying glass to examine the bark of a Douglas Fir or sitting in a helicopter and seeing the magnificent green swath of a forest arrayed below. 

The importance of the forest versus trees difference doesn't just affect writers, of course. Tesla (electric) cars have demonstrated it. Business thinker Peter Drucker is obsessed with it. American unions accuse the government of failing to acknowledge it. Even people concerned about trees say that we need to focus more on forests, for goodness sake!

I thought of the issue this week when I exchanged email with a coaching client. She told me that she had broken one of my cardinal rules and used some of her designated writing time for research. "My straying from the right path yesterday paid off this morning," she told me. "I was able to approach the topic with confidence and write easily, because I knew what I needed to write about and how to write it."

While I never beat writers up for what they've done, I gently suggested that if this happened again, she should do her additional research in the afternoon and reserve her morning writing time for, well, writing. "Part of my problem is I've spent too many years in critical care," she replied. "If something isn't working I do whatever I can to fix it right away so I don't lose the patient." 

Ah ha, I realized. She was visualizing her writing as a dying patient. This is a problem! That's when I suggested she view her main job as fixing her writing process rather than her writing product. She liked that suggestion. 

It also got me to thinking. Back when I worked in daily newspapers, I always thought the reporters were more important than any of the stories they produced. Mainly, I wanted to see their writing dexterity improve over time. This was more important to me than the excellence (or horror) of any one story and it made me a bit of a trouble-maker as far as senior management was concerned.  

I've always been inclined to play the long game, to see the forest instead of the tree, and I suggest you think about it too. The long game — a delightful catchphrase — suggests the value of not doing what's immediately most valuable for you, but, instead, focusing on how your action will pay off (or, potentially, hurt you) many years from now. 

The long game for writers is being able to write in a relaxed, articulate fashion — no angst, little pain — day in, day out, without freaking out. I'm not suggesting that writing is easy; far from it. Writing can be as exhausting as moving a truckload of bricks from one pallet to another, 25 yards away. But it can be exhausting in a good way. It should never feel completely daunting. It shouldn't be the kind of thing you procrastinate or delay over.  

Instead, you need a system that evicts the horror and the dread and allows you produce a first draft in a timely way. Then you can edit it (perhaps many times) at whatever leisure you need. 

For me, my system requires:

  1. Writing without editing
  2. Giving myself permission to write a really crappy first draft (secure in the knowledge that no one else will ever see it)
  3. Writing for a set amount of time, five days a week
  4. Writing first thing every morning
  5. Giving myself plenty of thinking time (ideally, with a walk thrown in) before writing
  6. Writing as far away from a deadline as possible. 

You may share none, or some or all of these requirements, but I guarantee you will have your own process, no matter how idiosyncratic it may be. The important thing is figuring it out. Before you start writing.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 10th 2014, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Margaret P.
Great advice. Thank you!
Friday October 10th 2014, 9:16 PM
Comment by: Michelle F.
I've torn my first novel apart twice. I find the third time, writing in the morning, even if it's just a few notes, has gotten me further down the road than anything else. Sleep-writing: kinda like multitasking with a little snoring on the side. Thanks for sharing your advice, Daphne. Focusing on process is the game changer if you want to play the long game.
Saturday October 11th 2014, 11:26 PM
Comment by: chris C. (manchester, MO)
I just put my non fiction on a shelf for two months. Then I learned about social media. Now I can go back to the book and see LOTS I couldn't see before. Ahhhhhh perspective leads to 20/20 vision. Love it. Process. Perfect! Thanks for the article!
Monday October 13th 2014, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree with you, Michelle. Focusing on the process is a game-changer. And Chris, you make a very good point about the value of incubation. Having some time away from your manuscript is soooooo important!

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