Not having set working hours is one of the advantages of being a writer. It’s also one of the disadvantages. When you don’t have to show up at work at 9 AM and show results at the end of the day, it’s far too easy to put off writing in favor of all the interruptions to which people who work at home are especially vulnerable. Before you know it, the day is over and you haven’t done any writing.
So what do you do if you find yourself flossing the cat instead of sitting down at the keyboard? The best way to be sure you get down to work and keep at it is to make yourself accountable to someone else.
The easiest appointments to break are the ones we make with ourselves. This may be particularly true for women, who are conditioned to take care of other people’s needs, but men seem to have just as much trouble sticking to things like diets and exercise programs on their own. One of the main reasons people sign up for exercise classes or sessions with personal trainers is to make themselves show up and do it. If the instructor has expertise to share, that’s just a bonus.
Getting a Writing Buddy
The first way to create accountability for your writing is to set up a one-on-one commitment by working with a writing coach or having a writing buddy you check in with. These check-ins need to be frequent (at least once a week) and regular (every week on the same day or every day at the same time). They don’t have to take up very much time, though: you can just tell the other person how much you’ve written, whether you’ve reached any milestones, and whether you’ve run into any stumbling blocks.
Just making a commitment and reporting on whether you’ve kept it helps you stay on track, even if the other person never reads what you’ve written and doesn’t know anything at all about your subject.
Writing Groups and Classes
Joining a writing group or taking a writing class works the same way. Having a homework assignment due every week can definitely make you get something written. Classes and writing groups are usually less expensive than professional one-on-one coaching, and they have the advantage of providing you with feedback on what you write. You do need to be sure when you join the group or class that you’ll get enough attention and enough motivation and accountability, and also that you’ll be able to work on your own material rather than writing on assigned topics.
Writing a Column
My number one favorite choice for developing writing discipline—and building up readership in advance of publication—is writing a weekly column or e-zine. Once you have subscribers, you have an obligation to them. They’re expecting you to write something every week, so you have to do it even if you don’t feel like it. If you don’t stick to your schedule, your professional reputation suffers and your readership drops off.
Having the commitment forces you to get ideas out of your head and onto the page. I’ve been thinking about writing this particular article for months, for instance, and now that I’ve committed myself to a weekly column for WomensRadio.com, I don’t have the excuse to put it off any longer.
You can either publish your own weekly column or write one for someone else. If you write for someone else, you’ll save on publishing costs and gain credibility. Writing for someone else’s publication gives you the added pressure of a commitment to an editor as well as the commitment to your readers.You might even get paid. Just make sure you retain the copyright on anything you produce, or you might have to go to court before you can publish your book.
Either way, you’ll find that what you’ve written adds up fast. You may also find that you start getting more ideas than will fit into a weekly newsletter, so you’ll start writing more often, and you’ll have enough material for a book before you know it.
Research by Writing
While you’re writing, you’ll also be doing market research. Your readers will give you feedback on what you write: what they like, what they don’t like, what they want to hear more about. Even if they don’t know anything about writing, their comments can be more useful than those of a writing instructor, because they’re the ones who will be buying the book when it comes out. After a few months of this, you’ll know enough about your book’s potential market to make a good pitch to an agent or publisher. By the time your book is finished, you’ll have a solid selling platform. Publishers care much less about how well you write than about how many copies you can sell, so they’ll appreciate these test-marketing efforts.
Get Them on Your List
Producing your own e-zine or newsletter allows you to collect contact information for your subscribers. Even if they never give you more than a first name and e-mail address, you’ll be able to reach them when you want them. Because they’ve opted in to your list, you can market to them without violating laws about spam (officially known as Unsolicited Commercial E-mail).
Don’t be shy about pitching your book to your newsletter subscribers. You already know they like your writing and are interested in your subject—why wouldn’t they buy your book? Owning the book is both more convenient and cheaper than printing out all your e-mail newsletters.
Using a List Service
Don’t make the mistake of trying to set up a large mailing list with just your regular e-mail software. You, your computer, or your ISP will end up overloaded, and you’ll probably wind up breaking the law unintentionally. You want people to be able to subscribe and unsubscribe automatically, and you want to be able to personalize the messages with the recipients’ names and to avoid getting snared in junk mail filters. A professional newsletter service can take care of all those things and more, including offering readers a choice of plain text and HTML.
The service I use for my own e-zines costs $29/month for as many newsletters as I want, as often as I want, and up to 10,000 total subscribers. If I’m going away on vacation or business, I can write an article in advance and schedule the delivery date. They take care of the list maintenance, with automatic subscription and unsubscription, plus a customizable sign-up box for each list that I can put on my website. (See my alter-ego website, www.fileslinger.com, for an example of the sign-up box.)
I’ll be happy to recommend list services to anyone who wants to start a list—just e-mail me and ask. And if you have more suggestions for ways to make sure you produce a steady output, let me know!