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The Writing Book That Changed My Life


Yesterday I saw on Facebook that one of my friends needs to write 100 pages in the next 20 days. That kind of pace isn't pretty, but it is possible. So some of her peeps started weighing in with our unasked-for suggestions. Here was mine:

When I'm drafting, I aim for 1,000 words a day. But unlike S___, I don't at that point try to make sure the draft is in great shape. It paralyzes me to think that I have to draft 1,000 words that other people might actually READ. So that part comes later, and I scrap a great deal. Not a very efficient process, but it works.

After I sit down I don't let myself get up again until I have my 1,000 words, even if they are crap. I can't check email or Facebook, can't get a snack, can't answer the phone. I don't even allow myself to go to the bathroom. As you can imagine, this all makes me a lot more motivated.


Most of what I've learned about writing comes from hard experience and the one book I keep turning back to time and time again: Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. I'd quote from it here but I keep giving my copies away to needy friends in graduate school so as to shorten their abject dissertational misery.

Bolker's book gets the job done. Now, there are fabulous books that discuss the craft and vocation of writing, books by Anne Lamott and Stephen King and Ann Patchett. Save those books for when you are actually finished with the draft of your own project, because otherwise they will just depress you. If you're in the throes of a big writing project you need a book that will tell you what to do, not why to do it. If you're a writer, you do enough hand-wringing as it is.

I finished grad school over a decade ago and (Lord willin' and the creek don't rise!) I have no plans to ever write another dissertation. But I have lots of plans to write more books, including one for which the book proposal is due in less than two weeks, so I keep returning to Bolker's timeless advice. It applies not only to dissertations but to any non-fiction writing.

Here are four tips that changed my writing life:

  1. Park Butt in Chair. Do Not Move. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200, or Whatever Smaller Amount You Might Have Earned as a Writer.
  2. Set your timer for fifteen minutes and just write. Bolker would be the first to tell you that you can't only write fifteen minutes a day if you want to ever finish your writing project. That's like those people who imagine that someday, they're going to pay off their credit card balances by only paying the minimum amount each month. As if. But fifteen minutes a day gets your engine going. It defeats all the paralyzing self-immolations that writers are so very good at.
  3. Do a "zero draft." One of the most effective writerly forms of self-destruction is imagining that an audience is going to be judging you based on the first words that come through your fingertips. To avoid this, do a zero draft, one that's just for you. It's not even a first draft, because you're not going to show it to anybody. In a zero draft, for example, I would not be concerned that the last example's paragraph ended with a preposition. I would turn off Editor Jana and just allow Writer Jana to go to town with whatever half-baked ideas she spits out. What's marvelous is that you never know where those ideas can lead when you give them free rein. Even the very best brownies were only half-baked at one time, people.
  4. Park on the downhill slope. This, more than anything else, changed my whole approach to writing. As a perfectionist, my M.O. had always been to write a whole section of something, finish it up, and call that a good day's work. It made sense to do things this way, especially since I'd be able to put those source materials away and start on something else the next morning. The problem is that the writer's block associated with this finish-what-you-started approach is crippling, absolutely crippling. Sure, you finished that section of chapter 3, but the next day you sit down at your computer and wonder how in the world you are ever going to begin the next section. You start wondering what folks are discussing on Facebook, and what to have for lunch, which is three hours away but hey, it's good to plan ahead. The solution to all this angst is parking on the downhill slope. Rather than finishing something, stop right in the middle of a paragraph, a sentence, a thought. I do this by setting a word count per day and then stopping on a dime, usually making quick cryptic notes to myself in the WIP about what I intended to do next. It's inifnitely  easier to get rolling again the next day when I finished the previous day still having things to say.

The truth of this last bit of advice came home to me when I was writing my dissertation, the first book-length project I'd ever attempted. In one day I wrote 3,000 words. 3,000 words! But then I couldn't get started again the following day because 1) I had emptied out my beleaguered brain of anything useful, and 2) I felt so inordinately proud that I had written 3,000 words that I felt justified in taking a couple of days off. I did, and I lost my momentum.  I learned the hard way what Bolker already knows: writing is all about maintaining momentum.

So writers, if you are going to procrastinate, do it by buying and reading Bolker's book. I have recommended it to so many people through the years that I ought to receive a royalty. I hope it's as helpful for you as it's been for me.


The image of writer's block is used by permission of, which is incidentally a great site in which to pass some time if you're a writer who happens to be procrastinating. I'm just saying.



Topics: Culture, Arts & Media
Beliefs: Interfaith
Tags: ann padgett, anne lamott, best practices of writing, flunking sainthood, how to find time to write, jana riess, joan bolker, rules of writing, stephen king, writing advice, writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day


  1. Thanks for this! I’ve been wondering how to stop doing research (there’s always another book to read or article to skim or idea to think about the implications of) and start writing. I ordered the book and I hope it will help me!

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