How I Developed the Habit and How You Can Too
I’ve heard the statement since the day I started my writing education. Writers must write every day. It sounds so romantic and noble. But when the rubber meets the proverbial keyboard, ‘writing every day’ is a damn-hard habit to develop. At least, it was a hard habit for me. Maybe it’ll be easy for you.
Daily writing is something I’ve struggled with for years. I wanted it badly, but I didn’t have the right framework in place. I tried about every method you can think of. I’d write for a couple weeks straight then something would derail me. Once stopped, it was much harder to get my cheeks in the seat.
Maybe you’re struggling with this too. Writers are weird people. We want to have the ‘writer’ title and we love writing once we’re doing it, but we’ll do just about anything to avoid the process — look! there’s laundry to be done.
There are many caveats to daily writing For every writer who swears by this practice you’ll find another who writes only in sporadic cram-sessions. This story isn’t meant as a debate on all the merits and pitfalls of daily writing. If daily writing is a habit you’ve tried to develop in the past, but failed, this story is for you.
Why I Believe in Daily Writing:
As a writer, or any crafts-person, your job is to grow a little every day — to hone your craft and be better than yesterday you. If we’re not growing we’re shrinking. There’s no stasis in life. What might feel like stasis is digression masked as temporary comfort.
Yes, there are plenty of writers who make a very good living going on long writing retreats, pumping out large volumes of work, and taking long breaks between sessions.
I’m not one of those sporadic writers.
When I wrote in sprints, the work comes out manic and thin. I felt the pressure to crank out 8,000 words in a day, or more. I’d do this for a week or two, cranking out an entire manuscript in three weeks or less. Then I’d crash at the end and write nothing for months. Or, I’d sprint half the manuscript and sit on it.
As I revisited these sprinted manuscripts I found the work disjointed. I couldn’t remember what I was thinking in the moment. The editing was near-impossible, because I’d been away from the work so long. Although I had a detailed outline (which I no longer use) it was hard to return to my head-space.
The worst part of sporadic writing sessions was the lack of uniformity.
If I gave a three month (or three week) break between writing sessions the work lacked uniformity. Once the manuscript was finished, it read as if I had 2–3 different writing voices, versus a consistent voice throughout.
Daily writing solves the consistent-voice issue.
When you write daily you build a blue-collar approach to the work. Your voice will be a clear, consistent thread across your work. You’ll write whether you feel like it or not. You’ll write whether or not you think you have a good idea. You’ll write, because you’re now a daily writer. And daily writing grows into a large amount of accumulated work, with less-effort than sporadic writing.
Example: If you write 1,000 words per day, everyday, it may take you 1–3 hours to accomplish this. At year’s-end, you’ll have enough material for 4 1/2 full-length novels of 80,000 words each. With 1–3 hours of writing per day (and you don’t have to do it all in one sitting!)
Here’s a post I wrote about the game-changer I discovered with mobile writing:
How to Write a Full Novel on Your Phone
Do your best work using the device you always have in your pocket
If you write using the sprint method, but you take long breaks between sessions, sure you’ll write more in a day, but your output will be far less — maybe one novel per year, if that.
The Tools You Need to Build the Daily Writing Habit
- You must set the bar stupid-low — While I developed this habit, my daily writing goal was a single word. I suggest you do the same, maybe one sentence. You’ll write more than one word, of course, but if you hit the goal you win the day. These early wins are critical
- You must track your progress — A big red X on a mobile or paper calendar works wonders for this. Empty spaces on the calendar are harsh reminders of your missed days.
- You must have a plan in advance — How will you write (Try mobile. You’re welcome)? Where will you write? What will you write? When will you write? Will you tell anyone about your goal to keep accountable? Figure all this stuff out the day before you start your habit-building.
- You must have a writing cue — We all have automatic habits in our lives. Your cue is something you already do daily, which will serve as your flag to start writing. I make coffee every morning no matter how sick, tired, happy, or sad I am. My hands just go through the process. I use this permanent habit to piggyback my new habit against. Maybe I place a ‘did you write today’ note on the coffee maker, or leave a pencil in my coffee mug.
- You must give yourself a reward — No, you don’t need to eat a full bad of Ruffles, or cash-in your retirement for a replacement yacht. Your daily reward should be something small, healthy, easy, and free. My daily reward is the satisfaction from marking my tracking X. Really, the reward doesn’t have to be much. Your brain will fill in the gaps. Maybe you write a column for money. The more you post the more you’ll make. Money can be a strong reward.
- You must commit to the process for a couple months, minimum — It takes 60+ days to form a permanent habit, maybe more. You will have days where you miss. This is part of the process. It won’t feel OK to miss a day, but it’s OK, really.
- You must WANT to write every day — Yes, this sounds dumb, but you must want to do this. Don’t try to write every day if it sounds fun or something you can brag about on social. You write every day to hone your craft, because you’re a writer. This is not fun. This is not a game. There are other things you can do daily besides write if you’re attempting this for the wrong reasons. I write every day, because I want to be a full-time commercial author.
- You must have a dual reminder system — Give yourself a daily cue and one backup reminder (i.e. a daily notification on your phone) in the late afternoon. If I miss my goal, my phone goes off around 3:00 pm.
- You must start the cue process in the morning — Why? If your cue is in the morning, with a secondary reminder in the afternoon, you’ve got all day to steal time for a little writing. If your sole reminder is at bed time, you set yourself up to fail. Bedtime is the moment of weakest willpower and lowest brainpower. Bedtime-only chances of habit success are near-zero. I know. I tried this too.
Alternatively, you can use fear motivation to develop your new writing habit. Our brains respond stronger to pain-avoidance than they do to pleasure-gain. Using this method below, you can use fear to run towards your goal, instead of rewarding yourself after completing a task. This method is HARDER, but works well for stubborn habits that won’t take.
Make Writing a Permanent Habit
It’s time to start. You’ve got all the pieces in place. You have a tracking app or calendar. Your goal is stupid-easy. I suggest you try to develop the daily writing habit withing attempting other habits simultaneously.
Stick to it, but don’t punch yourself when you miss a day. You WILL miss a day eventually. The more days you string simultaneously, the stronger the habit bond. Our brains like to make things easy. We develop strong electrical connections via something called a myelin sheath. The more you repeat a process, the stronger the myelin connection, which creates a superhighway for fast information transfer.
With these strong habit connections we avoid the need to rely on willpower, one of our weakest, limited resources for motivation. You will physically change your brain as you develop this habit. As I said your brain wants to conserve energy and take the easy way. Make the easy way your daily writing practice.
The biggest change I made was mobile writing. This one step made the daily writing process a hundredfold easier. If you have to lock yourself to a laptop to hit your goals, the daily habit will be harder to build. There are resources in the story I posted above, and below is another post I wrote about the positive results of mobile writing:
Bump the Numbers
One word a day will get a single short story by the end of a year. It’s a stupid-simple goal, but it leads to low output.
Once you develop the daily habit, start bumping your numbers.
Instead of writing daily, your goal becomes ‘write 500 words daily.’ Throw the same process behind the word count. Boost your numbers to a level you can sustain. Push it further. Dial the count back when the number becomes unsustainable.
Remember, 1,000 words per day is easy and that equates to four new novels per year. Just think of what will happen if you triple it!