Have you always wanted to write? Advice for older writers

Photo of a messy desk with notebooks, pens, Kindle, envelope and computer

Chaotic desk. Like the brain of an older writer, sometimes.

“I’ve always wanted to write a book. Maybe I’ll do it when I’ve got more time, after I retire.”  If you’re hesitating on the brink of writing, or if you’re postponing your dream of writing until you are retired—and therefore older—here’s some advice.

Why this writing plan is flawed:

  1. You’ve already got 24 hours per day, just like the rest of us. You’ll never have more hours in the day.
  2. Writing a book is not a single skill that you can suddenly acquire. It’s a skill that needs learning and practice, like skiing or sewing.
  3. Maybe after you retire you won’t want to write a book. That’s fine! Just sayin’.
  4. Maybe you don’t actually want to write a book. And that’s fine too: accept it.

As we get older we have more to write about, but some find it very difficult to tackle a whole book because of age-related changes. In old age we may have physical impediments, an elusive short-term memory, a lack of energy and a lack of stamina. These difficulties I understand and share, now that I’m pushing 80.

If you really want to write, why does it have to be a book?

Some alternatives are blogging (obviously!), letters, Flash Fiction, short stories, poems, talks, videos—anything short and modular that you can write in short spurts. A full book takes longer, and that’s just the start. A book needs all your concentration. It needs deliberate structuring — for which you need to make numerous decisions small and large, which can be much slower when you’re old. It needs marketing and publicising and publishing. All these pressures can take the pleasure out of writing. If you can’t find a publisher (and most don’t) you might feel very disappointed.

For the same reason, if you do write a book in retirement, I suggest you write it in small, self-contained pieces that can be shuffled into shape. (I’ll explain this more when I discuss writing memoirs and family stories, maybe next Thursday.) Those 3-volume sagas, complex thrillers and ground-breaking non-fiction stunners are pretty hard to write when you’re easily distracted or can only write for an hour each day.

The biggie: how to find time

Believe me, I understand this problem! It’s a special sort of time you need, not just any old time. You need regular, dedicated time to get stuck into the writing and enjoy it. Some options if you are stuck:

  1. If you haven’t started writing yet, start with a Tiny Habit: go to BJ Fogg’s website tinyhabits.com and do his tiny, easy, infallible course. Takes 3 weeks, about 5 minutes a day. You could, for example, write for 30 seconds after lunch every day.
  2. Stop saying you’ll start writing when you retire. Start now.
  3. Try to keep one day a week clear of appointments and go to a library to write.
  4. Start with free writing, and I mean free. Just write for ten minutes by hand not thinking of grammar or story or style, just keep the pen to the paper and write continuously. Anything. Your name. Garbage. Anything. This is priming the pump and many people find it invaluable.
  5. Keep a notebook with you at all times, even in bed, to jot down ideas.
  6. Set small writing tasks for yourself, not big ones. And celebrate every one you accomplish — a tiny blog post, a wee poem, a good paragraph. You deserve congratulations.
  7. Don’t stop writing because a word eludes you or you doubt your memory. Just write. Fix things later.
  8. Never beat yourself up over your writing. Enjoy it! Do not compare yourself with anyone else. You’re doing fine!




11 thoughts on “Have you always wanted to write? Advice for older writers

  1. Cathy Cade says:

    The thing about free writing it that it’s hard to break the habit of a work-obsessed lifetime and ‘waste’ writing time. I suffered from this for a whole practice novel.
    I learned in the process that it takes time to practice, in retirement, a different type of time management.
    I’ve had to learn a lot of things I thought I already knew – about punctuation, about creative writing (as opposed to instruction leaflet and corporate email writing – which, I suppose, was creative in its own way now I think about it). Practice helps, and so does reading (if I could only find time for it).
    Word is that short stories and novellas are the future of fiction, since few have time, or the attention span, for novels. i sincerely hope that’s true, since I seem to have neither the time, nor the staying power for anything longer.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s huge, Cathy. What a leap you have made. And I think there’s quite a future for short fiction. You’re on a roll!

  2. alison41 says:

    Another excellent post. I related to the para starting: “As we get older …” that’s where I’m at, with my 3 part Fantasy novel, that my writing buddy keeps nagging me to get into print. But I simply don’t have the energy. I know perfectly well what a mountain of work it will be, and I’m just not up for it. Thinking about it, and typing these words, makes me wilt. Aaarrgghh.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      One of my friends says that nowadays, whatever happens, her first question is always, “does it matter?” I don’t know if that’s helpful though.

  3. Dan Antion says:

    Great advice. Thanks!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I think you could have written this one yourself. True?

      1. Dan Antion says:

        I have had much of this experience, but I’m always reluctant to think it works for others.

  4. Such great advice! I find all of the above to be true at 78. So I write my blog, and that is what I have the energy (both physical and mental) to really enjoy. My mentor thinks I might have a book after a while of the pieces that I have set in Minnesota, but we’ll see. The skill and time it takes to even think about trying to put that out there is daunting, but who knows. One step at a time.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Your blog is terrific. You certainly are a writer. “One step at a time”: now that is good advice.

  5. Anonymous says:

    A blog is a great idea.
    My last comment came through, but my photo didnt appear in likes!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And you are Someone here, Judith. But I always knew that:)

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