The Best Writing Tip of All Time: Sit

Having trouble getting the writing done?

I faced that familiar problem a few days ago. I had finished a chapter of my journalism textbook, patted myself on the back, and promptly felt myself shutting down. Starting the next chapter felt like standing at the foot of Mount Everest and contemplating the climb.

Fortunately, the block didn’t last too long. I cut it short by turning to the single best writing tip I know: Just plant your butt in your chair.

I did just that; problem solved.

How can such a simple action be so difficult? Why must there be all this thrashing around? Why do I keep forgetting the power of this habitual behavior?

I found an answer in “The Mechanic and the Muse,” my former blog that I visit weekly for posts worth updating.

I came upon a brief post, entitled “It’s a bird, it’s a plane; no, it’s Super-Scientist/WriterMan.” In it, I had linked to a Nova episode, the PBS science show, that profiled Karl Iagnemma, an MIT roboticist who also happens to also be an acclaimed fiction writer.

Okay, I admit, I was inclined to hate him — young, gifted and knowledgeable about math — until I listened to him talk about the discipline that both of his fields demanded:

“A lot of people, when they think about writers, probably imagine people wasting time in cafés, drinking a lot and smoking too many cigarettes, and working when the inspiration — whatever that is — seizes them. But writing is rigorous. Writing, for me at least, takes a lot of concentrated work and effort. It takes dedication and the willingness to do the work even when that feeling of inspiration isn’t there at all.”

It was comforting to hear that from a scientist-writer. But he’s just one of a long list of writers who embrace the posterior-to-chair maxim to get their writing done.

Here are a few others from “Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers,” an inspiring collection of writing quotes compiled by Donald M. Murray.

“A lot of young writers wait for inspiration. The inspiration only hits you at the desk.”
Robert Anderson, “Tea and Sympathy.”

“Rituals? Ridiculous! My only ritual is to sit close enough to the typewriter so that my fingers touch the keys.”

Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer

“It’s a job. It’s not a hobby. You don’t write the way you build a model airplane. You have to sit down and work, to schedule your time and stick to it. Even if it’s just for an hour or so each day. You have to get a babysitter and make the time. If you’re going to make writing succeed you have to approach it as a job. You don’t wait for inspiration. The Muse does not do your work for you.”

So, writing isn’t brain science after all. Or maybe it is.

The brain has to stop generating pessimistic thoughts that block us, that chorus of downers whining in our heads: “You suck!” “You’ll screw up this chapter.” “You’ll never finish your story, and even if you do, it will bomb.”

Attitude follows behavior — that’s what we need to tell ourselves. Once we start typing, the sound of our fingertips on the keyboard will drown out those voices.

We lose a lot of time waiting for a Muse to show up. Time that could be spent drafting, organizing, rewriting and re-reporting. And in that process, we start to hear a voice that says, “You know, this isn’t so bad.”

Truth be told, there’s a very good chance that when I finish this next chapter, I will find myself in the same motivational pickle.

I’ll just have to re-read this, imagine I’m playing musical chairs, and get my butt in my chair as fast as I can. Wish me luck.

Got a single best writing tip? Share it here.

An earlier version of this “M&M” post appeared Oct. 7, 2006, on “The Mechanic and the Muse,” a now-defunct blog I maintained from January 2006 to March 2007. I am updating and re-posting these items once a week.

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