So you just finished reading my piece on the pros and cons of a daily writing routine, and you’ve decided to implement it for yourself.
Let me be the first to say, way to go! It’s a huge step that I truly believe you won’t regret.
As I mentioned in that article, however, it’s important to go about this the right way. If you just start willy-nilly, you run the risk of welcoming burnout. So today, I’m going to make sure you’re armed with tried and true methods of building a successful writing routine, accompanied with tips and tricks to ensure that you get the most out of your new habit.
Even if you haven’t decided to take the plunge and commit to writing every day, this article is definitely worth reading. It’ll help you get more out of your writing sessions in general, especially if you write with some regularity (perhaps once a week).
So get ready, because your writing life will never be the same…
If you’ve never tried before, building a writing routine seems like it would be pretty easy! But as anyone who’s attempted this feat knows, it’s not as simple as it sounds.
After all, it’s hard enough to find time to write when you don’t have a dedicated time for it.
The good news, however, is that once you have a set schedule for writing, you don’t have to fit it into your schedule again. Barring emergencies, unexpected life circumstances, or other interruptions, you’ll have a dedicated time to write, which immediately gives you an advantage compared to the writer who just gets in a few words “whenever inspiration strikes.”
Of course, life happens, and chances are you won’t be able to hold to your routine flawlessly. But it’s no use foregoing a routine simply because you know it won’t be perfect. If you’re serious about your writing, you need to take control of what you can control! If you can’t set aside an hour, just start with 15 or 30 minutes. But start somewhere.
So is it as simple as just declaring that you’re going to write at a set time every day?
There are a number of factors that can heavily influence the success of your writing session, and creating a successful writing habit is all about managing those factors and preparing for them in advance. It’s about creating the ideal environment where you can be most productive and creative. It’s about setting yourself up for success by making informed decisions.
Basically, you want to get out of your own way. Writing can be very difficult if you’re first starting out (heck, even if you’ve been writing for years, it can be tricky at times), and you want to make sure that you’re in the best frame of mind and that you don’t have to worry about anything but getting words on the page.
So how do you create this ideal environment?
I’m glad you asked.
Before you do anything else, it’s critically important that you decide what your goals are, both on a practical and on a more abstract level.
First, determine your motivation. Are you aiming for a deadline, and therefore need to stress word count? Are you trying to better your skills as a writer? Are you simply writing to process emotions or journal your thoughts and dreams?
You must determine your “why” before anything else. This “why” will dictate how you go about your writing. It becomes the yardstick by which you measure the success of your writing sessions.
Second, set a long-term goal. This is what you can look at in the middle of a tricky session and remember what you’re working toward. Maybe you’ve dreamt of writing a book for years, and this is finally what will put you over the finish line. Maybe you’re a freelancer, and you know you need to write a certain amount to meet a financial goal. Maybe you simply want to devote an hour a day to writing because you’re aware of the health benefits.
Whatever it is, you need to find out your reason for writing and what you can measure on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes, it will help you identify problem spots in your routine, allowing you to adjust it and make it more optimal. Sometimes, it’s what will keep you going when the going gets rough.
Only after you’ve discovered these two things and written them down may you proceed to the next step.
I recently wrote on this subject, but I want to stress it again here because it’s one of the most important parts of your writing routine. If you get this one part wrong, it might not matter how much you do to prepare–you could end up staring at a blank screen for an hour and wonder where it all went wrong.
How is this possible? Well, the time of day, as it turns out, has quite the impact on your productivity and creativity.
Chances are, you’ve already intuitively noticed this. You might clock in to your remote job and just fiddle around on Trello and Teams for a couple hours while you chug three cups of coffee because you know how useless it would be to attempt any significant work in the morning.
True, that might simply be because of poor sleep habits, but it’s likely that you’ve already noticed that you’re simply not that productive in the morning.
Maybe you’re a night owl, and you’ve found over time that if you write in the wee hours of the morning, you get your best work done.
You’re not crazy. And though some people (probably your parents if you don’t have a place of your own yet) will go to the grave swearing that “anyone can be a morning person” and “you just need to get used to it,” the truth just isn’t that simple.
Yes, you can force yourself to adapt to a different sleep schedule. That much is true. But what likely won’t significantly change without a very long, sustained effort is the time of day when you are most productive.
I’ll quote myself:
Humans, as it turns out, are very different. Duh, right? As such, it should be no surprise that people approach their work in different ways, and therefore find different methodologies and practices to ensure they are at their most productive.
The thing is, your productivity is the result of too many variables that are specific to you and your environment. Everything from diet to lifestyle to geographical location goes toward determining how efficiently you work. And given how varied our lives are, it’s no wonder that no two people will approach their work in exactly the same ways.
All science seems to consistently agree upon is that our most productive time seems to be later when we’re younger, and gradually shift to an earlier time the older we get. But even this isn’t 100% accurate. As I said, it’s all subjective.
So how do you find out when you’re most productive? Well, you could simply attempt to make a semi-educated guess based on your intuition and history, or you could make a truly educated guess with cold, hard facts–data.
The best way to find out when you’re most productive is to measure whatever you can. Most people find that simply jotting down the time of their writing session and then their word count is enough to determine their optimal writing time. I would suggest including such data points as your writing location and your overall mood level during your writing session.
As we’ll discuss later, where you write is another critical factor. And while mood can vary wildly, it might give you a deeper insight into your writing session that could tip the scales in favor of a particular set of circumstances.
When determining my optimal writing session, I included such measurements as the kind of music I was listening to, as well as the coffee I was drinking. I say this to emphasize that the more data you can gather about yourself, the better. You never know the bizarre addition that turns a good session into a great one.
When you get enough data, do your best to objectively find out what time of day you are most productive. However, this productivity might be measured by different metrics. Remember how I made you determine your motivations in the previous step? Here’s where they’ll come in handy right off the bat.
You may not be interested in building your word count, in which case it can simply be an extra data point that could help you identify a better hour for writing if you need a tiebreaker. Maybe your overall mood is more important to you, especially if you’re journaling for emotional/
Whatever your motivations are, you should have enough information after a few weeks to determine the best time to write. The results may surprise you, or they might be exactly what you assumed. However, don’t skip this step simply because you think you already know. We want to make informed decisions wherever we can!
Once you feel comfortable nailing down your peak hour, set it in stone. Do whatever you have to in order to claim that hour and make it your own. Rearrange some things, switch duties with your spouse, take your lunch break earlier–whatever you have to do.
This hour is yours now.
If you’re anything like me, there are one or two places that, for some reason, are easiest to write in. Maybe it’s a quiet cabin on the lake, a coffee shop, the train, or just your home office.
Wherever it is, it’s important to take advantage of this location as much as you can. Granted, it can get very expensive if your favorite writing location is a coffee shop. I’m still making back all the money I spent on overpriced coffee while writing, rewriting, and editing my first book.
But assuming there’s somewhere that lights the magic spark in your brain that lets you write with the wind at your back (and doesn’t break the bank at the same time), you’ve struck gold! Take your golden hour, which you found in the previous step, and try to schedule time at this place every day, if at all possible.
Hopefully, there are two places that light this spark for you. It’s always good to have a back-up plan, and it can often help to change things up, as we’ll discuss later.
Chances are, you already know where your ideal location is. All the data you collected while finding the best hour for writing sessions will come in handy here. Assuming you wrote in more than a few locations, you should have a good sample size of various places now, and ideally one or two will stand out as particularly favorable.
However, if you haven’t already found this place, then keep searching! Now that you know your ideal time, schedule that time at several different places, sampling the vibe of various locations until you find one that feels right and shows to be productive in your data.
Don’t worry. We won’t be summoning demons or anything today.
We’ll save that for another article.
Rather, it’s important to ritualize your writing routine, at least to an extent. You’ve already partially done this, assuming you followed my instructions in finding out your ideal time and location.
Now, it’s time to finish the job.
Take your data points and find any more correlations that might have anything to do with your productivity/
Do you find that Colombian coffee nets you more words than Jamaican? Does listening to smooth jazz get your juices flowing in a way that movie soundtracks can’t match? Do you feel more confident when sitting at a desktop computer than you do while using your laptop? Is Scrivener a particularly helpful software for drafting your book in, or do all the fancy buttons just get in the way?
These questions may sound trivial, but you would be utterly surprised what makes a significant difference in your writing sessions.
This is why I suggest writing everything down when measuring your writing sessions.
The more data points you have, the better. And if you can make everything work for you and create the ideal environment where words just flow out onto the page, you will have effectively hacked your career or hobby.
Take all these scenarios and circumstances, and combine them to make the perfect writing routine, a ritual that you can engage with on a daily basis.
A lot of people stop there and take me at my word. It sounds good, they think. That sounds like it could work!
But there’s another benefit to the ritual.
You see, it doesn’t just hack your career. It hacks your brain as well.
The true power of your newfound ritual lies not in simply creating an environment where it’s easier to write.
Yes, it does that, and if that’s the only thing it did, it would be well worth it.
No, there’s something far more amazing that the ritual does.
With every external stimuli you introduce as part of your writing routine, you further reinforce the idea in your mind that these minutiae are simply part of writing. When you smell that cup of Colombian coffee, it fires a neuron on your brain and tells you that it’s time to write. When the smooth jazz kicks in, it’s like overclocking your computer, sending your creative mind into overdrive. When you sit down at your varnished mahogany desk and you boot up Scrivener in dark mode, your brain sits at full attention.
It’s time to write.
It takes a long time to build that trigger-response function, but it’s well worth it. The flow state is no joke, and it’s especially powerful for creatives. If you find the right combination of stimuli that you can practically summon this zen-like state of mind on command, it’s worth all the late nights, the expensive coffee shop trips, and bug bites you get from sitting at the lake.
Again, it takes serious effort to find this ideal combination, but don’t give up. It’ll be one of the best things you’ve ever done for your writing.
Here’s where a lot of writers go wrong. They finish their hour, and then they let out a long sigh and move on with their day.
However, it’s important to reward yourself after an hour of intense focus. Working so hard without any immediate reward can lead to burnout pretty quickly.
Yes, ideally there is some grand payoff at some point down the road. One day, you’ll have 30 books to your name, which is known across the country. One day, you’ll reach nirvana after processing your past and resolving your trauma through journaling. One day, your memoir will be read by every third grader across the globe, and you’ll change the world.
But you need to reward yourself somehow in the short term. You need to build that expectation that a reward is coming after your hard work. Sometimes, as superficial as it can be, it’s what your brain needs in the middle of a difficult writing session.
And it’s not enough to just reward yourself only when you finish a hard session. You need to do it often enough that you subconsciously expect it, spurring you on each time you sit down to write.
It’s especially important when you’re first starting out. Habits are not easy to establish, at least not positive ones. You need all the help you can get, and positive reinforcement is far and away one of the best ways to solidify that habit.
One chocolate a day won’t hurt you . . . I don’t think. I’m not a doctor.
Maybe watch an episode of your favorite TV show right after. One episode, of course. Binging won’t help establish a reward and can actually have a detrimental effect on your habit.
If you’re a gamer, then maybe play a level each time you finish your hour. Just don’t play League of Legends as a reward*.* You actually want to enjoy it, after all.
Whatever you choose, it’s important that you reward yourself for successfully completing another session, especially when you’re just starting to build your habit. If you can, reward yourself in the same way each time. It’ll be all the more effective if you do.
This may come as a surprise to you, but it’s important that you make a habit out of your new . . . well . . . habit.
Yes, I know. A novel idea indeed, no pun intended.
But once more for those in the back, this new habit needs 30–90 days to set in and become part of your everyday life. Once you’ve made it past the 90-day mark, it’s easier to keep going strong even if you miss a day, but it’s still important after all that time to just get back up on the horse if you fall off.
Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Just make a conscious effort to pick it back up again the next day, and missing once won’t do too much damage.
Also, as I hope I’ve made it clear by now, it’s crucial that you perform more or less the exact same routine each time. Once you’ve found the perfect formula, I hope you can imagine how important it is that you stick to exactly that.
Yep. After the lecture I just finished giving on how important it is to not change anything, my final piece of advice to you is to not be afraid to change things up.
You may have gone through quite the ordeal to find your ideal writing time, location, and circumstances, but chances are, things will change.
Maybe you’ve written at your coffee shop every single day for the past year, and the smell of their coffee just makes you sick now, rendering you unable to write. Maybe jazz just isn’t cutting it anymore, and it only annoys you now. Maybe you’ve decided to pivot from young adult fiction and to suspense, and you want a change of scenery to better accompany the darker tones.
It also could have nothing to do with your environment. Maybe you’ve evolved as a writer, and there isn’t enough challenge in your routine.
Or, just maybe, your routine is simply getting stale, and you’re finding it harder to slip into a flow state than you once did.
This is perfectly natural. You really can’t expect the same ritual to work every day for the rest of your life. But instead of stubbornly trying to make it work like it once did, try to identify what isn’t working and make a change.
It could be that a minor tweak is all you need to “fix” your ritual. Sometimes, you need to completely overhaul your routine until you find a new one that works.
Regrettably, some people hate change so much that they won’t admit there’s something that does in fact need to change, leaving them perpetually frustrated that some have quit writing, choosing instead to believe that writer’s block has cornered them for good this time. Some people love their ritual so much and refuse to believe that something just isn’t working.
I never let myself get frustrated when I find that my ritual needs to be updated. It’s a refreshing change of pace, not to mention an adventure, when I find myself on the hunt for the latest-and-greatest version of my routine.
I challenge you to see it the same way. I know it’s not always easy to reinvent your routines, but you owe it to your talent to nurture it in the most cultivating way, letting it grow and turn into something amazing.
Building a writing habit can be challenging, but if you want to get better at anything, you need to make it a priority in your life. And if you want to make a career out of it, this typically means finding a way to make it a part of your daily routine.
Even if you’re not ready to make writing your career, it’s important that you find some way to write consistently. Maybe start out with habitually writing once every few days, or maybe even once a week. You can always scale up later.
But the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll see your talent grow dramatically. And once you’ve established a consistent writing routine, you’ll be well on your way to being a successful writer.