Thursday, June 6

Stupid Writer Tricks: How To Be More Productive

Stupid Writer Tricks: How To Be More Productive

Ernest Hemingway and Chuck Wendig are two of my favorite writers: Hemingway for his stories and prose, Wendig for his writing on writing.

Ernest Hemingway On How To Write And What To Read

Every year I re-read Hemingway's short story Hills Like White Elephants and marvel. Many times an author will have prose I love but I don't care for their stories/plots or they'll write a great story/plot, but their prose is unimaginative. Ernest Hemingway was brilliant at both.

So when Hemingway gives writers advice I take notice.

Here's a quotation from Ernest Hemingway Creates a Reading List for a Young Writer, 1934:
“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time,” Hemingway said, tapping my arm [a young writer named Samuelson] with his finger. “Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work. The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along.”
Hemingway also gave Samuelson a list of books and short stories he thought the young man should read:
“The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Dubliners by James Joyce
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
Hail and Farewell by George Moore
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Oxford Book of English Verse
The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
The American by Henry James
Hemingway also ...
... advised Samuelson to avoid contemporary writers and compete only with the dead ones whose works have stood the test of time. “When you pass them up you know you’re going good.”

Chuck Wendig's Stupid Writer Tricks

Let me just say that Chuck Wendig's writer tips and tricks are far from stupid. I've benefited enormously both from his advice and his example (writing 3,000 words a day) and I know other writers have as well.

But I guess if he called them his fabulous writer tricks he'd seem immodest!

Here's Chuck Wendig's tip for how to help yourself get back in the groove the next day:
The Tiniest Outline Of Them All: The last 50-100 words you write at the end of your day should be a note to yourself detailing just what ... you should write tomorrow. (“HORACE MURDERS LORD THORNJIZZ AND THE LITHUANIAN DETECTIVE CIRCUS IS ASSIGNED TO THE CASE”). (Adult language warning--> Ten Stupid Writer Tricks (That Might Actually Work))

Using Excel to track one's progress

I never thought of using Excel--or any spreadsheet program--to track my writing progress (daily, weekly, monthly), my goals, before I started reading Chuck Wendig's posts on writing.

But it works.

I also create events in Google Calendar that send me updates throughout the day reminding me what my goals are.

I know it probably sounds weird/strange, but I find it helps if I get my calendar to nag me!

Often I'll get caught up in a task and not want to stop, but that's exactly what I need to do. For instance, I'll need to stop editing one story and move on to putting more words down for the first draft of another.


BOTH writing and editing (though not on the same manuscript, that would just be crazy-making) need to be done each day.

Of course you might be different, have a different method/workflow. There's no one way, whatever works for you. And, generally, we find that out by experimenting, so don't be afraid to try different things.

In your first draft, use a placeholder for things you don't know and keep writing

I started doing something like this after I became a beta reader for a writer who used this trick. Excellent idea!

Often I end up not using a bunch of stuff from my first draft so using placeholders for things I need to research not only prevents me from losing the flow of the story but it also stops me wasting a lot of time researching something I won't use.

I haven't been using an easy-to-locate code so I can find my placeholders easily. But now I will!

Chuck writes: 
The WTF Code: Sometimes you’re writing and you hit a part in the story where you’re just like, “Nope, no ... idea what happens here. Maybe they fight? Maybe they make love? I’m envisioning an orangutan for some reason.” Or maybe you reach a portion where you need more information (“Note to self: research the sewer tunnel layout of Schenectady”). That’s okay. Leave it blank and drop a code you’ll remember right into the section, a code that will specifically not be duplicated anywhere else in the text (WTF2013, for instance). Then when you complete the first pass of the manuscript, just do a FIND for all instances of YOUR SEKRIT CODE and hop through your many narrative gaps and chasms. FILL AND SPACKLE. 
Chuck gives great advice in (adult language warning -->) Ten Stupid Writer Tricks, and I encourage you to read it. I know I say that often, but this one's special.

Do you have a stupid writer trick that saves you time. Please, share!

Photo credit: "The Lonely Vacuum Of Space" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. I recently read that Stephen King writes 1500 words a day. I'm guessing that is a minimum also, but that is a realistic goal for most writers. Great post!

    1. Thanks Todd!

      1500 words a day is a lot of words. I think, too, that writers who have been publishing for a while, writers like Stephen King, probably have to do minimal rewrites so (I'm guessing) 97% of his 1500 words per day make it into print.

      For myself, if I'm writing a first draft, it's probably more like 50% or 75%. So for me to write the same number of words as Stephen King I'd have to write around 2,000 to 3,000 words per day.

    2. Two things:
      THING ONE: Two thousand, one thousand, two hunnert, TWENTY words a day, don't frikkin matter. The committment matters. I will tell this story for xxx words a day, every day until the dam story's done. Then I'll figure out what the hell to do with the damn drivel etc etc. I've been at this a year, and it gets easier.. Didn't write a dam word yesterday, and I have a mountain of work on my desk. But that's okay, b/c yesterday was learning day. I spent 8 hours working, and real drudge school type working, on skill development from a website. But I've been at it a year now. Nine months ago I'd have been too afraid to lose momentum to have taken the time.

      THING TWO: Nuerology 101 tells us that the more you do something, the easier it gets b/c the brain makes new connections regardless of age, IQ, or gender. So stupid old men like me have hope! It's a hell of a lot easier now for me to string words, sentences and chapters together coherently now than it was a year ago. I ain't telling you my avg daily word count b/c it has nothing to do with what you're up to. You have your own life with your own priorities and goals.

      Thng one thing two... hmmm... sounding kind of Suess'y here.

      Finally, even though you've mentioned him a lot, I've only visited Wendig's blog just now. I want to move to PA, find him, drag him out of the house, go to a sports bar, then a strip club, get drunk, locked up and do it all over again the next day. This dude is vibrant, man!

    3. "This dude is vibrant, man!"

      He is! I love Chuck Wendig's voice. It's not one I could pull off, but it's great.

      Desmond, as far as word count goes, to each his/her own. It all depends on what ones publishing/writing goals are.

      As always, thanks for your (vibrant) comment! :-)

  2. Thanks for a great post - I love the quote, "Nope, no ... idea what happens here. Maybe they fight? Maybe they make love? I’m envisioning an orangutan for some reason.” I shall check out more of his stuff!

    Also, using place cards is a great idea that you suggested, keeping the flow going and researching the missing bits later. That will be a trick I shall use in the future.

    1. Yes! I love that quote too; his writing is fresh, alive. Spicy.

  3. Also, most word processors will allow you to make bookmarks, if you don't want to try to remember your code.

    I've actually used most of these tricks before. Most of the time, I'll stop writing because it's 4am and I really, really need to go to sleep, but I haven't finished this thought, this page, this chapter, etc. I know what's going to happen next, so I'll write a little on what will come next. This also has the advantage that it allows your subconscious to make it all the better while you sleep (I know I get some of my best ideas when I sleep).

    I do edit while I write (partially because I hate editing my own work and it makes me feel productive if I write 6k words and only edit 10 pages). I find it helps to keep track of both writing and editing, even brainstorming in excel. If you spent hours brainstorming and outlining for the next few chapters but didn't get much writing or editing done, that's still a lot of work and progress you should give yourself credit for.

    The only thing I'd never consciously thought of before was the first tip. I don't tend to think of it one way or the other, but I should. Getting the ideas down is one thing (a must), but writing it all down can mean you feel like there's this great big void in front of you. It can takes days to overcome that.

    1. "I hate editing my own work"

      Me too!

      "Getting the ideas down is one thing (a must), but writing it all down can mean you feel like there's this great big void in front of you. It can takes days to overcome that."

      Yes, that's it. Exactly. Well said.


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