A Good Writing Process

I’ve been writing all my life, I’ve written several books that have ended up on the New York Times bestseller list, and I’ve been writing at least 3-4 books a year lately. This is to say nothing of the fact that I wrote and edited The Onion for 15 years. Before that I had a daily comic strip for 10 years (Jim's Journal). I’ve written for TV shows, movies, and my own standup comedy.

So I must have a process, and it must be pretty effective, right?

I’m too close to it to say. You’ll have to be the judge. Either way, I’m going to describe it here. I hope it helps you figure out a process that works for you.

First of all, one person’s process isn’t any better or any more valid than anyone else’s. Whatever process that works for you and gets you writing is the best process. I hear about a lot other writers’ processes and one of the first important line items on their list is pouring a hot cup of coffee. This kind of makes me gag because I don’t drink coffee. The idea is sickening to me. So, they’ve lost me at the start!

Writing Discipline

To me, more important than process is discipline. What gets writing done is moving the fingers and putting words down, period. So, any process has to involve that critical activity as the primary ingredient. And the only way I know how to get that, if it doesn’t flow out of you naturally (and it does for some people — not me!), is by disciplining yourself to do it.

When I discipline myself and write every day, it becomes a habit. Then and only then do I become one of those people I just mentioned, who can enter flow state and just start writing as if compelled without any process.

I gin myself up with discipline by setting outrageously impossibly goals like “write 1 book a month,” which is a goal I set for myself last year. I only wrote three, but that’s a lot more than most people! So, not too shabby! I’ll write more books this year. My goal is 18.

If I were to compare my process to a flower blooming, my discipline is the Earth and the sun and the rain and the oxygen. That’s how important it is, and it influences how I think of process and how I approach it.

For more specifics on how I keep myself motivated to write, check out my post, “How to Get Motivated.” I explain how I get leverage on myself and get fired up to achieve my goals.

Morning Writing Routine

My morning routine, which is where my discipline comes from, is as follows:

I hate alarm clocks. I get up whenever I feel like it. This usually ends up being around 7 a.m. The only time I use an alarm clock is when I have a plane to catch, but I usually schedule flights for midday so there’s no danger of sleeping in so late that I’ll miss it. I never make early morning appointments because I don’t want to have to get up for them. Sleep is the foundation of my health and energy, and I don’t want to interrupt a REM cycle. I let my body decide how much sleep I need.

As soon as I’m conscious, I stay in bed and do a gratitude exercise, lingering on three things in my life I’m grateful for. They’re different every day. I go deep and try to feel positive emotion from each. This makes me feel like the world is an abundant place and it serves me. It puts me in the right mindset to keep fear, anger and worry at bay all day.

Then I think of the main things I want to accomplish that day, and I imagine how good it will feel to accomplish them. I do a mental check to make sure these things align with my goals for the month and the year so my energy and ambition is pointed in the right direction to get what I want out of my life.

Then I get out of bed and have three glasses of spring water. I do my T’ai Ch’i or I sit in my sauna and do a self-guided visualization meditation. I don’t like mindfulness meditation; I’ve never gotten anything out of it but boredom. But visualization meditation juices me like rocket fuel. I can feel the endorphins and the naturally produced opiates firing in my body. It’s amazing, and it keeps me positive all day no matter what misfortune might come my way. Sure, I get down sometimes, but nothing like I used to. Staying positive allows me to focus on writing.

At this point you may be thinking, “Well, if I didn’t have to get up to go to work and if I had a sauna in my house, that would be my morning routine too!” And that would be a fair point. But it doesn’t mean you can’t approximate the routine if you don’t have the means. When I was homeless and working full-time, seven days a week at The Onion in the late-90s, I had a very similar routine. I still did my gratitude exercises and my T’ai Ch’i. I used the sauna at the gym. I was sleeping on a friend’s couch doing this daily routine and still managed to write a book sitting at a desk in the closet. It was called You Are Worthless and it remains one of my top-selling books. That was also the year I began writing and editing Our Dumb Century, which would go on to win the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

After meditating, I write for a couple of hours with as few interruptions as possible, but I might respond to a text or two, or go down an Internet search hole.

Then I eat breakfast. sometimes it’s a late as 1 p.m. by then. I eat mostly organic vegetables, plus a little pasture-raised meat and healthy fat. I don’t eat sugar, processed foods, dairy, or grains, and certainly not dairy or gluten. All that stuff saps my energy. (Besides, I have Celiac Disease.) This keeps my mind and body at my most optimized level, and I almost ever get sick. I can't have that interfering with the writing I want to do.

A Flexible Writing Process

As to my writing process specifically, it’s flexible. I don’t like to have a process that’s so rigid that I can’t function or meet my daily writing goals if one of the superficial elements of my process is unavailable at the moment (like “I forgot to buy coffee—OMG I can’t write!”).

My core process is that I try to write for at least four hours every day. Most days I do more, but some days I fall short, which is no big deal as long as I'm in the ballpark.

Some people think that’s a lot. I don’t think so. Issac Asimov wrote all day, every day. His output was unreal. He wrote a novel a month for years, plus several nonfiction books, essays, and short stories. His wife had to check on him to make sure he was eating. It boggles the mind. And he was using a typewriter!

I enjoy taking breaks to eat, and I get distracted easily, mostly by texts. So, please don’t text me unless it’s important. I only check email a few times a day, because that’s a rabbit hole. I try to keep my email inbox empty so the weight of having countless emails to respond to doesn’t weigh me down or occupy my thoughts. When an email comes in that I have to deal with, I deal with it as soon as I can and then archive it so it's out of my life.

If I miss a day of writing, I get anxious. This happens sometimes when I have to meet someone and it takes 2-3 hours out of my my day. I try to check my anxiety at the door and enjoy the outing, but deep down I’m disappointed that I lost those hours, and I start mentally shuffling my schedule for the rest of the day to figure out how I might squeeze in my 4 hours by staying up late or something.

This is partly what I mean by “flexible.” Some people like to write first thing in the morning. I do too, to get a jump on the day, but some days there are things to do in the morning. There’s often some errand to run or phone call to make or urgent email that needs a response. In that case, I write later. Doing it in the morning isn't a critical part of my process.

Mostly what I mean by "flexible" is that I pride myself on being able to write under almost any circumstance, in any location, or any time. I travel a lot, so when I travel, obviously I’m in a strange place not surrounded by my usual stuff. There might be a weird desk or uncomfortable chair or odd lighting or whatever else. I don’t care. I’ll write standing up with the laptop on a high shelf sometimes.

I bring my laptop to the DMV or the dentist’s office so I can write while I wait. I’ll write at Starbucks if I have to, even though it makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s just that I prefer to be alone.

If I’m on a road trip, I write by dictating into my phone in the car. I have the Dragon Anywhere app that has good speech to text capabilities. I’ve been known to get 3-4 rough chapter drafts in the can during a day of driving. The drawback to this is that it’s extremely tiring for some reason. Seriously, it makes me want to fall asleep at the wheel. Also, there’s no way I can do any editing while driving. So, this is strictly rough-draft time.

If I don’t have my computer or phone, I write on a small pad of paper I always carry with me. I sometimes hammer out a rough draft on paper, but better for paper is outlining or brainstorming ideas for books I want to write. This kind of writing requires less transcribing, which is a time-consuming activity I'd rather avoid.

My Ideal Writing Conditions

If I’m home alone, have no other obligations, and have my druthers, this is my preferred process:

I sit with my laptop at my kitchen table even though it’s small and has a less comfortable chair than my “writing desk” in the other room, which I only sit at when I’m doing audio or video editing (because that’s where my big G5 tower is that has Pro Tools and Final Cut Pro on it). The kitchen table height feels more ergonomic. The chair is from Ikea. An expensive, too-comfortable office-type chair (which I have at my desk) tends to make me want to sit back and relax too much.

I write in Text Edit whenever possible, because it’s streamlined and almost never crashes. But if I’m writing a book. I write in Scrivener. The more I use it, the more I like it better than Text Edit. It’s a program made for writing books, and it does a stellar job of making sure you never, ever lose anything you write. Even when you throw stuff away, it saves it. Scrivener can save you from being stupid. I never write in MS Word because it’s a big, stupid, over-complicated behemoth of a program that crashes all the time, slows down my computer, and is just awful.

I like to wear headphones and listen to some kind of droning, hypnotic, or soothing music while I write, either a Vangelis mix I made, or Estas Tonne, who I love, or one of those 8-hour 518 Hz healing frequency videos on youtube. I obviously don’t care about the video. I just listen to the music and focus on what I’m writing.

Sometimes I get so worked up about something on my mind while I’m writing that the playlist will stop, I'll have no more music, but I’ll sit there and continue to write for hours without taking off the headphones. I don't do this on purpose, but it makes me feel like I’m in a little sensory-deprivation writing cave. Or other times I’ll get fired up to start, put on the headphones, but then write for a couple of hours straight, forgetting to ever turn on the music.

I keep too many tabs open in Chrome. I use the other browsers too, just to mix it up, but Chrome is my favorite. I dart away from what I’m writing to open a new tab to google when I need to research something, usually how to spell a word. (I’m an atrocious speller. Sometimes Text Edit or Scrivener can’t even make the right suggestion for what word I'm trying to type. But I can copy and paste the unrecognizable clump of letters in the address bar and Google always knows what I mean.) As soon as I get the spelling, I go right back to writing and try not to break my stride by checking email or texts.

I write rough drafts fast, in a stream of consciousness. I let them sit for a while and then come back to them and edit them. Then I edit them one more time. If it’s a book, I record the audiobook and make changes while I record, because reading out loud helps me discover better ways to word things. It also catches a lot of errors.

About two years ago I taught myself how to type. I’d been a hunt-and-pecker my whole life. Learning how to type has increased my words per minute, allowing me to write more. I love that every time I write, I’m practicing this new skill. It prevents me from having to do typing drills.

I set the timer on my phone to remind me to stop sometimes. I usually only do this when I have something in my calendar that I have to stop writing and take care of, but sometimes I do it just to motivate myself. When the clock is ticking, I tend to be more focused, because I know how easily time can slip away if there's no accountability.

I hate when people call me, especially on FaceTime. I never answer the phone when I don’t know who’s calling. There’s only a handful of special people I’ll answer a FaceTime call from when I’m writing.

Getting in Flow State While Writing

I usually get in flow state at least once every day while writing. I love it. The longer I can stay there, the happier I am. I love days when I have no obligations and can stay in flow as long as I want and forget eating, sleeping, or anything in the outside world, I just write until I feel like stopping. On normal days, there’s always something to do that takes me out of it. A text comes in, or I have to eat or call someone or go to a meeting.

Sometimes in these states I forget what time it is, or whether it’s day or night, or even where I am. I lose my sense of self. I'm just a vessel. I love when this happens. I get tunnel vision and all I see is the vortex of words streaming in front of me. When I come out of this state, I enjoy the sense of surprise, almost like waking from a dream. It's a sensation of suddenly realizing where I am.

I save all my writing in a “Writing” folder on my computer. In that folder are several other folders: one for books, one for movies, one for TV ideas, one for marketing, one for social media, one for comedy, one for teaching, etc. Inside those sub-folders, things can get pretty disorganized, but I try my best.

I back up my computer to several other drives as often as I think of it, but always at the end of every day. Mac’s “Time Machine” was great for me once but it doesn’t work for me anymore because I keep moving my laptop around. For Time Machine to work you have to leave it hooked up to an external drive. I used to have a bluetooth drive but it was too slow. I also don’t like automatic iCloud backups because I don’t understand how to do that or where it is.

At the end of the day, I usually feel a sense of disappointment about how little actual writing I was able to do, no matter how much I actually did, or I bemoan some other important task I had to do that day that I forgot because I got sucked into writing. But I forgive myself quickly and go to sleep, usually around midnight.

Then I do it all again!

That's my writing process.