Developing the Writing Habit

It was my practice to be at my table every day at 05:30 a.m.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. Anthony Trollop

Anthony Trollope is considered the most prolific writer of the Victorian era, having written 47 novels over a period of 35 years.  During this time he wrote for three hours each day, requiring 250 words every 15 minutes.  Upon finishing one project it is said that he would take a fresh page and immediately begin the next until his three hours were up.  He considered the task of writing to be “as is his common work to the common laborer.  No gigantic efforts will then be necessary.”

We love to hear of the writing habits of famous authors.  From books and websites, to witty quotes posted on our feeds, advice and encouragement on becoming as prolific as our hero’s is freely available.  We’ve learned that a daily word count of 2,000 will yield a decent sized draft in three months, and this is considered the appropriate amount of time to complete it by many famous authors; from Stephen King to John Grisham.  We have ebooks from indie authors sharing their success stories of writing 10,000 words a day, or selling one million ebooks.  We’ve seen Ted talks from breakout authors, watched Ray Bradbury’s excellent lecture on the Hygiene of Writing, and listened to author interviews on podcasts, all speaking on their workflows.

Yet we write little and publish less.

At their core, the books and talks and podcasts all tell us the same thing; that the way of the writer is to write. It is as simple as that.  Write, publish, repeat every day.

But how does one develop the habit of writing, and how to make it stick? Having consistently weekly articles on my website for the past two years I can offer some insight on how to get started, staying consistent, and publishing when done.

Getting Started

If it is important, do it every day. Or else not at all. – Gable

Make no bones about it; writing can be a lonely, thankless job. You publish your articles online to receive only a handful of likes.  Rejection slips come in faster than your work goes out.  Subscriptions to your newsletter hover at just under 100 for over a year (true story!).

It can also be incredibly rewarding, especially when something you write really resonates with people. Or a single sentence comes out so perfectly that you aren’t sure where exactly it came from.

Because of this it is important to first ask Why? Why do I write?  What do I hope to receive in return for my efforts?  Personally, I write because I have a powerful need to create things.  I enjoy building things with my hands, and do so whenever I can.  I also travel a lot; mostly for work, though also for enjoyment.  Hobbies that require tools or equipment can never be done consistently enough for me to really excel at them.

But my laptop never leaves my side.

Having recognized this I resolved years ago that writing would become my craft; it would be the creative outlet that I could return to each day without fail. And I resolved to do so without any expectation of praise or glory.  I write for myself first and foremost.

Start by considering the Why of things. Any reason is good enough, or even no reason at all.  Don’t make it into a big deal; nothing wrong with trying something new on for size.  But a strong Why – that is what will carry you through the dark days of the dip and help you come out on the other side with a finished piece of work in your hands.

A Time and Place For Everything

Results come when you work at your craft every day. Consistency is everything.  Those who are the best in the world, at any task, have become so due to a singularity of purpose.

The morning is when I write, and the ritual is always the same. I wake up, turn on the coffee, sit down, and begin.  Because of its portability I can do this anywhere; at home or away.  Typically I write for 30 to 45 minutes and produce anywhere from 300 to 700 words.  Certainly not a prodigal output, but it is enough to ensure a new article is published each week, with another piece or two in the works.  Small actions lead to big results.

My morning writing time is set in stone, only missed if I have an early flight to catch or jobsite to attend. And then I try to make it up later.

When choosing your time to write it is best to choose one that starts right after you open your eyes in the morning. Can people that identify as night-owls do great work, late into the evening?  Sure.  But I strongly feel that your writing should be first each day, for the following reasons:

  1. You are more creative upon waking, and your mind is less distracted by external input.
  2. If left later into the day there will always be something more urgent to push it aside. By doing it first, you ensure it gets done.

In the beginning especially it is important to return to the desk again and again. The only surefire way I know to guarantee you won’t get bogged down with something else is to do so first thing.  Set your alarm thirty minutes earlier, get to sleep on time, wake up and write.

Keep in mind that I am writing this for those who write in addition to their day job. This writing must take place outside the confines of the workday.  If I were a full-time professional author then I would probably start my writing at 8 a.m. and go through noon.  But as that is a luxury I cannot affortd, instead I write in short, charged spurts before the rest of the house is awake.

As to where you should write, it matters not. Choose a spot and keep it consistent.  When home I write at the dining room table.  When traveling I write at the desk in my room or on the tray table of an airplane.  I typically stay at the same hotel chain so the rooms usually look the same, which helps the routine.

Would I like to have a home office, stuffed with books and interesting bric-a-brac from my travels, ala Ray Bradbury? Or an office shed in the yard where I can retreat to find the silience writing requires?  Sure I would.  But these type of fantasies are not about the writing, they are about you.  Stephen King says it best in his memoir, On Writing:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

Too Small to Fail

You have a time to write and a place to do so. Now what?

If you’ve spent more time reading about writing than actually writing (guilty!) then you have already soaked up a load of advice on outlining novels in detail, hitting a daily word count, starting with freeform pages, and more. While it is well intentioned, none of this advice is for you.

Those same lessons will be learned over time through direct experience. And your experience will be similar to that of others.  But in the beginning there is only one thing that matters; getting words onto the page every day.

I started running eighteen months ago. Like writing, there is endless advice available on running; programs to follow, equipment to buy.  But in the end it is just putting one foot in front of the other.  Following my instinct I began to run every day.  First just once around the block, then more blocks, then more miles.  Today I’m running twenty-five miles a week with eyes on my first marathon.  The distance and my proficiency increased organically over time until only by looking back do I realize how far I’ve come.

I started writing the same way, setting my goals small; too small to fail. One sentence a day was all that I required of myself in order to tick “writing” off my list for the day.  As I kept coming back to the desk that one sentence turned into two, then into paragraphs and pages.  Having written consistently now for almost two years I can look back and see the progress, but because my capacity has increased so slowly, today it is just my new normal.

With writing, as with any new skill, you must take the long view. Focus not on the end result, but on the process.  On the daily practice.  Each word counts.

What To Write?

Write whatever you want.

If you have the desire to write, and you either have it or you don’t, then you already know deep down what you want to create. You don’t need permission from anyone so just go for it.

But a word of caution.

Of the many skills that writing involves – narration, dialogue, creating and resolving tension, grammar – there is one skill that must be considered above all others:

The skill of finishing.

Finishing your work is vitally important. An unfinished work is never read.  Finishing your work and letting it loose into the world for praise, criticism, or indifference is the final step.  Otherwise you are just journaling.

And finishing things is hard, especially in the beginning. But if you never finish anything you will never find your voice.  I am approaching my one hundredth article published on my website and am only starting to figure out what I am trying to say.  It is a process that takes time, and it takes new efforts, with the last effort brought full circle.

Ray Bradbury famously advises writers to start by writing a short story each week for exactly this reason. It gets you into the habit of finishing things.  And because nobody can write fifty-two bad short stories in a row.  Explaining further, he makes the case for why it is a bad idea for new writers to start with novels.  While stories of breakout authors certainly exist, the fact is that your early work will likely suck.  So get that load of garbage out of your system and learn the early lessons without committing to the long effort that is a novel.

Writers are readers, and the beginning writer is unconsciously regurgitating what they have previously read, either in style or in content. There is a lot of that stuff buried inside that needs to be expunged before your authentic voice shines through.  The only way to do so is to write every day, and finish what you start on a regular basis.

Overcoming the fear and just going for it

Writing is a unique pursuit. Jotting words on a page could not be simpler, and the tools required to do so can be had for pennies.  Yet at the same time it can feel like the most difficult thing imaginable.

Or to quote Hemingway; “Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at the page and bleed.”

Resistance and fear sit on the corner of every writer’s desk. Fear of failure, of judgement.  Fear of success.  It is for this reason that it is so important to publish your work.  If writing is a process then releasing your words to the world is the final step. Without it you will never benefit from feedback; be it good, bad, or indifferent.  Publishing is something that needs practice too.

Writers block is another common fear touted in writing circles. Here is the thing about that; it doesn’t exist.  That is just another excuse to not do your work.  If you wait for divine inspiration each day you’ll never get anything written.  With a strong habit built of sitting down to write each morning the fear of the blank page becomes a non-issue.  The key again is to just keep sitting down to your work each day, and demand of yourself only a single line of text.  With that done, your daily goal is complete and anything you choose to do in addition is bonus time.

The last fear is that of not writing well. Of not getting the words out just so.  Of nobody liking your work, or thinking it’s stupid. This can result in obsessive self-editing while you are trying to write, which slows things down.

Sometimes the words come perfectly, sometimes they do not. The only thing that matters is to keep them coming.  Don’t treat each word like a diamond, carefully placing them on the page. Rather, think of them like grains of sand on the beach.  They are waiting for you there, infinite in number.  Use them freely and with no regard to volume.  Cast them all over the page and eventually, something brilliant will shine through.

The rest can be cut during editing.

Nobody will like everything you write, just like everybody isn’t going to be your best friend. If you are pissing off an equal amount of people as you please, I’d say you are doing a good job.

The cure for self-doubt is to write fast, never looking back. When I learned to touch-type back in primary school we were taught to just keep moving; never correct anything until you are done, then go back through the work.  I write the same way.  What comes forth will never be perfect the first time.  Editing styles and needs vary, but it is sure that you will need at least a minor edit before publishing, so don’t let unreasonable fears stop you from getting those words onto the page.  There will be time to polish and revise after but the raw material must be there first.

And the only way to get over the fear of not being loved is to remember who you are doing this for. Write for yourself, keep coming to the table every day, and keep publishing every week.  Don’t obsess over likes or stats or reviews.  Just keep working.

We only have a right to our labors, not the fruit that it bears. Forget the fruit and go back to the work each day because it gives you something, makes you greater than the day before.  Embrace the process and return to it each morning.

Great things are built one word at a time. Look back every now and then to be amazed at what you’ve already accomplished, and look forward once in a while to consider where you want to go.  But spend most of your time looking down at your work and keep your focus in the present, because this is where the magic is.

Just write! You have to turn on the tap if you want the water to flow.



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