This week’s post is from author JM Reinbold. She also runs the Facebook group 250 Words Plus that encourages writers to pen 250 words each day. Not only that, she is one of the most disciplined writers I know. Her body of work is a testament to this writing habit.
In 2009, I attended the Seascape Writers Retreat for crime fiction writers in Connecticut. I was working on my first novel. One of the facilitators asked me how much time I invested in my writing. I worked full time, had a family, aging parents, and other responsibilities. My answer: “A few hours a week.” She told me: “That’s not enough. Not if you want to write books.” She was right. I had friends who wrote books, who lived, and were deeply committed to the writing life. I wanted that, too, and was determined to achieve it. It wasn’t easy, but I did achieve it by first developing a regular writing habit.
Developing a writing habit isn’t just about writing every day. Writing every day or on a regular schedule is important, but before you decide to make that commitment to yourself and your work, there are a few things to consider that will make it easier for you to succeed in creating and maintaining a writing habit that fits you and your needs, that you can stick with, and that will support you in reaching your writing goals.
For most writers, whether they’re just starting out or have been writing for a while, the determining factor is TIME. How much time do you have? How much time are you willing to invest in your writing? There are a few writers that have time on their hands. Most do not. Like most folks, they have jobs and careers, school/college, families and friends, homes to maintain and chores to do, hobbies that interest them, self-care, care of others, and additional responsibilities that all require an investment of time and energy. As you evaluate your schedule, be realistic with your numbers and realize that depending on the circumstances, you might have to adjust your schedule, as well as your expectations.
For writers who want to develop a regular writing habit, my advice is start small, go slow, and don’t force it. If you’re not writing with some regularity already, then don’t start out with a goal of writing every day. Start out with a goal of writing three or four days a week. Examine your calendar and select days that will best accommodate your writing time. Decide on a block of time—15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes—then enter that time in your calendar/phone. If you treat your writing time like any other engagement, you’re more likely to “show up” for it rather than looking at it as an optional activity. When you enter your writing appointment into your calendar, make sure you also enter the location. Some writers can write anywhere; if you’re not one of them, decide ahead of time where you will write and what tools you need. Be prepared.
There are many articles available online and in books that describe plans, schedules, and techniques for starting and maintaining a writing habit. Techniques include morning pages, prompts, sprints, work-in-progress outlines, and more. Keep in mind that the person who wrote the article or the book is primarily describing what worked for him/her. The same approach may not work for you, or some of it may appeal, but not all. Explore and experiment. Try out a few or many techniques to find out what works for you, then customize, and make it uniquely yours.
Make it as easy as possible on yourself to write. You may have a strong preference for writing in a specific place—your local library, for example—and in a specific way—on your laptop—however, it is worth the effort to expand your boundaries and experiment with writing in many locations, situations, and in a variety of ways, because your preferred location for writing and/or your preferred method of writing may not always be available or appropriate. If you’re on a vacation cruise, how will you write on your laptop in your local library? The answer is not: Don’t write while on vacation. Why? Because being on vacation is quite possibly the absolute best time for you to write—you don’t have the responsibilities of work and home, you’re relaxed, your schedule is flexible—but you might have to make some minor adjustments to your schedule! See what I mean. If you find that you have a few minutes to write at work, are you prepared? If you’re out and about and a writing opportunity arises, are you prepared?
I remember telling a writing instructor—a long time ago when I’d just started writing— that I couldn’t write if I didn’t have a black velvet journal to write in. How embarrassing! I haven’t written in a journal in years. I also thought I couldn’t get any proper writing done if I wasn’t alone, in total silence, and without distractions. I seriously contemplated renting an office with soundproof walls and nothing in it but a desk and a computer. That plan didn’t work out for several reasons, cost for one, and the other, I like writing at home. I now have my own writing room. However, it took a long time to achieve that writing room. In the interim, I learned to write just about anywhere and in a variety of ways. Cultivate flexibility, and you’ll accomplish more writing than you ever thought possible. I can now say: “I can write anywhere, but I prefer to write at home.”
To increase the odds of success in developing and maintaining a regular writing habit, make use of all the tools at your disposal. Enroll in a writing program, join or start a critique group where you are responsible for presenting writing on a regular basis. Participate in writing challenges such as National Novel Writing Month or the less intense Camp NaNoWriMo (you set your own word/page goals for the month), find a writing buddy who will check in with you regularly to see if you are writing and you do the same for her/him. Participate in a monthly or weekly open mic and commit to preparing a reading of new work. Participate in an on-line or in-person writers’ support/inspiration group. Giving and receiving encouragement increases awareness that you’re not alone in your quest and reinforces your successes. Apply for a space at a well-run writers’ retreat. There’s nothing like uninterrupted time dedicated solely to your work. Despite the myth, isolation doesn’t work well for most writers. Like everyone else, we need community and external validation.
Mix it up. Make it fun. Keep your writing habit fresh and strengthen it by cross-training with a combo of techniques: advancing your work-in-progress, generative or “hot” writing, free writing, revision work, and editing. You’re much less likely to stick to your writing habit if you’re bored, frustrated, or stuck. To really energize your habit, you may want to try all the above in a single session. Start by reading and editing writing from your previous writing session. Then loosen up with some generative/hot writing related to your project or brainstorm ideas. After that, while your energy is still high, add to your work-in-progress. Then “cool down” with some free writing (riffing off a prompt) or revision on work that’s “rested.”
Setting short- and long-term goals for yourself and keeping track of your progress is important in maintaining a regular writing habit. If you only have a long-term goal—of, say, completing a novel or writing forty blog posts—you run the risk of feeling discouraged by the length of time required to reach those goals. However, if you also have a short-term goal of writing a chapter or blog post a week or every other week, your successes will accumulate quickly. As those successes accumulate, announce them to your “writing tribe,” celebrate them in whatever way is meaningful to you, reward yourself for your effort, AND keep track of them, whether that’s a simple list, a scrapbook, an inspiration board, or even gold stars on your writing To-Do list. There’s little else more motivating than seeing a record of your accomplishments and growth as a writer, except perhaps, experiencing the joy of receiving rewards from others who appreciate your writing.
Finally, stick to it. Be accountable to yourself and others, whomever those others might be—your writing buddy, your critique group, or your audience. But mostly, be accountable to yourself because in the long game—and writing is most definitely a long game—that’s what is important. You must want it. For yourself. You must commit. To yourself. You must invest. In yourself.
Do you see what’s happening here? You’re not only developing a writing habit, you’re creating a WRITING LIFE!
JM Reinbold is the author of the DCI Rylan Crowe mystery series and the editor of the award-winning anthology A Plague of Shadows and Someone Wicked. She is the author of the award-winning story Song of the Shark God, the Absinthe Assassin, and other short fiction. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she plots twisted, fictional murder at her home in Wilmington, Delaware.Website: www.jmreinbold.com