The Secret To How I Wrote Half A Million Words Last Year
hacking my writing habits to be ultra-productive
In the past 12 months, I’ve produced around 300 stories on Medium, plus a few hundred more for clients, in addition to coding projects and various associated diagrams.
Each of these articles and stories averages between 1,200 to 1,500 words, which brings us to a conservative combined half a million words.
There’s also a specific music playlist that I’ve listened to for the past 12 months.
It doesn’t matter where I am, what I’ve been doing or what time it is, the moment I put on my headphones, hit play and navigate to my writing tab, words will flow out from my brain and make itself real through my fingertips.
There’s nothing special about my particular playlist.
Rather, its to do with a trained habit of writing — with music as my prompt.
There’s something about high school exams that gives you the ability to write four essays and answer a dozen short questions in a three-hour block.
University exams ran on a similar structure and time limit.
The same went for last-minute assignments and reports due.
Our brain suddenly turns up and does what it’s supposed to do, at double the speed, triple the efficiency and possibly produce something that’s higher in quality.
It’s the general trend for me and those I’ve encountered.
There’s something about the pressure of having to finish something within a specific timeframe that kicks us into the right gear.
Take away that time pressure and suddenly our brain refuses to eke out a single coherent sentence.
Habits are environmental
I used to believe that habits are a series of actions that occur on a consistent basis.
Over time I’ve discovered that habits can be triggered by certain events as much as they are automated. There’s a cue that triggers an event, which in turn triggers a craving to instigate the response and reward effects.
Some of our habits are so automated that we don’t even notice them at all. These are passive habits. You don’t really need to do anything for it to happen.
The ability to write on command, however, is the active crossing between habits and skills.
Wait up, muse
The difference between writers and those that want to be writers is that the first can write whenever they want, where ever they want. You can give them a prompt or brief and they can create something coherent for you within a time limit.
Their muse always seems to be present and the experienced writer is never starved of one.
Many of us struggle to write because we’re waiting for our muses to appear and put us into an inspired state.
In reality, that rarely happens. And when it does, your muse is probably high on something.
Most of the time, your muse is sitting right in front of you but you’re just too distracted by the expectation of shiny things. Your muse is actually your blank screen, a canvas waiting to be filled with digital ink etched out through your keyboard and autosaved by whatever program you’re using.
Anything can happen and what it actually takes is for you to do something about it.
My technique of translating experience into words
There are three general categories of writing — technical, experiential and creative.
I’ve written in all three categories.
What I’ve learned is that for technical and experiential writing, you have to draw from a pool of knowledge. Then you turn that knowledge into a series of coherent sentences that convey a particular message and point.
It can be especially when our knowledge points tend to be a series of interconnected nodes that form a bigger web. One node can lead us down multiple pathways.
Our task as writers is to calm our brain down and pick a path.
Focused writing always has an end goal in mind. My technique is to start off with an introduction then scaffold out paragraph headers to give my writing a sense of direction.
It gives me a game plan on what I’m supposed to be writing about and where I intend to go.
These headers also serve as signposts and milestone checkpoints in my writing. I fill the space in between with relevant ideas that expand and explain the headers. The word count often runs in at 250–400 words, plus or minus a few diagrams.
A few sections later and viola! I have a 5-minute read piece.
So where does the music come into all this?
Now that I think about it, I listen to a lot of music throughout the day.
The style of music is often contextual to where I am, who I’m with and what I’m doing.
Pop radio music fills my silence in the car.
Cocomelon and baby shark runs my entertainment hours with the toddler.
Whatever weird, sometimes heavy metal music plays when the male creature is around and the toddler hasn’t overruled his choice of noise.
alexrainbirdMusic Indie/Pop/Folk collection plays when I’m working.
They are all very different in style and sounds, triggering different expectations and reactions. As my days start to settle into a series of routines, so does my writing routines.
The Indie/Pop/Folk collections are my prompt to work. It’s not leisure music. No. This music is work music. I don’t browse social media, clean the house or drive to places with this music.
It’s exclusive. It sets the scene. It tells my brain that its time to work, which means make ideas and thoughts into digital ink.
Writing is one of my jobs.
I don’t run it on the side and hope it takes off.
I am methodical with it, always observant and deliberate with my output. The music acts as a trigger to tell my brain that it’s work time — as much as Baby Shark tells me that I should be dancing and chilling.
Productivity and output are based on a series of habits and practicing a particular skill consistently. The more you work on a type of task, the better you get at it.
I spent an entire year writing. Looking back, my style, length, quality, and speed have all improved.
You don’t need to have writing as your day job to be a writer — but if you want to write, you need to properly commit to it and produce something.
It doesn’t matter what the first piece looks like. Just break the ice with that first post.
And keep breaking that ice — because, at some point, you’re going to break enough ice and be so good at it that it becomes second nature.