Tricks for Writing A Lengthy Work

How do you write a lengthy work — a book, a thesis — without giving up? Various writers share tips and tricks. Here are a collected few.

  1. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott if you would like a more personal story with spiritual overtones.
  2. Read Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky if you prefer a more practical, analytical set of strategies.


“Draft Zero” works, but I’ve seen “Sh!tty First Draft” and similar. The latter is a constant reminder that the first draft is not supposed to sound like published work.

Related: Draft numbering is an outdated way of thinking about revision.


Dedicated writing software such as Scrivener comes in very handy here because Scrivener allows you to write notes in the Inspector window. Whenever you see something that needs fixing, make a note to yourself in the Notes section of the Inspector.

Alternatively, keep a separate document which is basically a to-do list of things to be fixed (or researched) later.

Some people legit benefit from never, ever editing as they write. We mere mortals? Not so much. Personally, I’ve been trying to replace “never edit while you go” with something closer to “that’s a second draft issue”—a second draft issue being any problem that will take some thinking to solve and won’t break a piece if it doesn’t work right now.

Can’t decide if you want to write drives or shoves? Second draft issue. Not sure whether you want to turn that parenthetical into its own sentence? Second draft issue. Paragraph doesn’t flow quite right, but it’s conveying all the information it needs to convey? Second draft issue.

Mark ‘em if you want, scream into the void if you want, pause your flow for a minute to screw with ‘em if you really gotta, and then move on because spending an hour trying to fix it isn’t a valuable use of your time when you’re drafting.

Sometimes you really do need to go back! I can’t write if I leave spelling errors and typos as I go. It takes time, maybe it interrupts my flow a bit, but that ‘hte’ is going to bug me until it scrolls off the page. Sometimes I write myself into a corner and have to backtrack because no, there wouldn’t be anything open in Dryden at this time of night and really this scene needs to happen in a Walmart parking lot so everyone has to be in Wenatchee instead. 

Other times? I have to move the fuck on because it’s a second draft issue

If you tend to get stuck down Internet rabbit holes when you look up something relatively simple, it’s a good idea to make use of a keyboard symbol like square brackets, which can easily be searched in the document later:

At 3pm [check character would be able to get to the restaurant from Ned’s house by this time] she arrived at Nandos.

The waitress looked familiar. After ordering a coffee, finally it hit her. [Character Name] from high school.


Speaking of research, if you are a fan of mimesis you can get to a point where you are frustrated that you can’t be more “accurate” (historically, factually) and this can cause a block. Not every writer will relate to this, but if you are someone who gets to that point, go back to your broad themes and ask what function you hope your novel to achieve.

There’s always the danger of fetishizing one’s research, becoming obsessed with a little archival gewgaw one has found, and then starting to write just to create a display case for it. I dislike novels that feel like show-and-tell. And although I don’t want to make egregious mistakes and am terrified of anachronisms and inconsistencies, I’m not obsessed with referential accuracy. That’s absolutely not a primary concern for me. To me, archival work has to be in the service of imagination. Instead of becoming a factual straightjacket, research has to open up your vista and let you imagine things that were unimaginable before.

Hernan Diaz, author of Trust


Another common piece of advice issued to writers: Write every day. For some, this works. It works for Stephen King, who famously writes 2000 words every day while he’s working on a manuscript.

But for others this doesn’t work at all. Some people need to plant seeds, step away and let the seeds do their work. (This idea is explored by Arnold Lobel in a Frog and Toad story.)

When farmers grow the same crop too many years in a row, it can leave their soil depleted of minerals and other nutrients that are vital to the health of their fields. 

To avoid this, farmers will often alternate the crops that they grow because some plants will use up different minerals (such as nitrogen) while other plants replenish those minerals. This process is known as “crop rotation.” 

So the next time you find that you need to step away from a project to work on something else for a while, don’t beat yourself up for “quitting” that project. Give yourself permission to practice “mental crop rotation” to maintain a healthy brain field. 

Because I’ve found that when that unnecessary guilt and pressure are removed from the process, a good mental crop rotation can help you feel more energized and invigorated than ever once you’re ready to rotate back to that project.


If you don’t want to write it, readers probably don’t want to read it. The exception is: Parts of a story which are difficult to write but which must be written anyway. Don’t skip:

  • The climactic scenes (it’s tempting to skip these)
  • Making your beloved character’s life difficult


And I cannot emphasise this enough: Make sure you use square brackets for this purpose.


If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

Toni Morrison

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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