How To Write Less And Say More

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    “The happiness of too many days is often destroyed by trying to accomplish too much in one day. We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives – Do Less and Do It Better.” – Dale E. Turner

    There’s a maxim in the Unix programming philosophy that says programmers should “write programs that do one thing and do it well.”

    It’s a beautiful philosophy, and one that can be applied just as well to your writing.

    I think sometimes we start writing with a fuzzy idea in our heads of what it is we want to write. For that reason, we might procrastinate on writing because we’re not sure what it is we want to accomplish — it’s just a vague, undoable goal (“gotta write my book today”) and that’s hard to wrap your head around.

    At the same time, if we do actually tackle the writing, we might be extremely unfocused if we don’t have a clear writing goal for that day. Yet another potential problem is that we might try to tackle too much writing each day, and as a result what we write isn’t our best stuff, or just as bad, we don’t really get much done.

    Write one thing today, and write it well. Here’s how.

    1. Simplifying your writing. Writing just one thing each day, if possible, will help you to focus your energies and write as well as you can. It keeps you from being overwhelmed, and helps you to remain at peace as you write.
    2. Create a clear goal. Instead of saying that you’re going to “work on this chapter” or “write that article” or “write a blog post”, it’s helpful to create a clear goal in your mind about what exactly it is you want to write. Be as clear as possible, and visualize it in your head. For example, instead of “writing that blog post”, close your eyes and either visualize how the blog post will be, section by section, or hear it in your head. Use this visualization to write down a very detailed and specific goal for your writing for the day.
    3. Set your goal the night before. It’s good to do the visualization the day before, so that you’re ready to go when you start your day. It gives you time to really think about what you want to write about, to even mull it over in your sleep. If you tend to come up with good ideas while you sleep, you might even want to keep a notebook by your bed so you can jot down ideas before they evaporate. It’s also great to start your day with your goal clearly in mind — it helps keep you focused on your purpose.
    4. Focus on something important. It’s not enough to just write one thing well if it’s something that doesn’t really make a difference. Sure, any writing is a good thing, but still, it’s better to use your writing time wisely if you can. So focus on writing something that will have a lasting impact: a high-profile magazine article, your first novel, a blog post that will draw a lot of attention and links. If you’re going to limit your writing, make it count.
    5. Block out time. If your life has more in it than just writing (and I think that applies to just about all of us), it’s important that you have a block in your schedule just for your writing. Whether that be first thing in the morning, sometime in the early afternoon, or late at night, it really doesn’t matter. Just make that block of time and don’t let the rest of your life violate that appointment.
    6. Pour all your energy into it. When you sit down to write, focusing on something important, with a clear goal in mind … it’s time to put all of your energy into it. Try to block out all distractions, to really put your mind into your writing, to get lost in what you’re doing. This will require at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time — an hour is better, and two hours are even better than that. Once you’ve learned to pour yourself into your writing, without distractions, with complete focus … it’s a whole other level of writing. It’s wonderful.
    7. Be proud of the job you’ve done. If you’ve really focused on doing your writing task for the day, and doing it well, that’s something to be proud of. That’s an accomplishment. It’s something to celebrate! Be sure to bask in the wonder that is doing a job well — and remember this feeling, as it will help motivate you tomorrow.
    8. Take time to review this accomplishment. Think about all the steps you took today, when you’re done. What worked and what didn’t? What obstacles did you encounter and how can you learn from it so you’ll get better next time? Is there a better way to do this? What distractions do you need to get rid of? This mental review will help you become a better writer, and will help you master this skill of losing yourself in your writing and doing it well.
    9. Prepare for tomorrow. Once you’ve done your little review, start planning for the next day’s work. Again, visualize your writing and write down your goal. Tackle the next day with vigor and joy!
    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com and for her cutting-edge book, Youthful Aging Secrets. In her “spare” time, Mary is also the brains behind GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Yes, the headline and lead set the tone for the entire piece. Thanks for a great post and checklist.

    • Another tip is to invest a lot of time in the title and opening paragraph. In news writing “the lead” sets up the quality benchmark for the entire piece of writing.

    • benny says:

      Man… that is an excellent idea. I’m always trying to see how much I can write and work on… but just one thing well per day? That… well it’s nice. Simpler, probably more effective… Thanks!

    • J.D. says:

      Nice post.

      I think there’s two key aspects here:
      1. separation of concerns — a great software engineering principle that applies to so many things.
      2. “one pitch at a time” — being fully engaged in the moment over watching the scoreboard.

      One thing that helps me focus on the one thing in the moment is to focus on value delivered over backlog burndown.

    • Jon Mann says:

      Well this was today’s!

      Now I have to come up with something to write tommorrow. Damn!

    • Lori Ann says:

      Here is my one thing to write about today:
      I live in Pennsylvania, where on every February 2nd they pull a half asleep ground hog out of its warm burrow, and it is supposed to predict whether or not winter is over and spring is just around the corner, or if we are in for 6 more weeks of freezing temperatures and the piles of flakey white stuff.
      Well they are cheaters, because they shine a brite light on the poor thing. It was rather funny last year, because the animal got so shocked and scared it urinated on the official that pulled it out of its home.
      This year the weather hasn’t made up it’s mind yet whether it is winter or spring. Hope Spring is just a few weeks away, because I am tired of snow.

    • Nick says:

      I don’t seem to have any issues pumping them out but definitely agree that you should write everyday and focus on one assignment at a time.

    • Sounds too mechanical

    • CharlesP says:

      As a Unix geek and a writing geek I really liked this post Leo. The blocking out a time is critical and something I’ve struggled with the past year and a half due to a change in job schedule. In my previous position I worked a 2nd shift and got home shortly after the kids had gone to bed so I could then firewall off the next half hour to an hour and get plenty of writing in. Then, in the morning before going to work, I could spend time with the kids.

      Now that I’m on “normal” shift my time with the kids is the evenings when I get home, and I have to get up so early that once I get them in bed I need to crash. I’ve been playing off and on with writing during lunch break, or before anybody else shows up at the office (though that’s currently my “go to the gym at work” time). It’s looking like I’m OK to blog during lunch breaks (thanks to Ecto letting me write posts off-line), but fiction I’ve not been able to switch the brain over in that period of time.

      The other point that I liked was on making it matter, writing something well that doesn’t matter to a bigger story, or get used, is a bit of waste of your time (and many of us aspiring writers are experts at fancy hand waving activities that get us “words” for the day but don’t get us a book finished, or articles published, or whatever).

    • Leo Babauta says:

      Thanks for the wonderful comments my friends! I’m glad you liked the post.

      @Hung: Sure, feel free to translate, as long as you give me credit and link back to the original. 🙂

    • CatherineL says:

      Hi Leo – as someone who has spent a good part of the day switching between writing activities and not getting a single one finished – I wish I’d read this post this morning!

    • “The happiness of too many days is often destroyed by trying to accomplish too much in one day. We would do well to follow a common rule for our daily lives – Do Less and Do It Better.” – Dale E. Turner

      Just this one quote was worth the whole article. I could feel myself relax. Steps at the end to celebrate your accomplishment are great. I think we often skip them and consequently feel like we “didn’t get anything done today.” Thanks, Leo.

    • I always love reading about other people’s writing processes. I like the idea about deciding the night before the one piece you’re going to work on the next day. I’m also a fan of brain storming initially because I get loads of ideas which can be worked into other articles or stories, depending on what I’m writing.

      Brainstorming also shows me if I’m going to quickly run out of enthusiasm for my topic. If this stage of the creative process ends with me being bored or less sure, then there’s a good chance the subject matter isn’t right, or it’s not what I want to be writing at the moment. I save it for later…just in case.

      There is one thing you’ve written that I have a reservation about though: “write it well”. Obviously you’re saying to keep the whole writing task simple and focus on quality, but I think if you are too stuck on writing a “great piece” when you’re starting out, the perfectionist within can creep out and mess with your confidence and flow.

      I really believe in Hemingway’s “91 pages of shit” to get to that “1 page of masterpiece”. Now, I admit I prefer better percentages than that, but if I expect nothing of myself in the first draft then I often find I write better and have to edit less in the end. And sometimes I come up with a whole new angle I would never have found if I hadn’t freed myself up from inner perfectionist.


      ay. pressure can

    • It’s all about focus. As long as you know exactly what you need to do and don’t try to do too much at once, success will be that much easier.

    • Great article, Leo.

      I have a few additional points as written by Ernest Hemingway. I think these fit nicely into the above list.

      I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

      For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

      And my own personal favorite:

      The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.

      Thanks again.

      Takuin Minamoto

    • hung says:

      hi, it’s a wonderful post, is that possible that i can translate it into other language version? Thank you. I think I need to get your permission to do that. Thanks

    • Allena says:

      Go Leo! Thanks for the inspiration.

    • This is such great advice Leo – thanks for distilling it down into a digestible amount! That is my biggest writing problem currently – on my new blog project (link’s in the name, if you’re interested) I’m finding that I really wish I had an editor to help me to boil the topics down a bit, making them more concise.

      An article that is focused on how to boil ideas down when you write too much would complement this one really well.

      Thanks again!

    • Tim Visher says:

      Great post yet again. I too love the reference to the Unix Programming Philosophy! 🙂

      I’m not a writer of great posts or anything but one thing that I have found has helped me tremendously in my writing so far is the brainstorming of a topic. One of the greatest deterrents before was that I would often want to write a post that would turn into a 10 page essay. Since, I’ve learned that often times that can serve as the material for 7 or 8 articles/posts as long as you take a step back once you’re done brainstorming and identify the overarching themes in the topic areas. Then, you’ve got a ready made schedule to write to as you approach it one topic at a time, which I suppose applies to points 2-4 quite well.

      Anyway, there’s 2 cents for you!

      Great job, keep up the terrific writing and insights!

      Timmy V.

    • This post has just appeared at the right moment. I’ve been dithering about what to write next. I’ve stumbled across an inspiring and deeply touching real-life story that would make a wonderful post but will take a lot of work to write and shape. And then there is the next blog post to do and the extra chapter I want to put into my Ebook, and…and…and…

      The upshot: I haven’t written anything the last two days – which is quite unusual for me.

      Ok then – today I’ll write just one thing and write it well. And I’ll choose the real-life story because that’s what I want to write, not what I should be writing.

      Maybe that’s important: in choosing that one thing to write, it should be chosen from our ‘want’ list, not from our ‘should’ folder.

    • Bobbi says:

      Thanks, Leo, for this blog and Zen Habits. You bring a moment of calm and centeredness to my day. Plus the community of all of us working on the process together adds strength. Love the growing trend that multi-tasking is not what us humans were made to do. I’ve got to write a second draft of an article for one client and was planning on blocking off all of today to do it. That means responding to only the most pressing interruptions. Thanks for the encouragement. ~Bobbi

    • Howdy Leo,

      I love this post. I’ve been swamped with midterms as of late, and I was worried about pumping out less than stellar material that I know I’m capable of. Simple, sweet and practical. Thanks!

    • Love the reference to the Unix programming philosophy. “Do one thing and do it well” is a wonderful mantra to apply to all aspects of life, let alone writing. Good post!

    • “Try to block out all distractions, to really put your mind into your writing, to get lost in what you’re doing. This will require at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time — an hour is better, and two hours are even better than that.”

      We could accomplish a lot more than we perhaps do if we really set aside a block of time–30 minutes to two hours or so–and do nothing but write the article, blog post, press release, book chapter, whatever.

      Simply pick the block of time, set the clock or alarm, and just write. Laser-like focus can really help us to write better and get much more writing done than we would normally if we sort of haphazardly pick a time to write and don’t eliminate as many distractions as possible.

    • Warren says:

      Excellent post. It is remarkable how not having a clear goal for what you want to write in a day can make your head clog and in effect damage your writing. Much like any goals you have, writing should have clear objectives before starting.

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