Get a free video course on Writing and Mindset Click hereJoin my author mailing list

Writing systems and why you need them

Money mindset for writers

I’ve been posting about how to make money from your writing so as it’s 1st of the month I thought I’d share a straightforward system I use in my own freelance writing career. More on that at the end. Firstly, let’s talk about the idea of systems themselves.

Why I am interested in systems

For those of us who have problems with executive functioning, the whole idea of being systematic can feel like an anathema. I’ve been gradually finding out more about my own neurodivergence over the last five years and this is one of the manifestations of it that really hit home, because I didn’t know why I had been struggling with things that (at least some) other people found easy.

The fact that I find systems difficult because of the way my brain works came as a shock, and that was a direct result of lack of diagnosis (official or self-diagnosis). Not so much that I didn’t get help, but that I didn’t even know I needed help. When I started to read up on executive functioning skills, I realised there were some strategies I could put in place. This came from reading books like The Disorganised Mind by Nancy Ratey.

By the way, I spent the whole of 2021 working on my goal to learn more about executive functioning skills. That same year, my New Year’s Resolution was not to buy any books for myself, which you can read more about here, and my impulsive book buying is a symptom of the same brain differences!

A Writer’s Mind

How is this relevant to making money from your writing? To cut a long story short, I realised that many writers, of all kinds – not only neurodivergent ones like me – don’t know that they need to put systems in place. This isn’t necessarily a result of problems with executive functioning but it’s still a sort of thinking error, and the result or ‘symptom’ was the same: a lack of systems. I’m guessing that this happens because:

  1. nobody has told them about systems. By ‘nobody’ I mean people who arguably ‘should’ have told them like tutors, agents, editors, and mentors, who probably didn’t know themselves.
  2. the creative life is erroneously presented in culture as unconnected to ‘worldly’ pursuits like systems, as if systems and creativity could never mix.

It’s as if there’s a cultural expectation that the creative mind – I suspect this affects artists too – is suspicious of systems. Let’s call this a ‘writer’s mind’ for now. Suffice to say, I was suffering from both undiagnosed neurodivergence and a severe case of ‘writer’s mind’. If you’ve read my book How to Think Like a Writer, which I first wrote in 2017, based on years of teaching creative thinking, you’ll have noticed how severely I was suffering from this kind of ‘writer’s mind’ at the time!

Interestingly, the people I know who have become writers during or after working in business or marketing or a related field, are much more likely to consider systems as simply part of the job, as uncontroversial and as essential as washing up or going to the loo. Yes, this is conjecture, but one could say that they also have a ‘writer’s mind’ – to these writers thinking like a writer involves using systems.

Two kinds of writers (sort of)

In other words there are two kinds of writers (this is a lie, there are never simply two kinds of anything, but for sake of argument):

  1. Those who are suspicious of systems
  2. Those who think systems are part of the job

The other interesting thing I noticed, again conjecture but this is my blog so I guess it’s allowed, is this:

both the writers who have a suspicion of systems or don’t know about systems, and the writers who think systems are part of the job think that everyone does it their way, or don’t know of the prevalence of the ‘other’ way of thinking like a writer.

And I felt I needed to tell people about it.

So what is a system?

Believe it or not, it took me a long time to work this one out. For our purposes, a system is:

  • a way of doing something.
  • a method that you’ve decided on in advance.
  • a task or set of tasks that you do regularly.
  • often a good way to get an overview or check your progress.

By the way, sequencing means doing one thing after another, and a system could involve sequencing, but not necessarily, a relief for those of us who find sequencing hard. These are discrete skill sets. You can set up a system without being good at sequencing. Play to your strengths. Set up an external reminder to use your system regularly –  a memorable date like the first of the month works for me.

Writing systems

The simplest system you can adopt right now is to carry a physical notebook with you and write in it regularly. What other systems should writers use? Actually there’s no ‘should’ about it because you’ve got to work out what you need for your own individual circumstances, but here are some suggestions:

  • A task management system – an overview of what you’re doing when, the deadlines and who’s involved.
  • A tracking system ­– a way of keeping track of pitches, submissions, publications and declines (aka rejections), as well as whether you’ve sent the invoice and how much you’ve been paid.
  • An idea capturing system – find the best way of jotting down ideas and use it. For me, it’s a big A4 notebook which I brainstorm in furiously for pages and pages, and then leave for a long time to mellow. I have a second smaller notebook that I carry with me.
  • A clippings capturing system – this is a way to store ad hoc things that you might want to use in future, like ephemera, postcards, sayings, and magazine articles. For instance, you might use Evernote or Pinterest, a memory box or a scrapbook. (I use Evernote and a friendly-looking box.)

An app is not a system. I learnt this the hard way! An app might have the potential to manage your system, but simply downloading an app and using it once won’t work.

Setting up a submissions review

I said at the beginning of this post that I’d tell you about one of my systems because it’s the 1st of the month. It being the 1st July is significant because the date is the thing that reminds me to do it. Possibly the most practical kind of writing system, I do my submissions review on the 1st of every month. This is when I check:

  • what I’ve got out in the world,
  • what’s come back,
  • what’s been published,
  • what opportunities are coming up.

I have this as a simple Word document, which I resave with a new date. I have one document for short stories, which lists all the short stories I have available plus word length so it’s easy to scan. Nonfiction and poetry have their own lists.

The powerful effect of a writing system

A submissions review isn’t hard to set up, whatever it is you’re submitting. It will demonstrate – almost immediately if you have stuff ready to send out – the power of writing systems. And it’s incredibly useful when you’re earning / wanting to earn money from your writing. Because:

  • You can use it to inform your list of incomings and outgoings, and therefore your tax return.
  • You can use it to target paid opportunities.
  • You can check whether you’re submitting to the best markets for your work (the ones that are specific to you and your work, and that pay well).
  • You can make sure you keep sending work out into the world on a regular basis.
  • You can use it to lay your hands on dates and publication details when an opportunity asks if you’ve been published before.
  • You can check that you’ve not made simultaneous submissions where they aren’t allowed.
  • You can use it to help you deal with rejection – it makes the whole process less personal.
  • You can use it to motivate yourself to send work out. In other words, a submissions review is an accountability tool.
  • Once you’ve been using it for a bit, your submissions review document will serve as a reminder of the opportunities that exisit in your niche, and of the editors or publications that tend to like your work.

If it’s all in your head you can’t do any of this.

Try it out

I’m assuming that if you’ve read this far you’re not in the ‘systems are like washing up or going to the loo’ camp. OK, welcome! Try it out. List everything you have available to send out. Got nothing? That’s a big clue – write something! Got more than you thought you had? Great! Add the word lengths / line lengths / performance times where relevant. Keep a note of where you’ve sent these pieces before. Keep a separate list of sources of information – where you can find calls for submissions. Spend some time researching those. Start pitching and submitting. Each time the 1st of the month rolls around, revise your submissions list again. You get the idea.

I’d be interested to know what you think in the comments.

An invitation

While you’re here, I’d like to invite you to do a free video course called How to Make Money from Your Writing in Three Steps. I made it because I want more writers to know how much mindset and systems affect our ability to make money from writing. It’s definitely not lack of opportunities or lack of resources that’s holding you back. Find out more inside the course.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx




1 Comment

  1. Julie Johnson says:

    This is pure music to my ears.
    Being a project manager for so many years, I have naturally incorporated my learnt skills into everyday life, and now into my writing.
    I would be lost without my daily list of tasks, my plan of production sat on MS project, my spreadsheets of character questionnaires and Arcs (thanks for the recommendation to read K M Weiland),
    I too save snippets in my notes app, this is the quickest way for me to capture an interesting/hilarious comment made by someone (yes I’m very rude and listen in to strangers conversations and nick their words for later regurgitation in a script).
    I bulk buy A4 spiral pads from W H Smiths, I have a collection of beautiful notebooks that I can’t bring myself to use, just too pretty. Every day I list my writing goals, on post it’s or my massive whiteboard next to my desk. Do I have a tidy mind? No, not Uber tidy, but I do know where all my stuff is and there’s always a messy bits draw for the ‘not sure’ pile.
    I will definitely be reading more on your blocks and courses, but first it’s back to TMA06

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.