How to Become a Better Writer: Do This (And Only This, Seriously) For 1 Hour

How to Become a Better Writer: Do This (And Only This, Seriously) For 1 Hour

Settle in for a writing hour!

You know what this is, right? An hour for writing, and nothing else.

Make the clay, you’ll shape it later! But, due to the perverse nature of our writerly souls, you may want to weenie out of straight-up writing during your self-timed Hour of Writing.

Well, don’t.

Here’s a list of things you can’t do during your writing hour.

You can’t:

1. Stop to Google the correct last name of someone you want to write about. You WILL click on other things. It may last an hour, it may last four hours. You cannot, therefore, Google a name. Just say “Andy” and move on.

2. Look to see what made that ding sound on your computer, even when you’ve just done something petty on Facebook and it could be a response. That can wait, like a present you can unwrap later.

3. Stop writing to research. Not for what you’re writing, and not to research the girl you just saw your ex put a photo up of. Even if your research is totally legitimate, in either case, it most definitely, now and forever, written in stone, does not count as writing. You must write.

Research is not writing: it does work toward writing, but you know you’ve set this hour for a reason, and it’s to build the clay that research will help shape. But research alone will be nothing without this clay. SO go build it. It’s made of words and focus and time. This time that you set aside.

4. Make a snack. It’s an hour for crying out loud. Eat before or after. This snack need is just your inner child who can sit in a corner and cry about it for all you like, but you’re not having a snack right now.

5. Pinterest. Nope. No. Not even Pinterest for Writers! Do not pass go and definitely don’t even think about collecting an even $50 freelancer’s paycheck. The very name/word Pinterest should not be even thought while in your writing hour. Stay far away from this magical and enchanting timesuck while writing.

6. Clean/organize/pluck a hair: I mean really. This should go without saying. Be a writer with a messy room and a poky hair coming out of your face right now. Because that, after all, is who you are.

7. Stop to pitch this amazing thing you’re writing, RIGHT NOW. I mean come on. Again, this time is for writing. Pitching is a part of writing– but not this part. Plus, thinking about pitching something, as you’re writing it, will change the pitch (sorry, couldn’t resist that) of your writing. Subconsciously, your unique tone will morph into the tone you think the editors have in mind. So just keep writing and keep your mind outta the obviously forthcoming tidal wave of fame and money for one hour. Just one hour.

8. Go through and edit. You may start your writing hour that way, overlooking the three pages you’ve written before that you’re now starting in on again, and it can be a good way to get into the piece. But better to write like the wind, like no one’s watching, like no one’s editing, or ever will edit, or even read. Writing hour is for writing, making stuff to edit. When you are satisfied you’ve done a good chunk, maybe then you can edit.

But it’s like this: when you leave the house without expectation, you look great, you look you, and it wasn’t hard, right? Yet when going to some meeting or event where you’re trying to present yourself a certain way or even just Look Nice, it’s so much harder and you (I do, anyway) inevitably end up looking less panache-full, less easily stylish, less You. The best writing is from that same easy You-ness. Yes, with editing. But let the ease come out first.

Oh, and while we’re at it, here are just a few things you can do during your precious hour of writing.

You can:

1. Start a new blank document to write about something else you’ve just thought about.

2. Stop to put on slippers because your feet are cold. Totally acceptable.

3. Stop to say one sentence to your housemate, but then give them a look after you’re done, to make them stop saying their sentence in return, because, like you told them earlier, you are just going to write for one hour straight and you can’t waste time talking.

And, woo! My timer has gone off and I’ve completed this and done work on two other pieces!

Time to go pitch this, and edit. All the writing I’ve done during this hour looks and reads like it was patched together and written by someone on their fifth day of train travel, with ADHD, on drugs. Which may be 100 percent accurate at times.

But at least I wrote: getting it down is the first part of all the work, the rest of which cannot be done with that first step. So get it down, regularly, even with misspellings, lack of total focus, and insanely circular logic. Just get it done– and then edit it, talk to your housemate, look up the right spelling of last names, get a snack, and then go be petty with glee on facebook.

We can do our life’s work for an hour. And the same tomorrow.

Filed Under: Craft
Karan Bajaj

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  • Sandie says:

    We’ve got to talk about the instant coffee thing … (in an hour)

  • Michelle says:

    I am guilty of #3. I do research during writing. I look for meanings and some facts about my topic. Sometimes it took me 2-3hrs thinking of what to write.;(

  • Rainee Carlson says:

    Thank you for spot on article that also made me laugh. We need more reminders like these. Ellen would be great writing a follow up article with a comical slant on things writers do to avoid actually writing and how to hack these sneaky habits.

  • Sumitra Menon says:

    Very useful article, Ellen! I recommend turning off internet connection to avoid the research/social media/email temptations. I do something similar but tend to set over-ambitious targets. I find if I set a shorter time, (e.g. 1 hour as you suggest, instead of 3) I end up writing for a lot longer. Go figure!

    Sadly, this system does not seem to work with my decluttering project. ?

  • LD King says:

    Great article. I have found that writing for 15 minutes 4 times really does not add up to an hour of writing. If I’m lucky I might get 7 or 8 minutes of writing this way.

    So, as you imply, shut everything off, sit your butt down, turn the tv off, music if you must (I need it) and write. If I have to research something I grab a pen and pad a scribble a quick note to myself. I also add a note – small and in larger type bold – in the text that I need to research this or that at a later date.

    I’ve been retired for a few years. I still have distractions – just different ones.

    Write like your life depends upon it.

  • Pip says:

    Do you have hidden video cameras installed in my room?

    Great post 🙂

  • Ellen, interesting & entertaining post. I used to be distracted writing until I completed story structure elements. Now I just choose a section and write, sometimes for hours. It helped me to focus on writing scenes & dialogue for a specific element in the story. No anx about what to write. Lucky I’m retired and most times can control distractions.

  • Alexandra says:

    Absolutely wonderful, thank you! And her I thought I was the only one to become obsessed with that one pokey hair!?

  • I cannot write one more word while thinking I may have a poky hair coming out of my face. More likely, it’s coming out of my nose. This piece was very funny. I agree. Love the voice.

  • Ami Rose says:

    Way to call us out, Ellen! Loved this article! Love the reminder that we just have to get it on paper. We can make it amazing later. Removes the intimidation factor.

    Write on, Ellen!

  • Ahmed says:

    Hi Ellen! Your article is a total home run for virtually every writer, including the heavy hitters. My wife often calls me to task about those procrastination beetles that crew up time. Like most writers, I have a boatload of manuscripts on my laptop on some stage of incompleteness, and both my brain (And my wife, for that matter!) quite often gently — or not so gently — remind me “JUST PICK ONE AND SIT DOWN AND WRITE!!!)

    Going forward I will definitely put your suggestions to work and likely will print and frame your article and have it on my desk so that the minute the first distraction hits only a few seconds into the burn after clicking the stopwatch, I’ll simply glance over at it and go nose to grindstone and plow forward.

    As the old Aquavelva aftershave commercials used to say, “Thanks! I needed that!”

  • PJ says:

    This is great advice. The best finished articles I have written started as free writing. The rewriting and editing was more intensive but well worth it.

  • Tom Bentley says:

    Ellen, great voice on this piece. The advice is all sensible shoes, but with bright, festive laces. Thanks!

  • Hey Ellen,

    excellent advice. It reminded me of when I read On Writing by Stephen King. I definitely need to apply it more.


  • Petrah says:

    The article is so straight up, I easily get distracted.. I hope these tips will keep help me concentrate.

  • A J West says:

    Great tips for a distraction-prone guy like me. Oh, the writer is a woman. I was wondering why the writer thinks I would be concerned if my ex posted a girl’s photo, yet I’m a man and my ex is a girl too. Hmmm, come to think of it, I might be concerned!

  • @Ellen
    I was struck witj the ease witj which you would have come with such an article. Perhaps it needed 90% thinking and only 10% research. And such a quintessential article for every writer.
    Thanks a million

  • Megan Sharma says:

    LOVE this article, Ellen! You totally called me on all my BS excuses not to write. Someone has to do it, right?

    I will also add:
    -water the roses (just did)
    -check your to-do list for the umpteenth time until you are so overwhelmed that you give up and do nothing
    -look at cute photos of your kid

    Also, can we be friends? You are hilarious!


    • Ellen says:

      Thanks Megan! Yes we can! And yes, looking at pictures can take up looots of time! Also, organizing said pictures…..

  • Giovanna G. says:

    Loved this (and your writing style)!

    I often find myself fighting the urge to open a new doc, and jot down another idea that hits me. I’m going to try your advice to just do it, so I can get back to the piece at hand. Maybe it will actually ‘scratch the itch’ and allow me to focus.

    Thanks for the tips! 🙂

    • Ellen says:

      That really is true for me- it does scratch the itch, and then also, I won’t forget whatever it is I had the idea about. Also, it may just be a ‘procrastination itch’ – just one other thing to get you away from the writing in front of you. By opening a new document, you can find out, sort of call it out! And yet, still be writing.

  • Holly says:

    Ha. Glad that slippers are allowed.

    Seriously though, it is so hard to concentrate! I sometimes wonder if those writing retreats are just technology retreats for those of us who have a hard time turning things off. For me, it’s always the lure of a client email that distracts me, because editing is my love as much as writing.

  • William Laws says:

    Great post, thank you.

    The Procrastination Beetles have eaten a large part of my brain; perhaps if I apply your rules some of them will go away.

    • Ellen says:

      Any and all rules that work, work! Everything is fair in fighting those beatles 🙂

    • William Bonney says:

      Let’s be honest; if you are reading this, you have wasted that hour. I suggest a vivarium or unsubscribe to articles that teach you how and how not to write. The honest truth is that you do it because you have a need to do it; anything else and you are just playing at it.
      So what am I doing? See! I’ve tied myself up so much that I can pretend to write for another hour and edit this comment. It’s a ‘self’ conspiracy. May as well give up or become a writer about how to be a writer!
      Good luck, folks.

      • Ellen says:

        That’s why a timed hour works: you have to not do anything else- including reading articles on how to write.

  • Aleta K Dye says:

    How did you get into my living room? I am one of those easily distracted writers, especially when my muse is not cooperating. Thanks for posting this.

    • Ellen says:

      Thank you, Aleta! I have several cameras outside in your bushes and I use you as my study case 🙂
      Seriously though, isn’t it crazy that we write on the one tool with which we can distract ourselves for hours! And hours…. Yay internet! And yet we CAN resist! Thanks for the comment 🙂


    • Noman Nazir says:

      Me too 🙂

  • April says:

    Well said. I would add put your phone on silent and out of view. Also, don’t take time to write down that new idea that popped in your head b/c you’re worried you’ll forget it b/c then you may begin looking at other ideas on that list.

  • Colin says:

    I’ve just completed an hour’s writing. A chapter, which will need re-writing, but there is a sense of completion. Other writers can probably progress forward to chapter after chapter in an hour. This happens on a re-write, but, yes it’s fatal to go researching or leave the writing flow. I make notes like -“look up modern Spanish name” or “what happened in 1981 that characters might talk about?” But you need to keep writing uninterrupted. It’s like a concertina effect where all the ideas, plot movement is assembled before hand and then needs to be splurged out in continuous write flow. Even when a word does not seem quite right you can make a note, but keep moving- don’t dwell on it. Really good points made Ellen.

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