Do I need to say it again? Writing is hard work. It just is. Writing means conscious effort to sit, focus, and bring your ideas out as coherent words. Despite the fact that we all, in various ways, communicate with the written word daily, writing is not something one can master. But we can all push ourselves to be more consistent and capable writers by setting and following good writing habits.
If you just rolled your eyes and said “obviously Paul” at your screen, bear with me. Because, despite how obvious it might be, creating and maintaining good habits is hard work. It takes work. Like, a lot of work.
Building A Writing Habit
A little while ago I wrote about developing a reading habit. I truly believe that the most important way to write more and write better is to read more. Not reading regularly as a writer would be like a professional athlete not playing their chosen sport; it just doesn’t make sense.
But just being a devoted reader isn’t enough. We also need to make writing a practice. A regular habit we stick to. So how do you build a daily writing practice?
The best way is to turn your writing into a routine. These 6 tips or habits are some of the ways I personally have developed my daily writing exercise.
1. Write Every Day
Period. Don’t make excuses. Your Birthday? Write. Christmas day? Write! Your wedding day? Yeah, keep writing.
There’s a vital distinction to make here. What you write does NOT have to be part of something. You just need to write. Even if all you do is list ideas, write a letter to your mom, or describe the scene outside your window; it’s all good.
I’ve suffered for a long time from the thinking that anything I wrote that wasn’t contributing to my work or my stories was wasted time and energy. This could not be further from the truth.
What changed my mind was 750words.com. This site is just so simple: write 750 words every day. The site itself is just a blank page to write whatever, along with a ton of tracking to help you see how many words you wrote, when, and how successfully you’ve written daily.
750words.com is, hands down, the best way to drive a daily writing habit.
2. Set Writing Goals
There is a reason 750words.com isn’t 3000words.com; writing 750 words in a day is very reasonable. It’s an achievable goal, which makes it a great entry point into making a routine out of your writing process. And setting a smaller, achievable goal is one of the better ways to form habits.
You won’t keep trying to meet goals you never meet. Make your goals something you can (and will) do every day.
As you build up your habit, you can expand or add on to your goals. Right now, I have three daily writing goals:
- Hit those 750 words
- Get 1000 words written for work
- Write another 1000 words of fiction
Yeah, I set myself a goal of almost 3000 words a day. But the word count doesn’t really matter. What does is that you’re getting words out of your head and down on paper (or your screen).
I think an initial goal of 750-1000 words a day is basically perfect. If you’re feeling like it’s too much, 500 words is completely reasonable too. Remember that your goals can change, so don’t overwhelm yourself right out of the gate.
Your writing goals are about setting a pace—if that pace needs adjusting, do it.
3. Devote Time To Write
For a long time, I thought this was a silly exercise. I didn’t need to devote time to writing, I told myself because I love to write so I’ll just write whenever I want.
So, if you want to develop writing habits, you can’t think as I did. It’s not conducive to creating a structure. I (foolishly, naively) assumed my passion would drive action. That is so very wrong. Habits are formed by doing; when you rely on desire to prompt you to do you are toying with failure before you even get started.
If you want to build a writing habit, do yourself a favor and set aside time every day. That might be 30 minutes before work each day, lunchtime, immediately after work, or right before bed. Or any time!
4. Location, Location, Location
Where you are when you write can have a huge impact on how much you write and how engaged you are in your writing. I personally thought this was nonsense for a very long time. My (faulty) logic went like this: I write from a variety of places and I’m happy with how much I’m writing.
I was wrong. So wrong.
When I was a student, finding a place to write often meant moving around. From my own room to a cafe or pub, to a park bench, I would take my laptop where I needed to get some words written. But this kind of transient writing prevented me from really engaging in my story or the creative writing exercise I wanted to do. I was doing some writing, but not nearly as much as I could have been.
My first foray into a dedicated writing space was a simple desk and chair. I used that space every morning to just write. Either my 750 words or some assignment or plugging along on a story. The difference in output and quality was staggering.
Basically, we write better when we’ve got a ‘spot’ that is our writing spot. Where that is will vary based on what inspires you. I do best with a comfy chair and a quiet, private space. I control the lighting and music. For others, that perfect spot might be a crowded bar or public museum.
Wherever that spot is, be on the lookout and when you find it, embrace it. Owning your writing space reinforces your writing habit.
5. Edit Later
Here’s a quote I sure you’ve seen plenty of times:
“Write Drunk; Edit Sober.”Ernest Hemingway
There’s a lot to unpack in Hemingway’s very short statement; likely the reason it’s been repeated so often.
First, while Hemingway might literally mean “get drunk and write” you don’t have to slam a handful of IPAs before sitting at your computer. That’s what worked for him, but it might not work for everyone.
What you should do is think about what does drive you to write. For me, it’s usually a fresh cup of coffee, a tactile keyboard, and some sweatpants. So; comfort. I write best when I’m comfortable.
But most importantly is the second half of Hemingway’s quote: “Edit sober.”
What he means is to set yourself in a different, possibly opposite, state of mind to edit. That means that we should hold editing as the near-polar opposite of writing.
The state of mind you need is different and the exercise of editing is very different. So don’t do it while you’re writing. For my example, I don’t exactly make myself uncomfortable to edit, but I do edit in the evening (I usually write in the morning) and I do it away from my desk.
What matters most here is that we separate the editing from the writing. I don’t even like to use Grammarly or the like when I’m writing because the instant feedback can be distracting. You have to focus on the output, not the accuracy, when you’re writing. Get the words on the paper now; think about editing later.
6. Create And Track Metrics
This one is, in my opinion, the hardest writing habit to establish and keep up. Unless you’re already a fan of data and tracking metrics, this is going to be a new experience.
But oh boy is it helpful.
The most visible metric is words per day. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is basically a writing-metric practice for authors. You set a goal (50,000 words in 30 days) and work daily to hit the required word count (about 1,667 per day). Metrics!
If you’re working on habit #1 (writing every day) then you’re already set to track your word count too! If you’re like me and use Google Docs, you can even use cool add-ons to set and track word count goals.
You can also track time spent writing, but I think word count is the gold standard for writing metrics.
Whatever you decide to track, make it a reasonable metric that you can (and will!) hit daily. Then track it using a Google Sheet or an app. As you start to amass data, you might even be able to learn something about your writing habits. Like which days you write more or which days are a challenge.
Writing Habits And Content Ideas
Okay, you’ve made time to write. You’re in your favorite writing spot and you’ve set goals and you have tools ready to measure them. You stare at the blank screen. It stares back. Somewhere, the incessant ticking of a clock slowly drives you mad.
You’ve done everything right, but you’re not writing.
Writer’s block is very real and presents a distinct challenge for all of us. I used to believe that I wrote better when I didn’t force it; when I wrote when the mood struck. That’s a lie I effectively told myself for years.
We write best when we write.
If you don’t have anything to write, you should practice free writing. Here’s another awesome four-word quote from a famous writer:
“Don’t think; just write!”Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is on to something here. Freewriting is the act of just writing whatever comes to mind. Incoherent, fragmented thoughts are welcome. Brainstorming is a must, punctuation is optional.
Another way to have content to write during your habitual sessions is to keep an ideas list or notebook. I use a pocket-sized notebook; when an idea strikes, I make a note. When I pull an idea from the notebook, I give it a checkmark or something to indicate I’ve used the idea.
The point being, staring at a blank screen should never be an excuse. You’ve got ideas, even if they aren’t leaping out of you right this moment.
Form A Writing Habit; You’ll Thank Me Later
I was a hold out on the idea for a long time. Creativity should not be structured. Bringing stories to life cannot be scheduled. I was wrong.
Over the last three years, I’ve slowly and completely shifted to a more regulated, consistent writing schedule. In that time I’ve authored well over 100 short stories, two full-length novels, and more than 300 blog posts. Learning to make writing a habit is the best decision I ever made for my writing efforts.
If you’re not writing daily in a habitual way, try it. I think you’ll be impressed with how much it drives your creativity, helps you write even when you don’t want to, and overall makes you a better writer.