It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a professional. If you don’t have a daily writing practice, you’re not going to achieve as much as you would hope. Writers write — plain and simple. And no matter where my students are in their author journey, I always start our coaching relationship by evaluating the health and regularity of their daily writing practice.
Do you have to write every day? Well, that depends. If you’re a beginner, then I would say yes. Write every day for at least a month — even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. Once you have an established practice, you can begin scaling back the number of days you write and scaling up the number of words you produce.
When I quit my day job to become a full-time writer, I began to give myself the weekends off to avoid burnout. Now I’m back to writing six to seven days a week just so that I can stay “in flow.” On the weekends, I don’t work on my current work in progress; I write Morning Pages about anything that’s on my mind. It takes less than half an hour, and it keeps me sharp for fiction. (It also keeps me from feeling guilty when I follow up my writing time with a pre-breakfast binge of “The Mysteries of Laura.”)
Establishing a new habit isn’t easy, but it is simple. The secret is to set yourself up for success with a handful of proven hacks that put you in a creative mindset. Here are a few that have worked for me:
1. Create a sacred writing space. This is one aspect of establishing a writing practice that I cannot emphasize enough. It’s very important that you have a designated area for writing and that it’s off-limits to roommates, spouses, and children.
In his memoir “On Writing,” Stephen King says that your writing room only needs one thing: a door you are willing to shut. I think doors are excellent — especially if you have small children or persistent pets — but you don’t need a special office. You just need a flat surface in a zone where anything non-creative is strictly forbidden.
When I first started writing novels, I wrote at my kitchen table. Later, I put a desk in my bedroom, and when I moved to Colorado, I got my first full-blown office.
Your writing desk doesn’t need to be anything fancy. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t. Mine is just a white table that I bought at IKEA for around eighty dollars. All that matters is that it’s yours — yours alone — and that it’s only used for writing.
Do not pay bills or answer emails at your writing desk. Do not make angry phone calls to the cable company, check social media, or catch up on work. This is your creative sanctuary. Treat it like a sanctuary.
I’m not a super woo-woo person, but I am protective of my writing space. I keep my office door closed at all times — whether I’m in there or not — and I use the room to surround myself with art, furniture, and trinkets that make me feel inspired and creative.
2. Write first thing. There is a saying in the personal finance industry that you should “pay yourself first.” Essentially, this means that you should automatically route a predetermined monthly nest egg contribution to your savings account at the start of each month before paying any bills or spending your money elsewhere.
When I was working as an editor in the content marketing industry, I applied this concept to my writing. Since my day job required me to use my creative energy to write and edit things for other people, I decided that I would devote my first and best hours to writing for myself. I would get up at six every weekday and work on my novel for an hour before heading off to work.
Not only did this prevent me from being too drained and tired to write for myself when I got home, but writing first thing also kept my work “pure.” I didn’t check email, read the news, or talk to anyone before I would write. This kept my inner critic at bay and kept my work from being polluted by the toxic minutia of other people’s problems.
It takes willpower to get up an hour early to write, but it’s worth it. You’ll start the day with something positive and head out into the world with the knowledge that you did something important that’s just for you.
3. Pair your writing with an ingrained behavior. We all have certain unconscious “cues” that trigger our most deeply ingrained habits — both good and bad. We sit down to watch our favorite show at the end of the day, and suddenly the Oreos make an appearance. We start working out after a long dry spell, and miraculously our eating habits improve simultaneously.
I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to get a positive habit to stick is to pair it with another habit that’s already well-established — one that you find rewarding.
For me, it’s that first cup of coffee. These days, I have my first sip at my writing desk while I’m working, and the smell of freshly ground beans triggers the impulse to get to work. It’s a holdover from those early mornings when I would stumble from my bed to the kitchen, hit “brew,” fire up my Macbook, and then shuffle back out to grab my coffee before settling in for the day’s writing session.
Identify something that’s rewarding enough to get you out of bed, and pair that with your writing.
4. Make it too easy not to write. Willpower is a muscle, and like any other muscle, it can become fatigued from overuse. The trick to getting important writing done is to make it so easy and straightforward that all you have to do is propel your butt into the chair.
I know that if my computer is dead, my charger is packed away, I’m out of coffee, and it’s cold in my office, the whole idea of writing first thing seems much more daunting. When I was first establishing my writing practice, I would fill the coffee pot the night before, clear off my desk, open the screen to the chapter I was working on, and leave my cozy writing sweater draped over my chair.
Find small ways to make things easier for your bleary-eyed future self, and do them on a regular basis. Maybe that means packing your children’s lunches the night before or laying out the outfit you’re going to wear. These things that seem small the night before can make a huge difference the next morning.
5. Set goals and record your progress. Did you know that you’re 42 percent more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down? This comes from a study by Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University in California, who found that having participants write down their goals, formulate action commitments, and send weekly progress reports to a supportive friend made a stunning difference in participants’ success rates.
I set daily writing goals for myself, and I encourage all of my students to do the same. It doesn’t matter if your word count goal is 250 words per day or 2,500 — what matters is that you have a target and that you make a habit of reaching it.
An equally important aspect of goal-setting is tracking your progress. I record my daily word count and other completed tasks in a writing calendar of my own design. This serves multiple purposes. One, it gives me a sense of accomplishment when I look back at the week or month, and two, it helps me identify patterns in my productivity.
For example, if I’m one week into a first draft and I’m not hitting my word count goal, I don’t panic. I’ve been tracking my progress long enough to know that this is normal for me; I don’t really hit my stride until I get into the rhythm of a story.
You might notice that you have a hard time hitting your goals on Mondays or at the beginning of the month since you always have to work late on the 30th or 31st. That’s okay — it’s better to know these things about yourself so that you can plan for them rather than beating yourself up. Remember: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
Writing a novel often seems like a daunting task, but it’s much less daunting if you approach it day by day, week by week. Having a daily writing routine is the key to producing work and to keep producing work even when you feel uninspired.
Do you have some foolproof tricks that help you stay on track with your daily writing? Let me know in the comments below!
Photo by Glenn Carstens Peters