It Doesn’t Matter How You Do It

I should title this post “how to write every day” or “what tools I use to write every day” because the questions I get over and over again from so many different people are variations of the same questions:

“How do you start a daily writing habit?”

And:

“What tools do you use?”

If you’re struggling to decide between a notebook and a computer, the answer is yes.

Write it down.

Write on a computer when you’re near a computer and you have something to say. Write it on a paper when you have paper nearby.

Put it down in your notebook or on scratch pieces of paper or — heck I do this all of the time — borrow a pen from the waiter and write across napkins if you have to. Miranda July has some stories about how even pregnancy (and labor!) gave her so many ideas for stories and projects that she was searching for paper while bringing her child into the world.

Put it into your phone, if it’s on you.

So the tools, if you must know the tools:

CAPTIO

I use Captio (an app) on my iPhone that allows for recording notes offline and then emails them to my gmail account. In gmail, I label them all automatically with a filter called “notes.”

Gmail-notes

MOLESKINE

I use a Moleskine to write in every day. (I prefer the black, large, hardcover versions that are plain on the inside, like this.) In my notebook, I write down who I meet, my main observations from a particularly delightful meeting, short memories, quotes, stories, and relevant notes. Sometimes I write longer form essays or journal entries when I need a space to write. I’ll often write in it when I sit at a coffee shop and brainstorm without my computer. Each one lasts me about 3-4 months, and has about 200 pages in each one. I label them on the front and keep a stack on my bookshelves.

EVERNOTE

I write in Evernote as well, when I write on my laptop. I prefer offline tools to online tools because I have some bad internet habits (I literally do not know how I end up with 47 tabs open on a new browser window when I get online…). In my Evernote files, I have what’s called a “stack” of notebooks; a notebook is a collection of documents, and then you can stack a collection of notebooks together. Essays move from one stack to the next.

Here’s how I organize my Evernote stack:

WRITING (Stack)

  • Ideas — any scribbling of an idea I have, ever.
  • Drafts — a workable idea that’s got actual sentences in it, paragraphs even, but still needs more work.
  • Pitches — list of places I’ve pitched stories and essays to. A more refined version of “Ideas.” I can move things from pitches to ideas (if they get denied) or from ideas to pitches if they look like things that will fit a particular editor or audience.
  • Finished — any note that works its way from idea to draft and gets published (like this very post here), will get dragged into ‘finished,’ so my ideas/drafts folders aren’t cluttered with already-used ideas.
  • Stories — a place for fiction and short-story writing, when I’m tired of narrative and non-fiction writing.
  • Archive — a place to clean out and dump any past ideas I want to throw away and won’t publish.

And actually publishing something:

When I sit down to write and publish, I start with one of my tools — either I sift through my paper notebook, I scroll through my Evernote stack, or I riff through my gmail folder of notes.

Side note: I usually leave the gmail notes until last, or perform this as a task-based item unrelated to my writing process, because the distraction temptation is so high. I’ll copy and paste out ideas from “notes” in my gmail and from my notes in my moleskine into my Evernote “ideas” folder so I keep an ever-growing list of ideas pouring into these folders.

I’ll review these notes and ideas until there’s something that pulls me and still feels vibrant, like I’m ready to tip and start talking or writing about it.

Some workdays I’ll work on two or three different essays, putting the meat and body into each of the essays. It involves researching, reading, writing out stories, and pouring as many words onto the page as possible. In this process, a 100- or 300-word idea stream can turn into 1500 or more words.

Here, in fact, are two unwritten, incomplete ideas that could turn into full blog posts if I pull them up and feel compelled to write about them:

Screenshot 2016-01-02 14.12.12 Screenshot 2016-01-02 14.12.02

This is actually what my first versions of essays often look like.

It’s highly productive and weirdly dissatisfying because usually there isn’t a single essay that gets finished. I still need another night’s sleep and a few more days to tidy it up. On a lazier day I’ll do polishing and editing of a final piece if I don’t feel like tackling a new subject.

When I do work to finish and publish an essay, I’ll find in my “drafts” folder something that’s nearly complete, like this essay was in here. I’ll move it into WordPress (or whatever platform I’m publishing through; sometimes it’s Medium, LinkedIn, sending a G-Doc to an editor, etc). Inside of WordPress, I’ll do a read-through and edit and polish with fresh eyes. Often I’ll add new material, shorten some paragraphs, and keep tightening up the introductory material.

I use the “preview” feature on many of the platforms to review the content in multiple forms. Once it’s ready to go, I’ll schedule it to publish.

But I’m diverting from the main point of this essay.

It’s sexier to talk about tools and process. It’s harder to talk about starting, doing, and persisting.

Not writing because you don’t have the tools is an excuse.

When you’re in the subway and you see the makings of a great story, and you have nothing on you, you still write a story. No pen, no notebook, no phone, no anything — you write the story by using words in your mind and telling the story. Play with it. Make it a sequence.

You practice the craft by practicing the craft.

The man lumbered over towards the station entrance, his walk punctuated by the jostling needed to keep his pants above knee height. His boxers had a cute heart shaped pattern across them, although the fact that she could see them at all wasn’t particularly endearing, she wanted to tell him to lift them up, tuck in his shirt, learn how to walk again. “That duck walk,” she thought, “will not look good anywhere but here…” 

Practice seeing stories all around you. Write them down, however you can.


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