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The Best Way to Succeed as a Writer is to Demand Less of Yourself

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

The power that comes from meeting ridiculously modest goals

I finished the first draft of a screenplay last week. It’s the fourth one I’ve written in three years, and I’ve written all of them in the hours when I’ve not been writing a book, or writing here, or on my blog, or for other websites or magazines.

I’m not super-human. I don’t even consider myself prodigious. My trick, if I have one, is to set ridiculously modest goals for my output and then meet them every day.

Before I wrote my last book I thought about how I would pace myself. I had a full-time job and a large family and a taste for good Scotch. I didn’t want to give up my life for the book. So I studied other writers, when they wrote but also how much each day. I liked Graham Greene’s model for output: 500 words a day, five or six days a week. (Greene lightly fictionalized his approach in The End of the Affair, the audio version of which Colin Firth narrates. It’s amazing.)

Five hundred words a day is between an hour and a half to three hours of work for me. That’s manageable. With the last book I could wake early and get 500 words down before I made breakfast for the kids or took meetings at the day job.

That was the point. You should never strain when you’re writing a book or a long magazine piece or essay. Straining leads to exhaustion and exhaustion to frustration and frustration to poorly told stories or, worse, abandoned writing projects.

You will never publish what you don’t finish.

When I started writing screenplays and TV pilots, in the gaps in my calendar when I wasn’t writing a book, I set the same low standard: Two pages a day. I can sometimes finish that in a half hour. Sometimes it takes two and a half hours because I’m imagining the progression of subsequent scenes. In either case it’s manageable, and because of that I return to the work the next day, which is how I’ve written four scripts in three years.

Hit me up if you want to know more about how to manage multiple writing projects at the same time. I’ve developed a system for that too, one I began to lay out here and might cover in more depth elsewhere.

Next week, I’ll start to revise my new script. I’m envisioning it as a feature film and, as you’ll see below, this one is too long. I’ll be cutting whole scenes and re-writing others and every day doing the minimum amount of work to feel like I’m making real progress.

New to my blog? I'm a best-selling author and award-winning journalist who's written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.


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