Writing is hard. Like, really hard. Writers are expected not only to put words together in a coherent order, but also to make deft strategic choices about which words to use to make a sentence POP into the forefront of our readers’ attention. We have to draw readers in, tempting them to read the next sentence. And the next. Possibly all the way to the end.
All this is very tough, and, like anything difficult, requires a ton of practice. I’ve written previously about my favorite “writer’s writer,” Ernest Hemingway, and I find myself now writing again about him, writing about writing. Here are his thoughts on his daily work, from a wonderful interview he gave The Paris Review in 1958.
Many writing coaches will offer this one piece of advice to aspiring writers: write every day. Stephen King wrote in his memoir On Writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Since it’s the time of year to pick up new habits and routines, I wanted to spend this post outlining how to develop a daily writing practice — whether you think of yourself as a “writer” or not. (As Ann Handley so astutely put it, in Everybody Writes.)
How to Establish a Habit
Habit expert Charles Duhigg writes that there are three components to any habit: the routine, the reward, and the cue. Whether you’re looking to break a habit or build a new one, you need to consider each of those components separately to effect a real behavior change.
In this case, we need to establish the routine. For me, the routine is sitting at my desk and writing without distractions. If I had a perfect setup, I would be able to write without distractions or meandering off into the internet for a predictable amount of time — 30 minutes or an hour.
Part of what I’ve been working into my routine is a form of aural conditioning. I got this idea from an interview with Shane Snow, founder of Contently, recently posted on Copyblogger. In the interview Shane says, “I listen to a single song on repeat over and over again to simultaneously create psychological movement and white noise. I’m about 500 plays into Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” and am considering finding a new track.” (FYI — that’s almost 30 hours of straight Timbaland.)
I have a Spotify playlist called “Work on Repeat” of 10-15 songs I’ve found work well in repetition. I usually pick one and listen to that for a few days at a time, and move on to another.
Maybe your new writing routine starts out much smaller than this — maybe your goal is to just write 50 words without stopping. Then bump it up to 100, 200, 500, 1,000.
The next steps to turning this routine into a habit are nailing down how to get yourself to start, and how to reward yourself afterward.
Duhigg writes that habits are triggered by five primary cues — location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. BrainPickings recently published a great article on the psychology of writing, citing a 1994 work by cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg on that same topic. Kellogg wrote that certain factors served as powerful cognitive triggers for effective creative work: “The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state.”
I’m working on establishing a few different cues for my writing practice. The first is time: I try to write before I go to work, shortly after I wake up and make a cup of coffee. Sitting at my desk with my coffee and my music-on-repeat has gone a long way to establishing “now is the time to write” in the dusty corners of my brain.
Habits stick because our brains learn to associate something good with the routine we’ve established. The reward can be as simple as a pat on the back or a feeling of accomplishment. James Clear recommends giving yourself an emotional high-five after a successful execution of your new routine: “Give yourself some credit and enjoy each success.”
For me, my reward for writing for an hour is two-fold: the feeling of accomplishment at having (briefly) defeated my short attention span, and the nice new chunk of written material I now have to work with. There’s always time for editing later — first, I just have to get the words on paper.
Now we have the building blocks of a writing habit. But why should we set up this habit in the first place? Why not just write when we feel like it, and not force ourselves?
As I said at the top, writing is hard — and it doesn’t get easier, better, faster, or more fun just by wishing. We have to struggle through the crummy parts to get to something great. Ira Glass did an amazing series on storytelling that includes this advice to beginning creatives:
“For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. … We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”
So go out there. Start writing – just putting words together, one after another. Write down things you like that other people wrote; write down song lyrics. Write down favorite words. Make it a daily routine to write, and good things will follow.