In college I never had a set time to really write, not for my fiction at least. I took several creative writing classes and seminars, and when something was due I would certainly get it done (though often not as well as I would’ve liked), but I was also constantly behind from where I wanted to be or imagined myself being.
Every semester I would start out with the hope that I could get ahead on my novel, group of short stories, or whatever it was that I happened to be working on at the time, but then classes would start, homework would pile up, and I would just never get around to writing. At least, not as much as I had hoped.
I thought that after college things would be better (after all, there wouldn’t be anymore homework!) but the thing is that life always finds ways to fill your time with busy work and obligations. Some of these things are important and always demand time, some of these things are intensive tasks that might take over your life for a short while, but most of them are things you have to learn to work around or do without.
The only way to get writing done is to have a routine and to make sure that your writing time is part of it. If you’re waiting for your life to be less hectic to start writing your book, then you’ll go your whole life without ever starting it. Similarly, if you wait for inspiration to strike, then you’ll hardly generate any work at all. It’s only through constant grinding routine that we can churn out a decent number of stories. This doesn’t sound particularly artistic or romantic, but it’s the truth.
Putting together this type of routine can be difficult, so below I’ve assembled nine pointers that will hopefully help you out.
This quote is specifically about working out, but setting up a writing routine isn’t so different from setting up a gym routine. Writing requires tremendous focus, and focus is exercise for the mind.
All in all I think the best possible type of writing routine is the one that you will realistically stick to, not the one that promises the largest amount of productivity but that you will likely abandon after a month because it proves too difficult.
Setting manageable goals is an important part of getting anything done. It’s great to have ambition, but if you’re just starting out or if you’ve been battling with procrastination and trying to get back on track, you don’t want to set the bar too high. Don’t put yourself in a position where you are more likely to fail or where you become too daunted by the work in front of you. Both of these scenarios are sure to lead to failure.
Author and self-help guru Tim Ferriss describes his writing process as aiming to write two crappy pages per day. If he gets more done, that’s a bonus, but he’s committed to those two pages, which is a large enough goal to make progress but not so large as to be daunting or difficult. His overall solution to procrastination is breaking up any work into small parts, and this fits in well with that ideology.
If you aspire to achievable goals, then you can easily gain momentum and get forward progress on your story. Even if you’re really busy and can only set aside 30 minutes every day, that is certainly enough. You will be doing more work than all of the people who say they want to write but end up being intimidated by the lofty goals they set for themselves.
2.) Set Limits to Avoid Burnout
To use another gym analogy, working out as hard as you can at the gym isn’t a great idea. Of course you want to push yourself, but if you go all in on a single session, you’ll end up too sore and tired to go back the next day. So too with writing.
Authors Jeff Goines and Carlo Gebler advise setting a limit on how much you write in a given day. This limit could be based on word count or it could be based on how much time you spend working, but either way you don’t want to over do it.
Even literary great Flannery O’Connor only wrote for two hours a day because that was all the energy she had for the work. Don’t feel like you need to tackle the whole story in a single day. The greats knew that wouldn’t happen.
The brain isn’t meant to focus deeply for extended periods of time, and being creative is mentally taxing. If you put in many hours of work and then burn yourself out, you are unlikely to show up and do the work the next day.
3.) Find Your Power Time and Block It
Different people will give you different advice on when the best time to work is. Morning larks will tell you that all of the most successful people wake up at 5am to get work done before everyone else is up and about. Night owls will regale with tales of how inspirational the solitude of nightly writing sessions are. Ultimately you’re going to have to figure out what works for you.
Find whatever free time you are most awake and creative and make sure that you are writing during that time. If you’re not sure when that is, try different times and track your word counts. Even if you think you know, this is worth doing. You might be surprised by what you find.
You probably also want to try using time blocks to keep up your productivity, especially if you are going to be working for multiple hours at a time. You’ll need breaks, and making sure that you have those small moments to refresh yourself will definitely help with the work.
For many people making a daily commitment, even a small one, is just too much to ask due to the way their work/life schedules play out. If that’s the case, don’t sweat it. Authors Garth Nix and Kameron Hurley both at least started out writing fiction about once a week.
Even if you do have small spurts of time throughout the day, some people find that they need those several hours of meditative time to get the words flowing. If that’s you, then maybe setting aside larger blocks of time once or twice a week is better than trying to establish a daily habit. You have to know yourself in this case and figure out what’s going to work best.
5.) Protect the Time You Set Aside
Whatever schedule you determine, you need to stick to it and protect the time you set aside. Writing doesn’t need to be daily, but it does need to be a priority. If you’re not setting aside a decent chunk of time to write every week, you’re never going to get anything done.
Once you’ve determined what your writing time looks like, then make sure you take it seriously. If you aren’t serious about staking a claim on this time and using it to work, then no one will take you seriously when you say you’re writing, and you’ll be dragged into doing all sorts of things during that time when you should be writing.
Tell your friends, spouse, family, roommate, whoever might bother you at any given moment, that you are working at these times. Make sure to put your phone out of reach so you won’t get distracted by it. Get off social media. Turn off your internet if you have to. But make sure that during this time you are really focused on getting words down on paper and nothing else.
6.) Establish Consistency and/or Ritual
I wrote a post about this awhile ago, and the gist of it is that you should have a consistent atmosphere when you sit down to write. Maybe you work at the exact same desk or cafe every session, or maybe you listen to a specific song to get you amped up for word creation. Whatever the case, having some kind of consistency to your writing will make it easier.
Having a place or activity you can associate with writing will make the task habitual, and so it will be easier to get into the writing grove when it is time to get started. Your mind will get used to the repetitive nature of the environment you’ve created, and it will know that it’s time to come up with some plot ideas.
7.) Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
I think we’ve covered all of the things that you need to do in order to get your writing routine rolling, but there are a couple of things you should avoid as well (outside of the obvious not getting started).
The first is making sure that you don’t compare yourself to others. However much you are able to get done is what you should be doing. Don’t worry if Joey in the cubicle down the hall writes twice as fast as you do. It doesn’t matter. This isn’t a race. Get your work done, and get it done well, at the pace that works for you and however busy your life is.
Comparison can be useful in seeing where you can improve. Perhaps there is some technique another writer uses that you might want to adopt. But don’t let yourself be discouraged by what other people are accomplishing. You don’t really know the circumstances behind it. Maybe they’ve been doing this much longer than you have and just have a better rhythm for it. Maybe those four thousand words a day they write are all total crap. Or maybe they’re just straight lying to you about how much they get done. Whatever the case, worrying over it and thinking you must do more will only derail your writing efforts.
Work with the time and momentum you have now, and don’t let anyone else’s success get in the way of what you’re doing.
8.) Remember That Life Happens
Everyone has bad days or days where things happen. If you end up missing a writing session or not hitting your word count, don’t beat yourself up. Shit happens, as the elders say, and you can’t let yourself get frustrated by it. If it’s something out of your control, don’t worry about it. If it’s something you could’ve done better, make note of that, and then learn from it.
If you spend a lot of time being angry with yourself, you’ll become less productive. Take care of whatever the day brings and then get back on your schedule when you can.
9.) Reset As Needed
Don’t be a slave to your routine or inefficiently force yourself to adhere to it in the face of changing circumstances. If you need to make changes, don’t be afraid to do that.
On top of that, don’t be afraid to live life. You should mostly be turning down invitations to do things during your writing time, but if that once in a lifetime opportunity shows up, then don’t be afraid to take it and reset your schedule again the next day or week or whenever.
But, don’t go about constantly changing your schedule just because you don’t think it’s working. If you’re starting something new, try to stick with it for a few weeks and see if it’s productive before you make a decision. Over a short time span, one or two off days might tilt your perception of a schedule that would actually work just fine for you normally.
If you’re starting to put together a new writing routine or starting to build one for the first time, then I hope you find this helpful. If you’re a veteran writer, feel free to share any tips in the comments you think I may have forgotten to include here.
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