Anyone who writes for a living knows that it can sometimes be a slog.
But it doesn’t have to be such a chore. Try these 15 tips to make the words flow every day–even when you’re tired or not feeling particularly inspired:
1. Put your commitment to yourself in writing. When we write objectives on paper, we take them more seriously. Do yourself the favor of taking your own goal seriously enough to write it down. For how long do you want to write each day? Or how many words do you want to produce? Then, pin that commitment on a bulletin board above your desk or tape it to your computer monitor.
2. Set a goal so small you can’t fail. The people who fail at writing are usually the ones who have set the bar too high.
When someone applies to my Get It Done group and tells me they want to write for three hours each day, I know they have a problem. Instead, it’s far better to do the opposite – pick a goal that’s so small it’s almost embarrassing. Why? You’re far more likely to succeed, and success begets more success.
3. Stack your writing with another habit. I learned about habit stacking in the excellent book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. Following his process, you identify a habit that you already have nailed down (e.g. drinking your first morning coffee) and you add or “stack” another habit along with it.
For example, you might tell yourself, “After having the first sip of my morning coffee, I’m going to write for 10 minutes.” The strength of your first habit, burnished by years of repetition, will help ensure the success of your second one.
4. Write in the morning (unless you are a night owl). I strongly recommend that most people write in the morning rather than later in the day. A couple of good reasons for this advice: We are all more likely to follow our goals if we’re not flustered by anything else — and early in the morning, nothing has gone wrong yet! No boss has demanded an unrealistic report. No partner or child has done something irritating yet. As well, if you get your writing “out of the way,” then you’re not going to have a nagging feeling of guilt hanging over your head. Instead, you’ll feel productive and accomplished, and this will help you be more successful with everything else you need to accomplish that day. Of course, if you’re a night owl, you can certainly write at night–ideally after everyone else in your life has gone to bed.
5. Have a double reminder system. Building a habit requires overriding your natural instinct to let urgencies overwhelm your day or to do only those tasks that appear fun or instantly rewarding (I’m looking at you, social media!)
Make sure you have a second daily reminder to give you another shot at writing if you didn’t manage to do it for the time you’d originally planned. Perhaps you could send yourself a daily email? Maybe have an alarm on your phone?
6. Have a quiet place for writing. I write with the ticking sound of a pomodoro timer in the background. But I still need quiet from the human voice. Most people are the same. It usually doesn’t work to write in the middle of the kitchen or living room with others buzzing around you. Find a quiet place to write (challenging, during the pandemic, I know) and try to write in the same place every day. This is part of the habit-building mantra.
7. Allow yourself to write badly. Writing is not a time for quality control.
Instead, it’s a time to take risks, be creative and have fun. Instead of thinking about quality, focus on quantity. How many words can you write per minute? The only time to think about quality is when you’re editing. Speaking of which:
8. Don’t edit while you are writing. The people I know who hate writing usually have one thing in common: They edit while they write. If you want to build a sustainable writing habit, make the job more enjoyable for yourself by separating the fun of writing from the work of editing. In other words, stop editing while you write.
9. Don’t research while writing. In a recent Zoom call with my writing group, I earned a laugh when I demonstrated the writing process of many academics: They lodge themselves in front of their computers, surround themselves with books and peer-reviewed journals, and then frantically switch between consulting texts and writing.
This sort of process is stressful, time-consuming and woefully inefficient. When you research, only research.
10. Allow time for every step in the writing process. Most of us tend to think of writing as a single step. We sit in front of a blank screen, and we put words onto it. But, in fact, the process is much more detailed than that. There’s also thinking, planning, researching, outlining/mindmapping and editing. Be sure to allow for enough time for every step in the process.
11. Track your progress. Have you ever worn a pedometer? I wear one every day, and I get way more steps because of it. Why? We respond to what we track. When I get to noon and see I’ve accumulated only 2,000 steps, I know I need to start walking a lot more, right away.
Similarly, if you track how much time you’re spending writing and how many words you accumulate every day, you’re far more likely to accomplish more writing. Here’s a writing-tracking form you can download at no charge.
12. Don’t count “free writing.” Writers often ask me about “free writing.” When they do, I always ask them to describe what they mean by that term. If they are referring to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” I say great, but that’s not a sustainable writing habit. Cameron’s system involves writing three pages every morning, by longhand, reflecting whatever is on your mind.
I can see some mental health benefits from this type of writing, but it’s not enough to take you to your writing goals. Instead, identify your topic, and write only about that.
13. Set up an accountability system for yourself. If you are responsible to no one, you may never finish your writing. If you have someone who will truly hold you accountable and won’t accept excuses, then enlist their help.
14. Plan for what to do if you fail. I’m not being a Debbie Downer here, but failure is part of writing. Instead of writing yourself off as a failure, have a “if/then” statement ready and waiting. Here’s an example: “If I fail to write for five minutes on Wednesday, then I’ll reduce my goal and write for only two minutes on Thursday.” If/then statements are a powerful way to build sustainable habits.
15. Commit to the process for at least six months. Basically, you want writing to become a habit, which is friendlier and more sustainable than any action requiring willpower. But the downside of habits is they take a while to fully form. Neuroscientists tell us that establishing a habit takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days. (Yes, I know that’s a wide range but every person — and every habit — is unique.)
Don’t give up on your daily writing habit too quickly. You may have days of success followed by a day of failure, but persist for at least six months before you decide the system hasn’t worked.
If you can establish a healthy, consistent writing habit, my hunch is you’ll succeed with your career. Why? Willpower takes major effort. But habits are sustainable.