Walls and walls of tennis shoes.
Aisles and aisles of toothpaste.
Nothing makes you give up faster — grabbing the easiest, closest thing — than endless options.
You hit decision fatigue.
In a similar way, the general open-endedness of creative work can be absolutely paralyzing.
“Write about anything” is a brief that will stop more writers than an analysis essay on why Hemingway didn’t just go to therapy.
You can’t write about “anything.”
You’ll write about nothing.
And then you’re nowhere.
You need creative constraints.
People who think they should constantly fling themselves haphazardly into each day aren’t the ones doing skillful creative work.
Constraints are an immensely powerful tool. Every professional writer I’ve ever known has used them. All of the ones I admire and don’t know use them. It’s how creative work thrives.
Defining “Constrained Writing”
Just in case this concept is completely foreign to you, creative constraints — or constrained writing, specifically — is a practice where you create rules and limits on your writing.
These are self-imposed and can take many forms. I’ll use illustrations below.
To clarify: there are two forms these constraints take. The first is technical and relates to writing style or the form of writing you are doing. The second is about your practices as a writer.
Examples of Writing Style or Form Constraints
You may have immediately jumped here in your head. If you did, it was a good instinct. You may be familiar with the “write exactly on the line” rigidity of formal writing constraints. Be it physical or abstract, this is an old school way to learn to write better.
It’s about following a brief or set of rules that relate to how you actually put words to page.
For instance, if you are seeking to hone your writing skills for poetry or fine-tune your ability to use precise vocabulary, you may work in haiku.
A haiku is a rigidly structured poetic format.
It leaves basically no freedom to the writer, who has to gently place words to meet five, seven, then five syllable counts. Three lines.
If you fancy a little more freedom, you may look at rhyming constraints.
Here are more ideas:
Set a word count or (even better) character count limit.
Write a specific set of lines.
Write without a letter or word (compose a poem without the letter “e”).
Pick a word or phrase and force yourself to use it a set number of times in a piece (sounds a lot like SEO writing, hmm).
Working with these constraints is very character building. If you happen to be newer to English, newer to writing, or venturing into a new kind of writing, all of these practices could be helpful to you.
Do them. Again. Again. Again.
As you can see from the next set of illustrations, you need to commit to repetition to be a professional writer.
Examples of Creative Constraints for Writers
Creative constraints or constrained writing can also be implemented in your daily, weekly, monthly, or annual practices.
This is about habits and discipline and digging the grooves of repetition to conquer a discipline.
Here are some of the creative constraints used by writers.
The Constraint of Time
This one will come up again and again, especially if you read autobiographies or biographies of famous writers. Time constraints. Many great writers force themselves into an hour count of writing each day, and some at a time of day as well. This is prevalent when writers have to learn to write to print deadlines. Writing on a deadline is fantastically motivating. Writing well on a deadline is even better.
Keep in mind, time constraints for writing have to do with both a start and a stop. Some days, the start is the hard part. Others, it’s the stop. But you will slowly but surely train your brain when it is time to be inspired. Your brain will obey.
The Constraint of Concentration
Deep, focused work isn’t something you stumble upon in a coffee shop. In fact, for me, it could never happen in a coffee shop at all.
You must define the circumstances in which you can absolutely concentrate. ABSOLUTELY focus without disruption or interruption or distraction.
People aren’t vocal about how boring writing is. It is boring. And it is quiet. For me, it's silent. No sounds. No colors. No font changes. No fancy anything. Ascetic, practically.
Your version may not be quite so austere, but you know what you need to focus. And you have to go there and stay there, constrained by the conditions until your urge to romp and roam and float is under control. At first, it will be very hard to get there and even harder to stay. It gets easier.
The Constraint of Another Editor
For anyone without a writer group, let me urge you: get a writer group.
All bad writers write completely alone. They read and edit their own work and are self-congratulatory about absolute garbage. Get those pages out into the cold light of day. Let all of their cringey glory be put under the meticulous eye of someone you respect.
Then, do whatever they tell you to do. (That’s the constraint part of this.)
Trust other people’s opinions of your work. Accept everything bad they say. Slam it against your work and see what dust and dirt and crap falls out. Crunch it. Crush it. Machete it.
Force yourself to submit to someone else’s ideas.
You may be shocked at how painful it is. At how you defend yourself. At how you excuse the mistakes. At how you bleed for your little piece.
But then you’ll develop powers of discernment. And one day, you’ll see your work for what it is: okay, with plenty of room for improvement.
Constraints, Discipline, and Your Future as a Writer
Many people want to become professional writers so that they can daydream. Muse. Put pen to paper when the mood strikes.
These people will never be successful professional writers.
Writing is like woodworking. Or baking. Or running. It isn’t something you do well when you take it up from time to time. It isn’t something you master with a hobbyist mentality.
I hire freelance writers all of the time and am disgusted (sorry, yes really) by their unbelievable lack of work ethic.
They want to write when it pleases them. And no other time. And they call it freedom. They say they’re just not being materialistic. Or that they know the value of their time. That they want a full life and so they can only work four hours a day.
But what I think is: you’re lying. You’re lazy.
And you’re wasting your life.
Why not contribute to the body of work that is human communication?
To do that requires the willingness to self-impose constraints and to endure when everything is so mind-numbingly boring and same and didn’t I write something just like this yesterday?
Haruki Murakami said: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”
And that’s it.
That’s what nobody wants to put in the time to do.
That’s why the world is filled with mediocre writers who will never achieve anything.
Bad writers are like tightly squeezed frosting bags. They splodge out all over the place, their words flying around, making a little sense and a lot of mess.
Learning to write under immense style or formatting constraints will bring discipline to the work.
You don’t just get to write nonsense. You must write sensibly, you must follow the rules, you must bend your will to the will of the work.
Do that enough and the syllables and symphonies and profundities will begin to build something truly beautiful… having been well fed by your patient perseverance.