The Wordstar Method

writing Sep 13, 2022

George R.R. Martin is the best-selling author of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.

To this day, his epic saga has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide, and it was turned into a record-breaking television series by HBO.

But unlike the worlds he imagines into existence, his writing habit is by no means magic...

Writing Is Not Hocus Pocus

Martin has written a grand total of 1,770,000 words for the series thus far…

But, maybe unsurprisingly, this fantastic creative output is based on a framework that few people, especially nowadays, deploy.

He does all his writing on an old DOS machine running a program called WordStar 4.0.

We're talking about such an ancient system that it has no internet connection whatsoever.

The only thing Martin does on that machine is punch the damn keys...

This framework is so simple, yet so powerful and effective, that it's worth dissecting.

The Wordstar Method 

One of the greatest lessons we can learn from George R.R. Martin's workflow is that there are 4 simple things that you need for success:

Focus. Martin writes on a computer without an internet connection, without social media, without apps or distractions or graphics. But his computer allows him to do one thing: punch the damn keys. That’s what he needs to create. He is 100 percent focused on doing the work that matters and he has completely eliminated anything that impedes that goal.

Consistency. Martin has been writing for almost five decades. Fifty years of showing up, sitting down at his desk, and punching those keys. He’s focused on doing the work, no matter what.

Patience. Martin spent 20 years writing, working, editing, and publishing one book after another before enjoying critical and commercial success with A Song of Ice and Fire. He kept working on his system, not letting the fact that his goals seemed far too distant. The greatest display of patience is a continued commitment to the process when you’re not being rewarded for it yet.

Discipline. Martin could afford to write on any device, with any piece of software (or pay someone to code something custom), but he doesn't. He could spend his time on social media, interacting with his fans. He doesn't. He spends his time, punching the damn keys on an antic piece of machinery.

These four elements constitute the foundation for one of the most effective frameworks possible.

Without focus, one cannot consistently produce content over a long period of time. Without patience, one cannot do the work for a long period of time, and without discipline, one simply gives up long before a project is completed.

Resources vs. Resourcefulness

George R.R. Martin is selling more books than nearly anyone on the planet and his computer can’t even send an email. Think about that for a moment.

As Tony Robbins is so fond of saying, "It's not the lack of resources, it's your lack of resourcefulness that stops you."

So often we think that we need certain tools to be creative.

We live in a world of "more," which inevitably leads to us spending most of our time on Someday Isle.

"Someday, when the stars align just right, when every single external factor favors me, I'll write."

But maybe what we really need is less. Maybe what we really need are fewer distractions and more focus. Maybe we need external limits, so our own inner genius may emerge.

What if, actually, the constraints were there to help you maximize your potential?

What if by creating a workflow that eliminates distractions, you are able to pierce through the mental fog that often inhibits you from punching those damn keys?

Many writers struggle to concentrate. And when you can’t concentrate, it's impossible to go into a flow state, to forget about your surroundings, to immerse yourself in the fictional world you're creating.

Writers, more than almost anyone else on the planet, need to be able to concentrate their brainpower, so they can create something that does not quite exist.

The How

In order to take advantage of the Wordstar Method, we must design a workflow that empowers us, the same way George R.R. Martin's use of an antic computer enables him to focus all his creative energy.

1. Use boredom to your advantage.

You develop discipline by working on eliminating distractions.

Give yourself one of two choices:

  1. You can either punch the keys.
  2. You can stare at a empty space on a wall.

Yes, I am serious. No games, no social media, no watching an episode of your favorite TV show.

In other words, you are developing discipline and the ability to focus by using boredom to your advantage.

2. Don't try to multi-task.

The ability to multi-task is a false badge of honor. Task switching has a severe cost.

Your concentration suffers when you multitask. It compromises how much actual time you spend doing productive work, because you’re continually unloading and reloading the hippocampus/short term memory.

Research shows that tasks switching actually burns more calories and fatigues your brain — reducing your overall capacity for productive thought and work.

If you give yourself one of two choices, you can either punch the damn keys or do nothing at all.

At the same time, there's a real temptation to procrastinate by multi-tasking, switching from one app to another, from one task to another, spending a few minutes on each, not doing anything productive at all.

If you want to be able to focus, you need to tell yourself that it's time to do the work, and sit down, and do it, and do it, and do it, until the job gets done or you're too tired to work.

3. Focus on the routine.

Consistency, quite simply, is the by-product of empowering habits.

What you do every day becomes a habit. If that habit allows you to grow as a creative, then you will consistently improve your productivity and your ability to focus.

What most writers get wrong when trying to build a routine is that they focus on reaching a goal. This, in turn, can easily become quite frustrating, especially if you fail to reach your goal on multiple occasions.

Instead, develop a routine that enables you to build a habit.

In other words, rather than try to, say, "write 2,000 words each day," reframe it as, "spend 2 hours working each day."

A time-based routine works best because it genuinely enables you to notice how your creative output increases.

4. Exercise the creative muscle.

No matter how ambitious your goals, or how insane your work schedule, your brain will become accustomed to it.

You will be able to build a comfort zone right in the heart of discomfort.

That being said, you need to exercise the creative muscle by willingly stepping outside this comfort zone.

Whether it's creative exercises, whether it's working on a new project, you've got to keep things new and intriguing.

While, yes, developing a routine is essential to being able to focus, at the same time, it's equally important to venture outside our comfort zone once in a while and do something that's both exciting and challenging.

Even as fiction writers, we spend most of our time "working." We write for the purpose of releasing a story, to an audience. There are deadlines to adhere to, expectations to meet, and a lot of money, energy and time to be invested.

We often stifle our creativity because we no longer play. We rarely sit down and punch those damn keys for no reason at all. And thus, we never step outside the comfort zone we have built around the routines and habits that allow us to be "productive."

A few ideas to help you out:

  1. Write in an entirely different genre (one you've never even dared write before)
  2. Write an experimental piece of fiction (this, of course, depends on your definition of experimental, but try to write something you'd define as "daring."
  3. Play around with different points of view
  4. Give yourself an insane deadline (NaNoWriMo became so popular because to most writers it seemed unconceivable to write a novel in 30 days.)

If you want to strengthen your creative muscle (and the ability to focus) you've got to be willing to recognize when it all becomes work and play for a while instead. Just keep in mind to make the play a bit challenging as well.

5. Limit consumption. Prioritize creation.

It’s extremely easy to consume content.

You are passive. Even relaxed.

But for each piece of content you consume, it stops a piece of content you could have created.

Limit your mass media consumption.

Let creation determine your consumption.

Allow curiosity to lead you to discover and pursue something you deeply care about, but invest most of your time and energy towards creating something.

Patience as a Virtue

If you plan to use this specific workflow (or draw some inspiration as you design your own), you are going to need a lot of patience.

It will take you at least a couple of months to develop the habits, to nurture the creative mind as to be able to focus on a consistent basis.

That's why patience isn't one of the elements in our workflow, but rather the foundation upon which we build it.

When setting goals, when defining a deadline for a book, when trying to develop a certain habit, we must understand that it's going to probably take a bit of suffering.

People talk about the pain of discipline. Well, there's such a thing as the pain of patience. In fact, patience, just like passion, literally means to suffer.

And we must be willing to suffer the pain of patience if we wish to grow our creative outputs to a consistent level.

This is but one of the many workflows you can design while keeping in mind that mental clarity (a.k.a. the ability to focus) is the by-product of discipline, consistency, and patience.

If you're interested in a strategic workflow for writing a book, you can check out our course, From Blank Page to Finished Draft.

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