For writers, as well as athletes, there’s nothing like being in the zone. Distractions fall away, time disappears, and your work seems to write itself.
Unfortunately for most writers, being in the zone is rare—instead of inspiration, we feel dread; instead of knowing, we feel lost; and instead of excitement, we feel anxiety.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, according to the research of Susan Perry, Ph.D., there are several concrete writing techniques and practices that can actually make finding inspiration and “getting into the zone” an everyday occurrence.
Find Your Writing Flow
Today’s post is the final installment in a 5-month series about how writers “get in the zone.” Thus far, we have talked about How to Be a Better and Happier Writer, How to Think Like a Great Writer, How Writing Habits Make Writing Easier, and How Spotify Can Make You a Better Writer.
For all of these posts, Susan Perry’s Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity has been our guide. Perry’s book is the distillation of hundreds of interviews with award-winning writers and her discoveries about how these writers achieve peak performance, or “find their flow,” to use Perry’s terminology.
Perry’s intention was simple. As she put it,
Liberating writers from self-imposed constraints and limitations is one of the goals of this book. And once you learn how exquisitely pleasurable writing can be in a flow state—and how to enter such a state more predictably—you’re more likely to write more and produce better work.
It is with this same goal that I’ve pulled the best lessons from Perry’s book and presented them in this series.
10 Ways to Find Your Flow
At the conclusion of her book, Perry offers a number of specific writing techniques for luring flow, all of which are based on the most common practices of the writers she interviewed. A selection of these writing techniques is listed below.
Remember that this is a short list of the countless ways writers write. The important thing is not to try to fit into someone else’s process, but to find your own by experimenting and keeping track of what works best for you.
Some common practices for finding flow are:
1. Establish Rituals
According to Perry, “Ritualizing your behavior enhances focus on the task at hand” while making it easier to “get in the zone.” See my post How Writing Habits Make Writing Easier for more on this.
2. Clear Clutter
Many writers Perry interviewed talked about how uncluttering their environment (like their desk) helped them unclutter their mind. Many also suggested that “clutter” that wasn’t always physical.
If something is cluttering up your mental or physical environment, trying getting it out of the way so your mind is free to focus on the task at hand. Clean your desk, get those bills done, whatever it takes to feel uncluttered. (A word of warning! Don’t let cleaning become a procrastination tool. The goal is writing, not spotless floors. Unless that’s what you need, of course.)
3. Find Time
The idea is simple: Write when you write your best. You’ll have to experiment with what works for you, but once you find that time, protect it. I recently committed to writing from 5:30–7 AM every morning. It wasn’t hard to convince my wife and kids that this was “my time” once they saw I was serious about it. Respecting your own writing schedule and sticking to it will teach others around you to respect it too.
Obviously, no one time is right for everyone every day. And if you’re a busy parent or professional, you may find yourself shifting your schedule as circumstances demand. If this is you, create a weekly or even daily schedule the night before. Find when you have time to write, and then commit to it. You’ll find that committing to a schedule will help relieve anxiety over writing, while reducing stress over the guilt of not writing.
As Perry writes,
Find what timing works for you by trying out various schedules. Don’t assume the way you’ve always tried to do it is the only way, particularly if it isn’t working that well for you.
4. Hear and See Things
Sure, it sounds a little crazy, but many writers talk about tuning in more closely to what their inner ear or inner eye is perceiving. Many of the writers Perry interviewed described these perceptions in vague, fragmentary terms, but often found them to be inspiring jumping off points for their writing.
If this sounds useful, don’t worry about where these scraps of dialogue, moods, or images fit in your story or poem. Just start with what you see or hear and go from there. If you’re like these writers, stories will often emerge of their own accord from these “first” ideas.
5. Use Music
It’s not surprise that many writers use music to loosen up and focus in. Here’s a previous post about this very common technique and how Spotify can help you get started: How Spotify Can Make You a Better Writer.
6. Cultivate Silence
Many writers crave silence, and the fear of being interrupted brings with it a certain kind of anxiety that can be a deterrent to getting into the zone. But in our media-obsessed world, cultivating silence can be difficult.
Many writers find silence either late at night or early in the morning. If you can’t, try sound-deadening headphones or ear plugs. To protect against interruption, unplug the phone in your office, turn off your computer’s email and social media sound notifications, and turn off the ringer on your cellphone. Just eliminating the “threat” of these interruptions can be freeing on a subconscious level and make it easier to “get into” you’re writing.
Just as regulating your outside environment can positive effects, so can regulating your inner environment. Starting your writing session with a short meditation is one way to do this. Meditation also has the benefit of being good “training” for writing as it teaches you to exclude distraction, focus attention, and move yourself away from your regular habits of thinking. If you don’t know where to start, search Youtube for the keywords “short guided meditation.”
One of the most common techniques writers use is “noodling.” This is my highly technical term for the unfocused time at the beginning of a writing session in which you review and make notes on and small edits to your previous day’s work. This process helps me “gently return” to the mood or state I was in when I finished my last session. It also relieves my anxiety over what I’m going to write by giving me something to do as I get started.
Reading is second nature to most writers, and it should be. For, as Stephen King says, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.” But what many writers don’t realize that reading can also be useful during writing.
Carol Muske’s trick when she gets stuck is to pick a book at random and read a random page. She finds whatever she reads always seems to point her in a direction. It sounds like magic, but it’s really just a way to help her subconscious think about the story in a different way.
I do the same thing with craft books, which I pick up at random and which always give me ideas for how to write or revise something I’m working on.
Next time you’re stuck, try picking up a random book. Does it work?
10. Stop Short
According to Perry,
One of the most reliable tricks is to take advantage of a kind of psychological momentum by leaving your work while it feels incomplete.
If you’re someone who dreads the blank page, or has trouble starting something new, this might be the trick for you.
The next time you write, try stopping at in the middle of something. When you suspend closure in a scene or moment, you build in a powerful reason to start writing the next day.
Based on my own experience, I can say this really works. When I first committed to writing, I would even stop mid-sentence. Knowing exactly what needed to be said next helped diminish my anxiety over starting a new session and not knowing what to write.
Honor Your Unique Process
Despite the commonality of these writing techniques, what works for you will be unique to you.
Take it from me, as someone who has battled with insecurity over his own process, I know now that it’s important to honor that. If you don’t, you’ll be trying to get it “right,” which is antithetical to the attitude of play and discovery that you need to be nurturing. (If this attitude is something you struggle with too, check out my post about the practice of play for some guidance and suggestions.)
In the end, Perry’s advice is simple:
Write as much and as often as you can, allow yourself to try new techniques and attitudes, give yourself a great deal of freedom to fail and fail again on the way to ultimate success.
As Diana Gabaldon says,
The only way you can fail at writing is to give up.
Here’s to never giving up.
Which writing techniques work for you? Let me know in the comments. It’s always fun to hear how other writers “find their flow.”
The following exercise is based on a prewriting ritual discussed in Perry’s book. Open a book of poems and copy the first line of the poem into your writing notebook. If you want to work on longer fiction, open a novel or collection of short stories and copy the first line of a random paragraph.
Now, write as if the given line were your own first line. Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re done, delete the first line and create your own first line. Post your creations (and the borrowed first lines with author and book title) in the comments below. And if you share, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.