We all know it. We all hate it. That darn blinking cursor won’t move on its own. And when we find ourselves in the position where we desperately need it to move, it won’t.
Writing under pressure is one of the bloodiest, most soul-eviscerating activities. Really, it is quite messy.
It also happens to be a situation few writers can avoid. Some (sadist) say we should actually embrace such tension-filled occurrences. After all, we are tested during moments of pressure. How we respond to the pressure is a choice. And it is the choices we make that become the foundation of our character.
Author James Bilkey said, “You never will be the person you can be if pressure, tension and discipline are out of your life.” You may come out of the situation with some bumps and bruises, but you’ll still be standing.
So, if it is the choices we make that define our character, how will you choose to handle your next pressure filled writing project?
First, Proof That It Can Be Done
It may feel like you are the only person in the world who has been forced into such a precarious position. It may feel totally unfair, unjust and downright mean for someone to ask you to church out exceptional content under such circumstances.
Guess what. You aren’t alone. You are not the first person to write under pressure. Nor will this be the last time you are asked to do so.
Perhaps all you need is a little encouragement – proof that it can be done. Not only can it be done, it can be done well.
- Agatha Christie wrote her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in two weeks.
- Ed McBain spent about a month on each of his earliest novels.
- Erle Stanley Gardner wrote for more than a half century and produced more than1,000 books. In fact, he churned out four novels, eighteen novelettes, two short stores and five articles in 1939 alone.
- John Creasey wrote more than 500 novels in 47 years. In a single year (1939), he published 38 novels.
- Georges Simenon wrote 10 novels in 11 months. His goal was to write a novel in 11 days. In total, he wrote 220 novels
- John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in five months.
- Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick in six months.
- Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in six days.
- Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days.
Now that you know it can be done, let’s take a look at how you can make it happen too.
How You Ended Up in This Situation
There are various reasons why people find themselves in a stressful writing situation. We are going to take a look at the top three reasons why a writer might feel pressure to compose: the need to earn money, bouncing back after a major life event, or facing a very tight deadline.
Writing Under Pressure Scenario #1: Writing to Earn Money
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was a Rusian novelist, short story writer and essayist. He was also a gambler.
Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment in an attempt to pay off his debts. Unfortunately, the staggering amount he earned wasn’t enough. He had to ask his new wife to sell some of her possessions to cover the rest.
After placating his debtors, Dostoyevsky fell right back into old habits. Just three weeks after venturing out on their honeymoon, he had to wrap things up early. Dostoyevsky had gambled away all the couple’s money. Returning to his typewriter, the poor, broke writer churned out the first 100 pages of The Idiot in just 23 days.
Many people use their pen as a money maker; writing is not a new career venture. However, some writers need to earn more than just the average pay check. They need extra money and they need it now.
This is a very harrowing situation to find yourself in. The pressure is intense and the need to produce results can sometimes be a life or death situation. At times like this, drastic measures need to be taken.
If you don’t have any time available for frivolous things like writer’s block or procrastination, try this intense writing app. Write or Die encourages writing by punishing your attempts to be idle.
Based on the idea that a tangible consequence is more effective than an intangible reward, Write or Die offers negative reinforcement. Studies show this method strengthens a behavior because a negative condition is undesirable.
What kind of punishment is dreaded by a writer under a strict deadline? The Kamikaze mode of the Writer or Die app has the answer – keep writing or your work will unwork itself. After just a few seconds without activity, the app will begin to delete words. These consequences will persist until your preset conditions have been met (time is up or you’ve reached your desired word count).
Not everyone falls into the category of stressed, broke writer. Sometimes, there are other reasons why we feel stressed.
Writing Under Pressure Scenario #2: Bouncing Back
Often times, it is difficult enough to force yourself to write when things in life are going well. Even if you feel emotionally happy and ready to work, the muse just won’t come.
When you are in the midst of a stressful or upsetting life event, it seems downright impossible to put pen to paper. After all, how are you supposed to think about a blog posting when a loved one has just died? Is it possible to write a witty newspaper column after learning you have cancer?
So what can you do?
1. Don’t feel guilty.
As long as you aren’t neglecting the person or thing that needs attention at that moment, you have every right to attend to your own needs. You don’t need to feel selfish because you are getting your work done in the midst of chaos.
In fact, it is almost necessary for you to return to work. If writing is what makes you feel like your old self, you might need to write in order to regain a sense of normalcy.
2. Schedule time to think.
This new life event is probably dominating your thoughts. You dwell on the situation all day and perhaps all night. As a result, you haven’t given any thought to what you are supposed to be writing.
Make an intentional effort to sit and think about your writing task. Try to block everything else out of your mind. Don’t succumb to mindless activities like watching TV or Facebook stalking. Instead, use that time to think about how this recent event could enhance your writing.
3. Remember why you write.
This major life event has probably taken over your life. You may think it ridiculous to add even more to your to-do list; you have enough on your plate without the task of writing.
However, if writing is your heart’s passion, it won’t add to the stress – it will take the stress away. You’ll probably feel relieved to be engaging in a very natural impulse.
Maybe you don’t have excess stress or sadness in your life. Maybe you are just facing the pressure of a run-of-the-mill deadline.
Writing Under Pressure Scenario #3: Facing a Very Tight Deadline
Deadlines are a fact of life. As a writer, you can’t escape them and by now, you have probably grown accustom to them. However, some deadlines are tighter than normal.
When you find yourself facing an extreme deadline, consider the following tips.
1. Do your chores first.
It happens without fail; the moment a deadline rears its ugly face, you feel the overwhelming need to procrastinate. Whether you have an uncontrollable urge to clean your home from top to bottom or you absolutely have to take the dog for a walk, we all have procrastination triggers – random things we do instead of writing.
Be aware of these triggers and complete those tasks before you sit down to write. Think of it as procrastinating in advance. Once you sit down to compose, you’re mind will be clear and you won’t have an excuse to stop.
2. Know where you can and can’t work.
Ray Bradbury once said he used to write on his typewriter in the living room. The radio would be on and his mother, father and brother would all be talking at the same time.
Not everyone has the mental focus to compose under such conditions. More often than not, we need a quite, distraction free environment. Of course, it is impossible to find the perfect spot to write. And according to E.B White, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to find a quite place to write. If you are truly under the gun, you might consider checking yourself into a hotel for the weekend. On Friday night, take your favorite snacks to sustain you and work until check out Sunday afternoon.
By removing yourself from your regular environment, you greatly reduce the chance for distractions.
3. Define your task.
Don’t blindly jump into a writing project. Take the time to think about your topic and the purpose for writing.
4. Do some chunking.
Chunking is the process of taking a large task and breaking it up into smaller, more manageable projects. When we are faced with a writing project, it often seems insurmountable. The pressure we feel leads us to engage in some self-sabotage in the form of procrastination.
However, if you have a list of smaller tasks, they seem more manageable. For example, you could chunk your writing project like his:
- Research the idea
- Contact and interview experts
- Write a rough draft
- Revise and polish draft
- Submit final product
The more intimidating the project, the more you need to strategize your time. Calculate how much time is available to complete each step. Don’t forget to include a few breaks. This lets your mind breathe between tasks, making you fully focused on completing the next one.
Once you have established a timetable, stick to it. If you hit a trouble spot, skip it. When you come back to it later, you may find you can remove it entirely.
Don’t stop working until you have met your goal. Jack Kerouac said writers should place the desk near the bed with a good light. He suggested working midnight till dawn and getting a drink when you get tired.
Susan Sontag said, “Once something is really underway, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little.”
5. Just get it down.
Get words on the page. Humorist James Thurber once said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
If you spend time worrying about every little world, you will simply heighten your anxiety level. You’ll distract yourself from the overall purpose and hinder the larger goal – which is to finish on time!
6. Use unorthodox methods.
Ray Bradbury once said, “When I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.”
You’ll be hard pressed to find many typing rooms with typewriters. However, you can find plenty of people willing to charge exorbitant fees to use their services.
Find a coffee shop that charges for their WiFi. Go to a computer lab at the local university and pay by the hour to use their computers.
If you know you are throwing money out the window, you’ll be more tempted to make the unreasonable spending come to a screeching halt as soon as possible.
7. If all else fails, use stimulants.
There is one time a caffeine addiction comes in handy – and that is when you have to write under pressure. If a harmless addiction to a stimulant isn’t handy, reach for a common sugar high.
These caffeine-high and sugar-rush states of being are the cure for writers block. Plus, they are responsible for eradicating mundane, boring writing.
If you tend to lean more towards healthy mental stimulation, try exercising. The endorphins you receive after just a brisk walk will be magical.
Looking Towards the Future
If you really want to get good at writing under pressure, you’ll need to practice. After all, practice makes perfect. Learn to navigate the big stressors with ease and your next writing-under-pressure task will be a cake walk.
While you are practicing, be realistic about your capabilities. Don’t be negative with yourself. No matter how hard you try, you are bound to miss a deadline every once in awhile. Unexpected setbacks creep up and cause delays.
When this happens, it is important to stay positive. Don’t think of yourself as a failure. Ask yourself why you didn’t meet the deadline. See if you can pinpoint a way to prevent it from happening again. What can you do differently in the future?
Don’t let negative thoughts like, “Why did I even bother?” creep in. Instead, think, “At least I tried. I’ll do better next time.”
No matter why you find yourself in a stressful situation, head this advice. Susan Jeffers says: “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”