Many writers dream of days of great writing productivity. We want to wake up in an idyllic setting. Then, when we are good and ready, we will write, with words flowing from the tips of our fingers. More often than not, most writers find themselves stuck. This is a problem if your income depends on your writing. The best thing for any writer is to build writing momentum that results in writing outputs.
Building and maintaining writing momentum is a useful skill for most writers. So, how do you do that?
The solution lies in a recommendation made by one of the great novelists, Ernest Hemingway.
Build writing momentum using Hemingway’s writing technique
Ernest Hemingway, novelist and Nobel Prize winner in Literature, once said:
Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do then every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.
Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Larry W. Phillips, originally in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (pp. 216-217)
This technique is not the same as having a detailed plan. Instead, you just need to ask yourself, what is the next stopping point. Also, give yourself some time to ruminate and think through the plot to get you to the next stopping point.
Evidence that Hemingway’s technique works
Hemingway’s technique of stopping while you are going good was embraced by other great authors such as Roald Dahl. Dahl had met Hemingway early on in his career and Hemingway briefly mentored Dahl. Dahl admits Hemingway’s advice helps with keeping the momentum for writing long projects and elaborated more on Hemingway’s advice:
And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go.
But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day all the way throught the year. If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!
Hemingway’s technique is not just for fiction writers. Professor Jeffrey L. Buller, in his book “The Essential College Professor”, advises young faculty members to “stop writing in mid-sentence.” Stopping mid-sentence is the same as stopping while you are good.
So why does Hemingway’s technique work, at least for some people?
The science on Hemingway’s “Stopping when you are going good”
The beauty of Heminway’s technique is that science can explain his technique of “stopping when you are going good”.
Stopping is referred to as the “Zeigarnik Effect” in psychology literature after Bluma Zeigarnik. Bluma had observed that incomplete tasks are better remembered than complete tasks. Interrupting our own writing leads to us we remembering our incomplete writing. This also leads to us wanting to return to it as soon as possible (Ovsiankina effect). This tendency may be viewed as generating internal motivation to return to the writing project.
Science has found one caveat with stopping and returning to the task at hand. Giving yourself a reward such as a monetary one can undermine the Zeigarnik effect of returning to the incomplete task. We should note this as using rewards (external motivation) is another technique for getting yourself to write.
How to build writing momentum
The only disadvantage of Hemingway’s technique is that you could forget what you were about to write. This happened to me the first time I used this technique. It is possible that I did not allow myself the time and space to ruminate on the ideas where I had stopped when I immediately moved onto another writing project. The second project had a shorter deadline and I felt pressured to complete that project.
I still need a mini-map to move from where I am to where I want to go. And, as I often have multiple writing projects at the same time, now I know to come to a gentle stop from one writing project to another.
Now, I do one of two things to help me remember where I am headed next. Both help with thinking of a mini-map to get to the next stopping point. I have built-in a bit of walking after one writing project to give myself a bit of time to think. The walking serves as a bookend for the writing session and helps me to then gently switch to another task. Essentially, I use Hemingway’s technique (the Zeigarnik effect) to come up with a mini-plot. I don’t fill in too many details as that removes the thrill in getting to another writing session.
The second thing I may do on other days is to simply jot down what the next stop point is so that when I return to the project, I read the two paragraphs before the stopping point. Then I take a bit of time to have a cup of coffee and ruminate on what I want to say. This also helps when I am not writing on the same project on consecutive days.
Many new writers often drop a project before getting started properly. But, if you are in the game of writing as a career or part of another career, you have to find ways to build writing momentum. Hemingway’s technique of stopping when you are going good offers a solution.
Here is what to do: test the technique. But in doing so, I offer the following advice: at the end of your writing session, jot down what your next stopping point is and give yourself a break between your writing session and any other task you may have. Don’t just abruptly leave your project.
Then, practice using the technique for a week, then a month, then two months. Build writing momentum in the next few months because that skill will serve you well in the months to come.