Six Non-Writing Things That Might Improve Your Writing

We give a fair amount of writing advice on this site, almost all of it geared toward creative process and storytelling mechanics.  I’ve written several of these posts myself, and will write more in the future.  But today’s post is a bit different.  I want to focus on those things I do to improve my creative output that, at least on the surface, seem to have nothing at all to do with the actual writing of my books and stories.  These are things I do to keep my creative process fresh, to keep myself healthy — physically and mentally — and to make myself want to write more.  So here, in no particular order, are six things I do to improve my writing that have nothing to do with writing:

1.  Exercise regularly.  Okay, maybe this one is in order of importance, because I do think this is just about the most important part of my daily routine.  I spend hours every day parked in front of my computer, working but not really moving or being active.  And so first thing in the morning, before I start to write, I work out at the local gym, which is at the college where my wife works, so my membership is practically free.  But you don’t really need a gym to exercise.  I ride a stationary bike.  I listen to music, I read, I chat with friends who are working out at the same time.  Most important, I sweat, I get my heart pumping, I work my muscles, and I keep at it for forty-five minutes, not including stretches, cool-down, etc.  I have no hard evidence to support the following, mostly because I’m not willing to stop working out in order to test the effects of doing so, but I am convinced that exercising keeps me from getting sick, improves my mood, and makes me more productive.  I’m sure that it has kept me from turning into a desk-chair potato.  The corollary to this one is that I also make an effort to eat well; even with my workout, if I’m going to sit all day at my desk, I really can’t afford to snack on junk — not at my age.

2. Read for Pleasure.  As I mentioned above, when I am on my stationary bike to nowhere, I often read.  Sometimes I read magazines, sometimes I read novels.  But I am almost always reading something.  When I first started writing fiction professionally, I avoided reading novels in speculative fiction, mostly because I didn’t trust my own authorial voice enough and I was afraid that my reading of other people’s work would influence my writing style and maybe even my plotting.  Fifteen years and fourteen novels later, I’m pretty much over that.  I don’t know if reading for pleasure improves my craft or gives me a better sense of how to write my own work.  Maybe it does.  But the important thing is, it makes me happy.  It’s fun, and it reminds me daily of the joy that one can derive from immersing oneself in a story.

3.  Step away from the desk.   I say that I work all day, and that’s mostly true.  But naturally I take short breaks throughout my work day.  Some of these are to check email or a favorite website.  But I also make myself get up from my desk, step away from computer and do Something Else.  Often that means pulling out my guitar and playing music for a while.  Sometimes it means going outside for a walk, or taking care of some household chore that I’ve neglected for too long.  The point isn’t what I do; it’s what I’m not doing.  There are times when I need to distance myself from my work, even if just for ten minutes, in order to clear my head, or work out a plotting problem, or just make myself concentrate on something different for a little while.  Yes, there are days when I don’t need this, when the words are flowing so well that stepping away would be unthinkable.  But those days are rare.  Most of the time, a break is a healthy thing.

4.  Work on more than one project at once.  First of all, yes, this one has more to do with actual writing than the others.  So sue me.  And second, this is something that was far more difficult for me when I was starting out than it is now.  Back then, I needed to concentrate on one project until it was complete. But I have come to find that if I have several projects ongoing at once, each one remains fresher as I move among them.  Now I am not suggesting that you work on more than one project in a given day, or even in a given week.  I mean, sure, you can, but it’s not something that works for me.  I like to immerse myself in a project for several days at a time, or maybe even several weeks at a time.  But then I like to switch to something else for a while.  Because when I do, that new project feels more alive, and often creative avenues I’ve followed in one project will spark ideas in another.  These ideas might have nothing to do with each other, but the variety I add to my creative process in this way seems to help my writing across the array of projects I have underway at any given time.

5.  Give yourself a day off now and then.  I suppose this is a variation on number 3.  But while I’m good at stepping away from the desk, I have to admit that I am terrible at taking my own advice on this one.  I find that guilt, or fear of losing momentum on a project, or some other force I can’t name, keeps me from taking a day off now and then, even when I know that I need one.  Writing is draining emotionally and intellectually.  I know this, just as I know that when I do take a day off, or even a half-day, it truly refreshed me and makes me more productive in the long run.  Nonetheless, I have to force myself to do it, and there are times when I resolve to take time off only to balk at the idea at the last minute.  It’s my own little OCD trait.  But it’s not healthy, and I hope that you will follow my advice in this regard rather than my example.

6.  Turn off the computer and go be among others of your species.   I’m a Dad and a husband, and so I feel a certain amount of pressure to set aside time for my family.  And that is a very, very good thing.  Being with my family keeps me centered, makes me happy, and even offers some fodder for scenes in future projects.  Writing can be an incredibly lonely endeavor, and yet we spend most of our time writing about people.  Doesn’t it make sense that being among other humans might be good not only for our souls but also for our craft?  Maybe you have family who would love to see you emerge from your office for a little while.  Maybe you have friends who haven’t heard from you in so long that they’re considering a call to the police.  Maybe you even have a writing group that will allow you to talk about your work AND be among other people.  The important thing is to set boundaries for yourself.  Work for a certain set of hours, and then spend time with the people in your life.  It will help.  Really.  It helps me.

So, there you go.  Six things to do that might make you more productive.  Do you have suggestions that I didn’t mention?

David B. Coe
http://www.davidbcoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com

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  1. 1. Len Berry

    Great advice, all around. I need to remember it’s ok to get away from writing and take a day off.

    On the workout front, I can confirm that all of that is true. Exercise is a great way to stimulate the mind and body. It’s why I’ve taken it up myself.

    Now, to figure out how to turn off the computer…

  2. 2. Mindy Klasky

    I think that these points cover the non-writing waterfront very well. The only addition I can think is to expand “Read for Pleasure” to “Absorb Culture for Pleasure.” I find some of my greatest relaxation/recharging/priming the pump comes from visiting museums, watching movies (including documentaries), etc.

    Thanks for the great pointers!

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Thanks, Len. I hate my workout every day until I’m done with it, and then I am SO glad to have done it.

    Mindy, that’s a great addition to the list. Thanks. I, too, love movies, music, theater, etc., and agree with you that those things are incredibly enriching.

  4. 4. Sam X

    The day off advice is very important; too often we hear “Write. Every. Day.” and so we try to. But that’s a quick way to burnout, you need time to recharge and sometimes that means a full 24 hours with no writing. Heck, a full 24 hours away from the computer is better, even if that just means a book or the TV. Nothing helps get over a narrative hurdle like coming back a day (or two) later and seeing everything from a refreshed viewpoint.

  5. 5. Megan Peterson

    The only thing I would add, based on my experience, is to make sure you get good sleep. I know it sounds silly, but I’ve found that if I don’t do this, my writing suffers, as does my mood and outlook on the whole venture.

    That being said, I think this is all really good advice. Starting exercising _has_ really helped my writing (and my chances of continuing to do it for as many years as I hope!). It’s nice to hear the advice of working on more than one project at once as well. When I was recently finishing up a trilogy, I was very focused on just that one project, yet when it was finally done, I felt more drained than if I’d run a marathon. Now that I’m drafting out my next books, I find myself bopping back and forth between two series – and it’s really helping! It’s much as you describe above, and it really is keeping both fresher than perhaps otherwise. Thanks for the encouragement that this is a smart move.

  6. 6. Selene

    Good advice. Definitely agree on the exercising.

    Some of these points seem mostly relevant if you’ve got a lot of time to write though. In my experience, if you hold down a full time day job and have a family, you’ve hardly got the luxury to, “step away from the desk” or “write on more than one project”, if simply because you have very little time to write in the first place (if you step away from the desk, your writing time is then basically up. And writing on more than one project will result in you taking 10 years or so to complete them.)

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David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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