How to Work From Home If You’re Not Used to Working From Home

Today four universities in my home state announced a temporary shutdown due to COVID-19. A number of U.S. businesses are arranging for workers to work remotely, rather than risk coming into the office or commuting on public transport.

Working or studying from home takes some adjustment if you’re not used to it. I made my adjustment back in 2009, when a medical condition prevented me from leaving my house – sometimes, for weeks at a stretch.

I’ve worked from home for over ten years now. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it successfully.

how to work from home

Create a Dedicated Workspace

It’s tempting to sack out on the couch when you’re working from home. (I’m on my couch right now.) Working where you relax, however, can have two negative effects: It can distract you from work, and it can make relaxation time feel like a chore.

Instead, create a space to work in. If you’re lucky enough to have a separate room, use it. If not, set up a desk or a card table or a corner of the kitchen. Put a TV tray at one end of your couch and use that end for work; when not working, sit on the other end.

The goal is to have a place you can do your work and store work things (papers, your laptop, etc). Choose a place you can focus on work and that you can walk away from when work time is over.

Schedule Your Work Time

Carving out a space in which to get into “work mode” is important. Carving out time to do the same is just as important – if not more so.

You may not need to stay on your ordinary work schedule while working from home, especially if you typically have a lengthy commute. It is a good idea, however, to stay on a regular work schedule that parallels your ordinary schedule. You’ll be available to co-workers and clients (see below), and you’ll be able to retrain your brain into a work/home schedule more easily.

Try to work during the same block of time each day. Alert your family that you are working and are not to be bothered. Don’t respond to things like the front door or personal phone calls while you’re working. You wouldn’t be home to answer the door if you were at the office, and you’re still not available during work hours even if you are physically home.

Communicate With Your Team (More)

One of the biggest things that surprises new telecommuters or remote workers is how much more electronic communication is necessary when you don’t work in a face to face environment.

Communicate with your boss, co-workers, staff and clients even more than you think you need to. Get into the habit of sending a check-in email at least once a day, updating others on your progress. If you lead a team, make the check-in a part of everyone’s work day.

Communication also helps maintain relationships. You’ll be able to help co-workers adjust to working remotely, and you’ll maintain the human connections we’ll desperately need should COVID-19 seriously destabilize social and economic functions.

Use Multiple Channels

To boost communication, use or recommend using multiple channels and types. Skype, FaceTime, teleconference calls, shared Google Docs, email, text, Slack, Messenger, WhatsApp, and the like are your friends in a remote-work situation.

Each of these tools performs a different role, and the combination of roles can help a team complete tasks they might struggle with on any one channel.

For example: I’ve worked with a remote content marketing team for nearly two years now. We communicate daily via Slack and email. We meet on GoMeetMe, and we work in shared Google Drive files when we need to collaborate on particular tasks.

Each of these channels performs a specific function that would be clunky over any other, if not outright impossible. Emailing documents back and forth is a nightmare compared to working in a shared Google Doc. Having voice conversations really helps us with idea generation as a team and helps us support one another (and I say this as someone who struggles with auditory processing). And I appreciate that the pet photos and bad puns stay on Slack, where they aren’t cluttering up my inbox.

We have more tools and channels for communication at a distance than we have ever had before in human history. Apply the strengths of several to help keep yourself and everyone else on track.

Back Up Your Data – And Yourself

Automatic backups are ubiquitous these days. If you typically work with an office computer or tablet, chances are good that your company has some kind of automatic backup system in place, in addition to the ones embedded in programs like Google Drive and Microsoft Word.

At home, however, you may need to do your own backups. Keep all your work information backed up to an external drive, if possible. Use a thumb drive or an external hard drive for large projects.

In addition, it’s important to “back up” yourself. Should the worst occur and you find yourself infected with COVID-19, you may end up requiring hospitalization or at least extensive bed rest.

In this situation, you may need someone else to contact your boss, co-workers, or clients in order to let them know what has happened and how you are doing. Make sure someone trustworthy has a way to contact someone on your work team. For example, give your spouse your boss’s email address or phone number.

The goal of working remotely is to reduce your chances of contracting or passing on COVID-19. Ideally, you won’t need a backup person – but it’s best to have one just in case.

Clean Your Devices

Our laptops, tablets and cell phones are surprisingly dirty – more than your average pet toy or toilet seat. Washing your hands religiously doesn’t do much good if the first thing you touch is your germ-ridden keyboard.

I’m certain my keyboard was one of the dirty ones. I know exactly when my toilet seat was last cleaned with bleach (this morning). My laptop? I also know exactly when that was last cleaned: Never.

(Well, almost. I fixed that before I started writing this post.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of online guides to cleaning laptops and other devices. If yours has been to the office or commuted with you, clean it as soon as possible.

Walk Away At the End of the Day

Last but not least, when you’re done working at your newly-remote or newly-telecommuting position at the end of the day, leave work behind.

Leave work behind physically, by shutting down your laptop or tablet, depositing it in your workspace, and physically leaving that space (even if that just means shifting to the other end of the couch). Leave it behind mentally by focusing on other tasks, like making dinner or playing with the dog. If a work task continues to bug you mentally, write it down and put it on your work pile to deal with in the morning.

One of the great disadvantages of working from home is that it enables us to work all the time. Because we can work all the time, we start to think we should.

We should not. Working nonstop is unhealthy: physically, mentally and emotionally. If all you do is work, you can’t be fully present for your own needs, much less for those of your friends, family and neighbors – people who will need each other, and whom you will need, if things get worse.

Set a schedule that includes your quitting time for the day, and stick to it. You can tackle the next task tomorrow.

Working from home takes some adjustment, and it’s not ideal for everyone. By planning ahead and maintaining good communication, however, you can ease the transition and protect your own and others’ health at the same time.


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Creativity by Markov Chain, or Why Predictive Text Isn’t the Novel-Writing Shortcut You’re Looking For

Over the past year, I’ve played with Botnik‘s predictive text generator to create everything from alternative histories of popular holidays to terrible Christmas carol lyrics to the median New Year’s resolutions. It’s fun, it’s silly, and it is far more labor-intensive than most people imagine computer-generated texts would be.

Most of the conversations I see around AI and text generation assume that writers are going to be put out of business shortly. They assume that AI can not only generate text but generate it well, without human intervention.

These assumptions are…a bit overdone.

Here’s why predictive-text novels won’t be the next big trend in literature.

social media image with title of blog post

What’s a Markov Chain?

Predictive text is typically powered by a Markov chain, an algorithm that tracks a set of defined “states” and determines the probability of jumping to the next state from a current position in any one state.

For instance, if you wanted to create a super-simple Markov chain model of a writer’s behavior, “writing” might be one state and “not-writing” might be another. (This list of possible states is called a “state space.”) At any given time, the writer is either “writing” or “not-writing.”

There are four possible transitions between “writing” and “not-writing”:

  1. writing to writing (“must finish paragraph!”),
  2. writing to not-writing (“what’s on Netflix?”),
  3. not-writing to writing (“once…upon…a…time”), and
  4. not-writing to not-writing (“why yes, I WILL binge all of The Witcher, thanks”).

Thus, the probability of making a transition from any state to any other state is 0.5 (here’s a visual representation). At least at the beginning.

Markov chains also have a limited ability to learn from data inputs. For instance, one could program a two-state Markov chain to predict whether you will write or not-write on any given day, based on last year’s calendar. (If you’re like me, your Markov chain will be more likely to predict that you’ll write tomorrow if you wrote today, and more likely to predict not-writing tomorrow if you didn’t write today.)

What Does This Have to Do With Predictive Text?

Predictive text algorithms are Markov chains. They analyze words you have input in the past (or in the case of Botnik, how often words appear in proximity to other words) in order to predict the probability of you jumping to a particular word from the state “the word you just wrote.”

Why Writing With Predictive Text is Hard

You don’t need to understand the nuances of Markov chains to grasp that a book written by one would be tough to produce – but that understanding does make it easier to explain why.

Markov Has a Short Memory

As mentioned above, Markov chains have a limited ability to adjust their predictions based on factors like how frequently a state appears or how often it appears relative to (as in, before or after) other states.

The key word in that sentence is limited.

Markov chains don’t have any memory of the past. They can tell you which word is most likely to appear after this word, but they can’t tell you whether that prediction has already appeared 500 times or not at all.

In online predictive-text memes, this means that some results get stuck in an endless loop. For instance:

Predictive text meme Tweet

Predictive text meme Tweet that reads “Trans people are going to be a good time to get a chance to look at the time to get a chance to look at the time to get a chance to look at the time….” A response reads “Ok but did you get a chance to look at the time?”

This was a response to a predictive-text meme on Twitter that challenged people to type “Trans people are” into their phones and then hit the predictive-text suggestion to generate a result. This Twitterer’s predictive text got caught in a loop pretty quickly – it doesn’t recognize that it said “time to get a chance to look at the” already. It takes another human to save the joke here: “Ok but did you get a chance to look at the time?”

What Does This Mean for a Predictive-Text Novel?

A Markov chain’s predictive limitations pose two problems for long-form creative text generation:

  1. The Markov chain can get stuck. The more common a word is, the more likely it is to get stuck. “A,” “and,” “the,” “of,” and similar function words can easily trap the chain.
  2. Novels depend on memory. Story development requires attention to what came before. Predictive text, however, can only predict what word is most likely to come next. They can’t do that in the context of prior theme, character or plot development.

The results, therefore, are more likely to be incomprehensible than anything else – at least without careful editing. (I’ll get to that below.) For some examples of absurdist Markov chain results, see r/SubredditSimulator, which consists entirely of Reddit posts by Markov chains.

The Raw Material Blues

While generating last year’s various holiday posts on Botnik, I quickly discovered that the raw material fed to the predictive text generator makes a huge difference in the quality of the output.

If you’ve read the post series, you may have noticed a trend: In each one, I note that I fed “the first page of Google search results” or “the first twenty” Google search results” to Botnik (those are the same number, by the way). Why so specific?

It appears that the minimum size of the text bank Botnik requires to produce text that is funny but not incomprehensible is 20:1. In other words, if I wanted a blog-post-sized text, I needed to put in at least 20 texts of equal or greater length.

Twenty to one might even be undershooting it. Most of my predictive-text posts are around 500 words, while the top Google results from which they were generated tended to be 1,500 to 2,000 words.

What Does This Mean for a Predictive-Text Novel?

I haven’t tested this ratio on anything longer than a blog post. I do not, however, have any reason to believe that the ratio would be smaller for a novel. In fact, I predict the ratio would be larger for a coherent novel that looked sufficiently unlike its predecessor to survive a copyright challenge.

In every holiday blog post I generated via predictive text, the generator got “stuck” in a sentence of source text at least once. In other words, the Markov chain decided that the most likely word to follow the one on screen was the next word that already existed in a sentence somewhere in my source text.

When generating text from Google’s top twenty blog posts on the history of Thanksgiving, for instance, it was pretty easy to pick up on these sticking points. I didn’t have the entire source text memorized, but I knew my Thanksgiving history well enough to recognize when Botnik was being unfunnily accurate.

For a predictive-text novel of 70,000 words, one would need:

  1. Approximately 1.4 million words of source text (minimum), or about twenty 70,000-word novels, and
  2. A sufficient knowledge of that source text to recognize when the predictive text generator had gotten stuck on a single sentence or paragraph.

Point 2 has some creative opportunities. A predictive-text novella based on Moby-Dick, for instance, might benefit from repeating a large chunk of Moby-Dick verbatim (said novella would need to stay under 10,455 words to fit within the source text limitations, if you’re wondering). But the writer would still have to know Moby-Dick well enough to recognize when predictive text was simply reciting the book versus when it wasn’t:

 We, so artful and bold, hold the universe? No! When in one’s midst, that version of Narcissus who for now held somewhat aloof, looking up as pretty rainbows in which stood Moby-Dick. What name Dick? or five of Hobbes’ king? Why it is that all Merchant-seamen, and also all Pirates and Man-of-War’s men, and Slave-ship sailors, cherish such a scornful feeling towards Whale-ships; this is a question it
would be hard to answer. Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should
like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory
about it. Blackstone, soon to attack of Moby-Dick; for these extracts of whale answered; we compare with such. That famous old craft’s story of skrimshander storms upon this grand hooded phantom of honor!

A Future for Creative Writing?

I learned with the first predictive-text holiday post that I couldn’t accept the predictive-text generator’s first suggestion every time, nor could I click suggestions at random. I was still writing; it’s just that I was choosing the next word in each sentence from a predictive-text generator’s suggestions, not from my own much larger vocabulary.

Many conversations about predictive-text creative writing suggest or assume that predictive-text will eventually take over our own creative processes – that it will supplant writing rather than support it. Not in its current form, it won’t.

For me, some aspects of writing via predictive text are actually harder than writing on my own. The Markov chain frequently backs into function-word corners and has to be saved with the judicious application of new content words. Punctuation is typically absent. Because the algorithm has no idea what it wrote previously, it doesn’t know how to stay on topic, nor does it know how to build coherent ideas over time.

Everything it couldn’t do, I had to do – and I had to do it with my next word choice perpetually limited to one of eighteen options.

That said, I love the idea that predictive-text authoring could arise as an art form within writing itself. Predictive text generators challenge us to engage with the art and craft of writing in new ways. They set new limitations, but they also suggest new possibilities. In so doing, they create an opportunity to engage with writing in new – and often hilarious – ways.

Anyway, here’s Wonderwall:

So maybe
Ya go to sadness baby
Cause when you tried
I have wasted dreams


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Why Is Writing Hard?

I write for a living. For several years, I taught writing for a living, as both a college professor and a developmental editor. And the question I hear more often than any other is “Why is writing hard?”

Why is writing hard? Why do people struggle with writing? Can writing be taught?

The question “why is writing hard?” presumes, first, that writing is hard. This assumption lurks in related questions as well.

It even appears in the question “Can writing be taught?” – a question I heard asked more often, and answered in the negative, in university writing departments than anywhere else. The assumption was that generally speaking, writing cannot be taught. Those of us who find writing easy were born this way. We have something the vast majority of people don’t – something that can be winnowed out and honed by other good writers, but that cannot be taught by them.

I think that’s nonsense.

At the same time, however, I’m often at a loss to explain how it is I learned to write well. My own experience with writing is innate and organic. I don’t know where or how I learned to do this; I just know I can.

So I started looking into the research.

social media image with post title "why is writing hard?"

Thought With an Audience

Every time I asked this question in a freshman composition class, the consensus was the same: “To express yourself.” “To get your thoughts down on paper.” Each class also agreed, though less strongly, that “expressing yourself” was the easy part of writing.

But if the goal of writing is to “express yourself,” which is “easy,” then why is writing hard?

Expressing yourself in writing may be the beginning of the process, but it isn’t the end. In a 1979 article in College English, Linda Flower asserts that “expressing what you think” in writing fails to account for the public nature of writing. Our own thoughts tend to be full of shortcuts comprehensible only to us. We know what we mean, so there’s no need to define or explain key images, words or phrases.

When we transcribe those thoughts into writing, however, we’re placing them into a context that allows them to be accessed by other people. Other people, however, have no access to the contents of our brains except what we give them.

To write effectively, then, the writer must be able to take the perspective of the reader. By “stepping into the reader’s shoes,” the writer can determine which ideas need to be defined or explained for the written expression of their thoughts to make sense.

Failing to factor in the audience’s perspective “is the source of some of the most common and pervasive problems in academic and professional writing,” says Flower.

Why is writing hard? Writing isn’t merely thought; it’s thought with an audience.

Teaching Students to Fear Writing

The process of taking a student from “putting their thoughts on paper” to “creating a work that accounts for an audience” is, in essence, the process of teaching students how to write. That process, as taught, is a complex one.

In a 1979 article in Language Arts titled “Andrea Learns to Make Writing Hard,” Donald H. Graves details the process by which an eight year old named Andrea learns to write.

“Three months ago writing was effortless for Andrea,” says Graves. “It was as if there were no decisions to be made…. The subject predetermined the words. All she had to do was put them down.” Once written, Andrea’s words didn’t change. The first draft was also the final draft.

Over the course of three months, however, Andrea learned to revise, to think through word and sentence choices, to experiment with the ordering of ideas. To do so, says Graves, Andrea had first to let go of her attachment to “neatness,” or to thinking of the single written draft as something she couldn’t change or mar with revision notes. She also had to accept and implement directions from her teacher, including directions to insert changes into her written draft, to prewrite (here, by drawing the story before writing it), and to draft multiple versions of key sentences or paragraphs.

By the end of the three-month period, Andrea has adopted all of these activities into her own writing process. The result has morphed from a single draft to several pages of notes, alternate versions of topic sentences, and similar flotsam generated in the writing process.

Andrea’s process is similar to the process I’ve seen emerge from other student writers over the years. It suggests to me that the very process of teaching revision is one of the things that makes writing seem “difficult.” Beginning writers see writing as a one-step process: Write down the words in your head. As they advance, however, they begin to see writing as a more complex process.

You’re Doing It Wrong

The more complexities are required of a writer, the more difficult the task can seem. As educational therapist Regina G. Richards notes, “Many students feel writing takes too long. For some, writing is a very laborious task because there are so many subcomponents which need to be pulled together.”

Yet a complex process is not inherently a difficult one. Many complex tasks are time-consuming without being difficult (a point my own fourth-grade teacher was fond of stressing when we complained about tasks like copying out definitions from the dictionary). And many students master complex processes in other subjects, such as long division, without developing a lifelong antagonism with their “difficulty.” So what makes writing different?

In a 2009 article, Heidi Andrade et al. articulate an attempt to create clear, useful assessment tools for middle schoolers’ writing. Among the criteria included were measures that allowed teachers to mark down errors that “make the writing hard to understand.”

Yet, as Flower notes, the first step in most students’ – indeed, in most people’s! – writing process is to get their own thoughts on paper, irrespective of an audience. “Express your own thoughts” is, in a sense, the default state of writing. It is also, by its very nature, the most difficult for an audience to understand, because every point of reference is still the sole property of the writer.

In other words, when children find this sort of default writing marked down as “hard to understand,” the message they receive is “your natural instinct or approach to writing is itself an error.” 

These students are no longer starting from a “natural” or “default” state; rather, they are set back into the realm of actual error and the emotional unpleasantness that results from that.

“Accusations of laziness, poor motivation, and a reprehensible attitude are often directed toward deficit writers. The results can be a serious loss of incentive, a generalized academic disenchantment and demoralization,” says Melvin D. Levine (qtd. in Richards).

Yet often, these writers are not being “lazy.” They are operating from the default writing expectation or state because they lack the tools to do anything else  – and because they’re told that when they try, they’re “doing it wrong.”

What’s the Answer?

The answer, I think, cannot be to stop teaching writing as a process of reaching an audience. With the sole exception of the private diary or journal, all writing exists to be read by others.

Rather, I believe writing can be made easier by first acknowledging that “expressing yourself on paper” or “getting the ideas down” is not an error, but a natural starting point. After all, a writer who does not clearly understand their own ideas won’t communicate them effectively to others. Writers who write in terms only they understand are doing the natural first step in the writing process.

Once ideas are clear to the writer, then, perhaps teaching revision ought to be done in terms of the audience. Many of my own students reached college with the idea that “creating multiple versions of a thesis statement” or “coming up with an attention-grabbing first sentence” were writing steps that ought to be done, but with no clear idea why. When I explained to them that the entire purpose of these steps was to make sure your audience stayed with you, the lightbulb went on – and their papers improved.

Finally, perhaps it’s time for writers and writing teachers to step away from the page altogether. Taking the perspective of others is a skill. Like other skills, it improves with practice. Role-playing and similar tools may help writers bridge the gap from “my own ideas” to “ideas I share” without making the process feel like a total slog.


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Writer’s Block: What It Is and How to Beat It

I write several thousand words a day, both for a living and for my own amusement. And so I get asked about writer’s block more than anything.

“How do you get over writer’s block?” “What’s your secret for never having writer’s block?” “What is writer’s block, anyway?”

I often hesitate to answer these questions because I haven’t had the answers. Writer’s block has never been a longstanding problem for me. In fact, I usually suffer from the opposite problem – I want to stop writing and go do other things, but I’m driven to continue.

Fortunately, other people have done research on writer’s block. Here’s what they know.

writers block

Writer’s Block: What Is It?

When people ask about beating “writer’s block,” they’re typically talking about an inability to write that is separate from the desire to write. They want to write, but when they sit down to do it, nothing comes out.

Often, writer’s block occurs independently of the knowledge or ability to write. People with writer’s block know how to start a project; they may, in fact, have started many writing projects in the past and finished them successfully.

Writer’s block can also occur independently of having a topic or idea in mind. A person with writer’s block may know exactly what they want to write about. They may have both the internal motivation (“this is important!”) and the external motivation (“I’m on a deadline!”) to write.

And yet…they’re stuck.

Tips for Beating Writer’s Block

The logical first step in any case of “writer’s block” is to make sure that writer’s block is what you have.

In other words:

  • Do you have the desire/motivation to write a particular thing?
  • Do you have the tools, time and space to write the thing?
  • Do you know what you want to write the thing about?
  • Do you know how to start this kind of written thing?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” fix that first and see if it resolves the problem. If the answer to all four is “yes,” the problem is likely one of writer’s block.

What Kind of Writer’s Block Do You Have?

Not all writer’s block is created equal. In a 1998 article in Canadian Family Physician, Patricia Huston sorts writer’s block into three levels of severity: mild, moderate and recalcitrant.

Huston suggests different treatment strategies for each level of blockage:

  • Mild writer’s block may be resolved by evaluating and revising expectations, conducting a task analysis, and encouraging oneself to continue.
  • Moderate writer’s block may be resolved by engaging in creative exercises, like brainstorming and role-playing.
  • Recalcitrant writer’s block may require therapy.

Huston also suggests a number of strategies for preventing writer’s block, such as writing at the beginning of projects (often called prewriting or freewriting), working with a supportive writer’s group, and “cultivating an ongoing interest in writing.”

Revise Your Expectations

If you know what you want to write and how to do it, the problem isn’t a lack of rules or guidelines. But do you have too many rules and guidelines?

In a 1980 article in College Composition and Communication, Mike Rose discusses several writing students who struggled with writer’s block, comparing them to similarly-skilled classmates who had no such struggles.

Rose found that the blocked writers were often derailed by their adherence to overly-strict writing rules. Their writing “had to” look a certain way, or they couldn’t continue. In some cases, they couldn’t even start.

The strict rules these writers struggled with included:

  • The first sentence has to grab your audience’s attention. If you can’t write an attention-grabbing first sentence, you can’t continue.
  • An essay has to have three or more points. If you can’t make at least three points about your topic, the essay isn’t finished or doesn’t “count.”
  • You must have a clear plan and outline before you begin. You cannot start writing just to see where a topic leads; you have to know where the end is before you start.
  • An essay must be full of “scintillating insights,” so you have to collect cool facts, quips, quotes, etc. before you start. Then you must work them into the paper, even if some of them don’t seem to fit.
  • “Always try to ‘psych out’ the professor” by writing a piece that brilliantly subverts expectations while also meeting those expectations. If you can’t do that, your paper can’t possibly be good enough.
  • All the rules of good essay writing have to be used at once. For instance, you must use transitions for flow and evidence for weight, and you must balance these perfectly as you write.

When used as guidelines, rules like these can help an essay stay recognizable as an essay while also effectively conveying the writer’s knowledge of a given subject area. “Always” and “never,” however, are rarely useful rules in writing.

For instance, one of my high school English teachers insisted on the “attention-grabbing first sentence” rule. While I was willing to play along for the sake of my grade, I didn’t force myself to write that first sentence before I went on.

Instead, I’d start my first draft with a thesis statement, then move on to the points I wanted to make, then the conclusion. Once the conclusion was finished, I’d use its summary of the points made in the essay to inspire an attention-grabbing first sentence.

I used this method throughout my academic career. I still use it today. And I still get compliments for how well my articles are “tied together.”

Resources

ReadWriteThink: Essay Map – a user-friendly way to organize ideas.

EndNote – organize sources and references.

Hemingway App – helps you analyze the readability of a draft. You don’t have to make perfect sentences; you just need to write down any sentences, then put them through this app.

InstaGrok – put in any topic, get an interactive mind map linking it to other topics. Great for when you “want to write about ___,” but don’t know where to go from there.

Get Creative

Rose notes that over-planning can trip up writers of non-fiction essays and articles. The desire to plan perfectly may lead to paralysis.

The same thing can happen to fiction writers, whether or not they see themselves as the planning type.

Author Mercedes Lackey notes that “writer’s block” may actually be the writer’s subconscious recognizing that, for some reason, the story cannot continue in the direction it’s going. Sensing that the story won’t work, the subconscious puts on the brakes.

This kind of writer’s block “can happen whether you are a meticulous outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer. You are about to make a big mistake, and your subconscious is stopping you,” says Lackey.

This type of block may be best resolved with Huston’s strategies for “moderate” writer’s block: Get creative. Ask, “what else could happen here?”, and generate ideas before evaluating or criticizing them. Try role-playing one of your characters to see what other reactions they might have.

For me, the “two for one” method works well to generate new plot ideas and potential character arcs. It follows one rule: Every solution to a problem must generate two new problems. 

Typically, I’ll run 30 to 50 iterations of this as an idea-generation method. In the finished story or novel, of course, it won’t go on forever; eventually the characters find a way to wrap up enough loose ends to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. As a means to figuring out the story and the characters’ responses to conflict, however, it can be powerful – and a lot of fun.

Resources

Seventh Sanctum – plot, character and setting generators

The John Fox – story idea generator

Reedsy Plot Generator – over 1 million components. Click various components to lock or unlock them, then generate again to fine-tune ideas.

When Writer’s Block Isn’t

Writers spend a great deal of time not writing. Writer procrastination and delay is a running joke in writing communities. It’s the reason so many writing-related hashtags on Twitter are full of people making fun of themselves for tweeting instead of writing.

This type of “writer’s block,” however, isn’t a hurdle. Rather, it’s what Donald M. Murray calls “essential delay” – the soil from which writing sprouts and blossoms. Writer’s block is a state of being stuck; essential delay is a state of preparation. If essential delay is wintertime, writer’s block is Narnia’s “always winter and never Christmas.”

The good news? It’s possible to turn a case of writer’s block into a state of essential delay, using the same strategies recommended by Huston, Rose and Lackey. Murray finds several different processes occur during essential delay:

  • Information-gathering. Professional writers “collect warehouses full of information, far more than they need, so much information that its sheer abundance makes the need for meaning and order insistent,” says Murray. When the need for meaning and order reaches critical mass, essential delay turns into writing.
  •  Insight. When various ideas start to coalesce into “a single vision or dominant insight,” writing may commence as a way to test that vision or insight. For instance, finding a problem that can be solved by writing may help a writer overcome the delay imposed by having a lot of ideas with no common theme.
  • Need. Writers often experience two needs: The need to write, and the need for the audience to listen. Until these needs coincide, however, the writer may stay in the planning or musing phase.

Planning and organization also play a role in the essential delay phase. In some cases, they’re necessary to move a writer forward – as long as they don’t absorb all of your attention.

When All Else Fails

When all else fails, use writer’s block itself as the source of creativity.

My favorite example of this by far is Dennis Upper‘s paper in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Titled “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block,'” Upper’s paper is a masterwork on the effects of writer’s block on otherwise trained and productive professionals. (I suggest you read the entire paper for yourself; it’s quite short.)

My own best piece of writer’s block advice is this:

Don’t let yourself think that writing the piece itself is the only thing that counts as writing.

Brainstorming, freewriting, outlining, doodling mind maps, reading the thesaurus entry for a particular word in order to see how that concept is connected to other concepts, falling down the Wikipedia hole – all of these are part of writing. Your “writing time” is just as productive if you spend it freewriting about a character’s motivations than if you spent it actually writing the story in which that character appears.

The trick is to find the balance between these activities and actually writing the piece you intend to show an audience. That’s what separates those who write from those who merely aspire to do so.


Inspired to beat your writer’s block? Here are two ways to say thanks: buy me a coffee or share this post on social media.

How Does an Author Begin Writing a Book?

“How does an author begin writing a book?” is another of the Most Frequently Asked Questions I (and a lot of published authors) face.

Every author comes at it a bit differently. Here’s how I do it.

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The One-Liner

I begin with a one-line concept. Most of these come to me years (or in a couple cases, decades) before I actually begin writing the book.

My current concept list for future novels in the Non-Compliant Space series, beyond the starting trilogy, looks like this:

  • what Molloy did next
  • time travel murder adventure
  • blockchain dystopia
  • the founding of Interstellar Science (Mai’s story)

(That last one is one of the concepts I’ve had in my head for literal decades; I started thinking about that one in 2001 or so.)

Character and Conflict

From the one-line concept, I decide who the main characters are, then start kicking around possible central conflicts.

For me, central conflicts always arise from who the main characters are. Whatever the plot ends up being in “what Molloy did next,” for example, is going to depend entirely on Captain Molloy’s attitude and behavior toward the central conflict. So we already know it’s going to be snarky and prone to flying off the handle for reasons no one talks about.

“Time travel murder adventure” already has a cast pre-determined by the first four books, and given who the cast is, I expect most of the plot in this one to be interpersonal shenanigans.

“Blockchain dystopia” has no characters at all so far, which means it’s fair game to fold into any of the other options so far. I can’t see Molloy caring at all about a blockchain-based dystopia, however, so it’s probably not going to feature as the central conflict in “what Molloy did next.”

Outlines and Suchlike Discontents

Once I have some idea who’s involved and how they’re going to react to the central conflict, I start outlining.

The first outline is usually a page long-ish paragraph summary of the main plot. If I manage to work up any sub-plots at this point, they get their own paragraph.

From here, I turn to the beat sheet method outlined in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! I write messy paragraph summaries as needed until I have some idea how the plot fits onto the beat sheet. This is the point at which sub-plots usually work themselves out for me; not only does the beat sheet explicitly leave space for them, but this is also where I see how they feed into the long decline from the Midpoint to the Dark Night and how they’re essential to the Finale.

Once I have characters, a plot, and a sense of the beats, I can start drafting.

More Scribbling

I typically start each beat with several paragraphs summarizing what happens in that beat. Each paragraph is a scene. If I need to extend this ahead two or three beats, I do.

Then I write the scenes. If I get stuck anywhere, I go back to freewriting paragraphs until I get unstuck.

I repeat this process until I’ve written all the scenes and put them in order. That’s the zero draft.

Almost a Book

Then I retype the entire zero draft into Word. That’s the first draft.

Then editing, a process that, like sausage-making, is best left undescribed.

At some point in this process, I may or may not put on pants. The pants-wearing phase is optional (at least until I have to talk to another human being in meatspace).

The process of finishing a book is somewhat different from the process of starting it. I’ve covered that in detail elsewhere on this blog, including this detailed three-part description of my actual writing process.

But that’s how I start.

How to Start Freelance Writing With No Experience

One of the most common questions I hear as a freelance writer is “I want to start freelancing, but I have no experience. How do I break into the industry?”

I’ve thought about this question a lot. I’ve written about it a lot as well. And the more I think about it, the more I think “How do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Here’s why it’s the wrong question, why we ask it anyway, and what to do about it.

Here’s why “how do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Many – probably most – people come to freelancing with experience having been an employee, but not having been a freelancer. As a result, these people tend to think of freelancing as employment, just with lots of different employers.

This is totally understandable! It’s normal! But it’s also doing the new freelancer a disservice.

As a freelancer, you’re not at the mercy of one employer. You don’t have to convince one company to take you on, throw a bunch of resources at you and hope it works out. As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

That’s really important, so let me repeat it:

As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

So the question isn’t “what do I do if I have no experience”? It’s “what value do I bring to the table”?

Here’s why we ask it anyway.

Experience on past freelance projects is a form of value. In fact, it’s a nicely-packaged form of value. That experience becomes shorthand for reassuring value-add concepts like:

  • I know what I’m doing.
  • I understand this topic area.
  • I can employ the conventions of projects like this.
  • I speak the jargon of this topic area and/or industry.
  • I know how to meet deadlines.
  • I add enough value that other people think my skill worth paying for.

That’s why a lot of places looking for freelancers seek experience. It’s why freelancers that have experience make sure to mention it. “Experience” is a way to communicate a lot of different aspects of value in four syllables.

It is also wildly misleading.

Packing down any set of complex concepts into a single word leaves out a lot of detail. It leaves that single word open to misinterpretation by both parties. For instance, “experience” can cause client misconceptions like:

  • This person just knows exactly what I want.
  • This person has done progressively more difficult projects.
  • This person has a well-ordered system for dealing with upsets, mistakes, third-party fumbles, deadline miscalculations and a host of other problems.

While experience makes it more likely you have (some of) those abilities, experience does not guarantee you have any of them. For instance, your “ten years of experience” may involve having done the same type of project over and over for ten years. You didn’t gain ten years’ worth of learning or development; you simply repeated one year of learning and development ten times.

In other words, “experience” isn’t a land-a-new-client free card. In fact, if you understand what that word stands for, you can beat out experienced freelancers to land a client.

Here’s what to do about it.

“Experience” is a small word that packs a lot of expectations into it. By unpacking the word, you can demonstrate that you offer a client value worth paying for.

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When have I been responsible for similar projects in my life? Can I show the results, such as by uploading them to a digital portfolio?
  • What’s my knowledge of the client’s topic area? If I don’t have any, what experience do I have learning new topic areas quickly?
  • Do I know the jargon of this type of freelance work (writing, graphic design, coding etc.) and/or can I speak the jargon of the client’s industry (SaaS products, law, dentistry, etc.)? If not, how can I demonstrate my ability to learn that jargon quickly?
  • When have I had to meet deadlines in the past, and what were the results? Can I show the results (for instance, with that digital portfolio)?
  • How have I been “paid” for exercising this skill in the past? Payment isn’t always about money. For instance, have you received a high grade in a class on graphic design? Did you create a brochure for a local charity that got lots of praise? Has your fanfiction been upvoted a billion times?

If you have nothing whatsoever to show in your answers to these questions, you’re not prepared to freelance, full stop – because you have zero skills to show in these areas.

For instance, while I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade now, I wouldn’t even begin to seek out freelance work in graphic design. I rely on Canva templates for my featured blog images; I don’t compose those myself. I can talk about graphic design; I can resize and lightly edit photos in Photoshop; I can talk about basic color theory. But ask me to design your logo or branding color scheme from scratch, and I’m going to shake my head.

I don’t have the skills to do graphic design projects well – so I don’t offer that service to clients.

However, if you know graphic design software, concepts and lingo well, and if you’ve had enough exposure to a client’s line of work to have some idea what it’s all about and why good graphic design would matter, you may be equipped to look for freelance clients, even if you’ve never had a freelance graphic design client before.

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to move on to the next set of questions:

  • Can I talk to clients about my ideas, listen to theirs, and find ways to meet in the middle?
  • Can I show growth in my skills over time?
  • Have I thought/read/learned about the most common roadblocks in a freelance project, and do I have a plan for addressing them?

The first one is a matter of confidence. As a brand-new freelancer, you may just have to “fake it till you make it.” If you love the kind of work you’re doing, however, you’ll find it easy to get enthusiastic in conversations about it.

The second one can best be done by setting up a freelance portfolio, which is easy for writers to do on sites like WordPress (see mine above). For graphic designers and coders, there are sites that specialize in showcasing visual works and/or code.

The third one is something you can learn, often from online sources like this one. You can’t be prepared for every weird eventuality, but you can learn what the most common problems are for freelancers and prepare for them. You can learn what should go in a freelance contract and how to read contracts that clients offer to you.

If you can express your value and understand how to interact with clients as another business, you can freelance. Yes, even if you have no freelance experience.


If this article is helpful to you, please consider helping me by sharing on social media or leaving a tip. Best wishes on your freelance adventure!

How to Make a Living as a Freelance Writer

Writing for a living sounds like a dream come true, right? You can sit at home in your pajamas or travel the world, turning words into art that inspires and informs your readers. What could be better?

In my opinion: not much.

In addition to doing a fair amount of satire, fiction, academic, and legal writing, I’ve supported my household solely from freelance writing for the past decade, and this website contains a lot of the details on how I do it. Here’s the overview you need to start planning your own freelance writing career: everything you need to figure out how to write for a living.

How to make a living as a writer

1. Gather what you need.

Writing is one of the cheapest businesses to start. Generally speaking, you’re ready to write if you have:

  • a computer with word processing tools (Google Docs counts) and Internet access
  • a place you can both write and think
  • a copy of your resume (optimized for freelance writing) and a few samples

A few other tools will come in handy as well, like a printer and a place to keep paperwork.

The other essential you need to make a living writing? Time.

Many people do launch successful freelance careers while also working a day job. There’s something to be said for that: you always have income to fall back on.

On the other hand, launching your writing career while also working full-time takes longer. There’s less motivation to make it work, and less available energy to devote to it.

If you have the luxury of deciding whether or not to quit a current job while you work on building a writing career, spend some time weighing the pros and cons. Look at your budget, look at your schedule, and decide what’s going to (a) give you the time and energy to write while (b) ensuring you can eat.

2. Understand what you bring to the table.

Every freelance writer has a slightly different background, and the successful ones all play to their strengths.

For instance, I started writing after leaving the practice of law, and for the first several years, all I did was legal writing. I branched briefly into writing on education while earning my BA in English, and now I focus almost solely on writing epic content for B2B tech companies.

Sit down and make a list. What jobs have you had in the past, and what topics did you learn about there? What subjects in school sparked your passions? If you’ve written before, what was it about – and do you want to write more in that same topic area?

Try to identify both your ideal writing topics and those in which you already possess a reasonable knowledge base. You’ll strive for the ideals, but the ones in which you’re competent will often be the source of your base income, especially in the beginning.

While you’re daydreaming, determine what your ideal freelance writing clients look like:

  • Do you want to work on retainer for a few large clients, guaranteeing a certain amount of work each week in exchange for a certain amount of pay, even if you’re not thrilled by the topics?
  • Do you enjoy the chase, always looking for new assignments and new topics?
  • Do you want to be a subject matter expert or a thought leader in one topic area, no matter how many new clients you have to rustle up to get there?

Understanding your preferences helps you organize your search, so you spend more time contacting the types of clients you want and avoiding the types you don’t.

Also, take some time to think about your ideal schedule. When will you write? How much time do you want between receiving an assignment and completing it (per 100 words)? Timing will factor into your choices as well, so consider what does and doesn’t work for you.

3. Figure out what you’re looking for and look for it.

Once you know what you bring to the table and what your ideal clients and schedule look like, it’s time to start looking for freelance work. There are three primary ways to do this:

  • Cold-contacting. Find companies, organizations, etc. that could benefit from the type of writing you want to do. Call or email them. Let them know you’re available. There are dozens of guides to cold-calling for freelance writers online, but it’s tough for me to give solid advice in this area because…I’ve never actually done it.
  • Freelance writer ads. Craigslist offers dozens of new ads for freelance writers every single day. Sites like Freelance Writing Jobs (which I’ve used for years) curate these so you don’t end up spending your whole day on Craigslist. Googling “freelance writing jobs” provides a number of similar sources.
  • Contracting or agency sites. Sites like Fiverr let you offer your services (in some cases, for specific flat fees), while agencies like BKA hire writers to turn out copy, often for very low rates. Consider what jobs you can afford to take before you take them.

When you find a job that looks promising, send a brief email, fill out the application, or whatever else they asked for. Include your resume and/or a link to your online portfolio, if you have one.

If you fear rejections:

Don’t.

The overwhelming majority of “responses” you’ll get will be non-responses. Total silence. This is still true for me a decade into the business. It’s rude, but it’s standard.

You will get a few rejections. Don’t worry too hard about them, and don’t try to change your approach unless all you’re getting are rejections.

Reject others first:

4. Set boundaries.

Professional writers absolutely require two skills to survive in this business. The first, of course, is writing.

The second is the ability to sniff out nonsense and set boundaries.

As you read freelance writing ads, you’ll get better at spotting scams and potentially bad clients. As a rule, however, it’s time to walk away from an ad or to fire a freelance writing client when they:

  • Are vague about what they need
  • Have unrealistic expectations as to timing, demand rush work for no extra pay, or presume that you’re available 24/7 (unless you’ve negotiated otherwise and are being paid for it)
  • Don’t specify exactly how much they are paying for exactly what work
  • Expect you to do any work, even a sample, for free

Because it’s possible to work 24/7 as a freelancer, it’s tempting to do exactly that. Don’t. Set specific work hours for yourself, stick to them, and only take on work outside those times when it suits you to do so.

5. Live within your means.

The arrival of that first pay for your writing is a real rush. Time to party, right?

Not so fast.

To make a living as a freelance writer, you’ll need to stay on top of your earnings. You’ll also need to understand the difference between income and cash flow.

  1. Put 50 percent of every payment you receive into savings. Of this half, expect to send 60 percent (or 30 percent of the total payment) to the government for taxes. The other 20 percent is your retirement account. Want a savings account on top of these? Put away more than 50 percent of each paycheck.
  2. Keep track of what invoices you’ve sent out, what you’re owed, and what you’ve been paid. If you have bookkeeping skills, you can do this according to generally accepted accounting principles; if not, a spreadsheet with slots for client, amount, the job done, and the date invoices were sent/payment was received will serve the purpose.
  3. Track your business expenses. One of the best parts of writing for a living is that if you can find a way to get paid to write about it, it’s a business expense. Take a look at the IRS guidance on business expenses, and keep your receipt for everything you think might qualify.

Income is how much you’ve made; it’s the amount on your spreadsheet tracking invoices you’ve sent out. Cash flow is how much money you have on hand; it’s the amount on your spreadsheet tracking which invoices clients have paid.

As a freelance writer, you will have times where your income is sufficient to cover your bills but your cash flow is not. Writers call this the “feast-famine” cycle. It’s a way of life. To beat it, put away a bit more than 50 percent of each paycheck (so you have a resource to draw from when bills are due but checks haven’t arrived yet).

6. Change with the times.

Twenty years ago, content writing – the bulk of the paid work I do today – didn’t exist. It wasn’t a job one could have.

Ten years ago, content writing consisted almost entirely of dashing off the cheapest, ugliest, keyword-stuffed nonsense you could manage in order to fill a webpage. When I started writing for the Web, I wrote fast and badly.

Today, writing fast and badly doesn’t work. There are still a handful of agencies that will pay for it, but most are aware that as search algorithms have changed, 300 words with the keyword repeated exactly three times just doesn’t cut it anymore. Google doesn’t see that as an authority and won’t kick it to the top of the results page – and that’s what a lot of content writing is meant to do.

Whether you decide to write content, to specialize in newsletters, to stick with technical manuals or to foray into journalism, stay on top of trends in the field. It doesn’t look like it did ten years ago, and it won’t look the same ten years from now.

7. Stay tuned.

There’s a ton of content here on writing both fiction and non-fiction for a living, and I’m adding more all the time. Follow the blog for more info!

Writing as a Career

How to (Almost But Not Quite) Write a Successful Query Letter

Writing Fiction

Good Characters: Who Are They?

Chekov’s Bear Arms, or “Does The Gun Have to Go Off in Act Three?”

Publishing

Why We Need Better Representation in Publishing