Five Ways to Build the Writing Habit

writing-habit

A guest post by Ali Hale

Whether you’re just starting out with writing, or whether you’re a seasoned pro picking up your pen again after a dry spell, you might have discovered just how daunting that blank page can be. Sitting down and putting words on paper (or on a computer screen) can be a huge effort. No wonder writers find themselves engaging in displacement activities: checking emails, Twittering, even the housework can seem more attractive than writing.

Over several years of writing fiction and non-fiction, I’ve found that writing really is a habit. If I write every day (or at least most days), I find the words flowing easily; if I take a writing vacation for a few weeks, it’s much harder to get back into writing.

Here are some ways you can help yourself build the writing habit:

1. Write Something Each Day

One of the most common tips from established authors to aspiring authors is to “write every day”. This is powerful advice: a daily action quickly becomes established in your routine, and, if you’re working on a book or other long project, writing every day helps build momentum.

You might have days when you’re burnt out, exhausted, or hectically busy. That’s fine. Even if you can only manage a single sentence, just write something every day.

2. Set Yourself Targets

There’s no one right way to set yourself writing targets: different authors like different methods. You might want to consider a couple of things, though:
1. Published authors have deadlines – and, as any student pulling an all-nighter knows, deadlines are a great way of concentrating the mind. So why not set yourself a firm completion date for your current work in progress?
2. Give yourself a daily target. Some writers have a word target (eg. 500 words per day), others prefer to write for a set period of time (eg. half an hour). Try both, and see which works best for you.
If you don’t have any sort of deadline or target, it’s easy to put off writing until another day. Try posting your targets near your desk, so that you’ll see them while you’re working, or keep track of your progress using a blog, Facebook or Twitter.

3. Join a Writers’ Circle or Group

I’ve been a member of several different writers’ groups over the past decade. Without exception, they’ve encouraged me to write more, and they’ve helped me to improve my writing immensely. Meeting regularly with other writers, and sharing work-in-progress, can motivate you to finish and polish pieces to submit to the group.

Most writing groups focus on fiction and/or poetry: if you’re a non-fiction writer, you may be able to find or form a group with similar interests, though.

If you’ve got the money and time to devote to it, an evening course or a creative writing or journalism degree is a powerful way to give writing a priority in your life. With assignments and group workshops, you’ll find that you pretty much have to get into the writing habit!

4. Keep a Notebook With You

This is another piece of popular advice – carry a notebook. This isn’t just in case you have a great idea whilst in the car or out for a walk: I find that I’m rarely struck with inspiration out of the blue, but that little scraps of time (waiting for trains, standing in line at the post office) can be fruitfully used to brainstorm.

If you’re really short on time, scribbling in a notebook whenever you end up waiting around somewhere can squeeze at least a few minutes of writing into each day.

5. Call Yourself a Writer

Many beginning and even established writers are reluctant to call themselves “a writer”. We often feel that we should be earning money or writing professionally in order to use the title. In reality, though, a writer is simply someone who writes! You’re a writer, so use your title with pride – don’t wait until you’ve got that book deal or even that first paid gig.

Calling yourself a writer isn’t just about having something interesting to say at parties. If you regularly introduce yourself to people as a writer, you’ll become more and more comfortable with this identity. Plus, you’ll feel more motivated to write (after all, that’s what writers do)

Have you got the writing habit – or are you still on your way to making writing a regular focus in your life?

Ali Hale is a freelance writer, and is studying for a postgraduate degree in creative writing. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own recently-launched Aliventures.

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39 thoughts on “Five Ways to Build the Writing Habit”

  • Iapetus999 says:

    I carry a netbook. Does that count as a notebook? :)

  • I keep journals everywhere – my car, my briefcase, my bedside, near my writing chair and I don’t allow them to be “special”. My creative inspirations are on the same page as my grocery list, followed by some character development, a to-do list and an outline for an article. This habit helps me to integrate creativity into the flow of my day and it’s funny to look back and see if my grocery list affected the scene I was writing – or the other way around!

  • Ali,

    You make a great point with #5: Call yourself a writer. It’s something I struggled with for a long time.

    I do keep a notebook for jotting down potential headlines and dot points for articles. Now that I’m used to this habit, I feel lost without it.

    Thanks

  • Annette says:

    I love that you advise people to call themselves a writer! That is one of the hardest hurdles to get over, even after you have a short story or article published it can still be difficult. I think we all have preconceptions about what it means to be a writer. Truth is, if you write, you’re a writer! Thank you!

  • Joshua says:

    I have never been one to pull an all-nighter, but I definitely agree with the value of setting deadlines. I am one that always tries to beat the deadline. It is like I am having a contest with myself… and I always win. It can definitely be a great motivation.

  • Zahrah says:

    I think identifying with the writer label is very important when it comes to motivations, and I don’t think non writers understand how fine that line is when it comes to beliving in yourself and your work.
    I’ve been a writer since I was 11but it wasn’t until I was paid for a piece that other people allowed me to use ‘writer’ and even now.. the reaction even is more ” Oh really.. but you don’t make a living from it How can you call yourself a writer “

  • Ali Hale says:

    @Iapetus999 – If you use it as a notebook, it counts. (I have a netbook too – typing this on it, in fact – aren’t they fab?)

    @Lori – Great tip! I tend to have the one notebook that I hunt round for if/when inspiration strikes … I’d never thought of connecting creativity and groceries before, either. ;-)

    @Suzannah and @Annette – I think a lot of writers struggle with it. But “writer” isn’t a title that you have to wait for someone else to bestow on you.

    @Joshua – I love “winning” against deadlines too :-D Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? I managed to hit the 50,000 words last time I did it.

    @Zahrah – Most writers (fiction writers, certainly) don’t make a living from it. Even quite well known novelists tend to have part-time jobs, maybe as writing tutors etc. You’re definitely a writer!

  • Deb Gorman says:

    Great suggestions here. I have several notebooks around the house and a couple of smaller ones to take with me to work. That way I can write down thoughts and ideas during the day, when I’m away from the computer.

  • Oke says:

    Ali,

    What has helped me is to be honest with myself with the how badly I want to be a writer. Saying you are a writer isn’t even half the battle, it is the art of doing it. Last year, I thought it to be a daunting task of writing for 10 minutes everyday. But once I made that commitment to be become a writer, things started to happen in my life that I can’t even quite understand. The question I have for you Ali, is when was the time you realized that you were destined to be a writer and how did your beliefs change when you were actually writing, than when you were thinking of it?

  • Great list, and there’s one thing that helped me achieve this: NaNoWriMo.

    It does it all and in one month you can change your life.

    It’s starting up in November so there’s plenty of time to get ready!

    http://www.nanowrimo.org/

  • Krishna says:

    Very powerful bit of advice “Call yourself a writer”! Thats just so true, if you go ahead and call yourself “xyz” the brain steps in to quickly fill up the gap from where you are :-) to your self-conception.

    Anyways, I have only recently started carrying round a notebook everywhere. Still have a hit-rate of less than 50% for capturing ideas. Its surprising how many ideas for articles and posts are just floating around waiting to be written down. I would highly recommend the book “Weinberd on writing: The fieldstone method” to dig deeper on this topic.

    Thanks for the post, will try out the other techniques and tell you how I go :-).

  • Bill Rice says:

    In addition to (and tucked in) that notebook I have a running list of article, ebook, book titles that I work from. It makes for a great spark to kick off a quick writing session.

    I also us Delicious.com in a similar way. I use the bookmarklet in my browser and I add the tag “toblog” to things that I save that may contain writing inspiration. Hitting that tag in my account makes another fabulous list of writing inspiration.

  • Zeynel says:

    I want to break my writing habit! What do I do :) I write 80% and act 20%, I want to reverse that.

  • Ali Hale says:

    @oke – Great question! I can’t actually remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer (I wrote stories when I was a kid… I even told stories to my mum and baby brother before I could write!) I think I was thirteen when I decided I wanted to be a novelist – and started on my first novel…

    @writer’s coin – I did NaNo in 2007 and plan on doing it again this year – going to attempt a children’s novel for the first time!

    @krishna – Thanks for the book recommendation! I’m always surprised how ideas can pop up out of nowhere – I often get them when walking.

    @Bill Rice – Great tip on delicious – I use it for “toread” but shall start trying “towrite”..!

    @Zeynel – To me, writing IS “acting”!

  • Great post! I’m a writer but I’m always looking for more ways to strengthen my writing and I think these are great tips — and absolutely perfect for me given the post I wrote on my own blog!

  • joylene says:

    Ali, I read your blog every day for a reason. You give such commonsense advice. Especially during a time when so many bloggees are trying to out-blog each other. Thanks. I faced my problem today. I’m lazy. I want to write, but I’m too easily distracted. And it’s not going to write itself.

    I’m going to haul my notebook out of the drawer and get back to basics. I’m going to set a daily target, and I’m going to participate in my writers’ group, instead of coming up with excuses why I can’t. I’ve got the other pointers cover.

  • Wonderful tips and I think my favorite is the one about calling ourselves writers and being proud of it! I know I have to always work on improving my writing skills – but I practice hard and shouldn’t be afraid to connect with that identity. Great tips and ones to always remember!

  • Kat Eden says:

    I started calling myself a writer a few months back and it’s made a tremendous difference. If nothing else, due to the fact that I’ve made myself accountable to others! They keep asking me how my blog or book is coming along, which can be frustrating if I haven’t done anything and so I make sure I have!

    The other change that’s been extremely powerful for me this year is joining a Zen Habits 31-day challenge. It involved focusing on a certain goal first thing every day. I found that by forcing myself to write for at least 10 minutes first thing I was able to create an incredibly strong habit of actually ‘being’ a writer. I must admit I’ve slipped now so this is a good reminder to get back into it. Thanks!

    Quick question: where do you suggest finding a writer’s group without joining a formal course?

  • costa k says:

    The idea of writing something every day is probably the best advice I heard and try to tell people. Even if I just do a bit of work on a draft or do a little editing, combined with work-related writing I’m writing every day.

    A computer-related piece of advice I’d give is when you’re just messing around online, a lot of times I keep Notepad or MS Word open to make it easy to jot down ideas, links to get back to, stuff like that.

  • Zeynel says:

    I now use OneNote for note taking. When you paste from a web page it also copies the link, saves a little time.

  • Rachel says:

    Hi Ali,

    I especially like what you say about writing every day. It’s so true! You get into the zone, it’s easier to see how you’re novel/project is developing and the constant development spurs you on even more!

    So far I’ve written 1 and 3/4 novels and most of the writing took place in a very condensed period of time. I had to take a break from my second novel to organise my wedding which took place a few months ago. I still haven’t managed to get back to it!

  • Eric C says:

    “Call yourself a writer” – No!

    I find many more people scribble in a notebook for a day, and then call themselves a writer. Many people fall in love with the idea of writing before actually writing, “Calling yourself a writer isn’t just about having something interesting to say at parties.” Uh, for a lot of people it is.

    I’ve never called myself a writer, and I’ve been at it for over ten years. The catch? I’ve only been writing consistently for two or three. Before, I was a guy who wanted to write, now I am a guy who writes. Its not what you call yourself, it is what you do.

    Other tips were great though.

  • Ali Hale says:

    @Joylene – Thanks! So glad you’re enjoying my writing and finding it useful :-)

    @Kat – I think accountability is a huge help. It’s why I think we should call ourselves writers – after all, you can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write! 10 mins a day sounds like a great target: it’s pretty hard to say “I don’t have 10 minutes” without realising you’re just making excuses!

    @Costa K – I find notepad pretty handy for that too!

    @Rachel – Yes, that sense of constant progression and forwards movement is definitely great for staying motivated! I know I find it much harder to get “into” the writing if I’ve not touched a particular project for a week or two…

    @Eric C – Thanks for putting forward the opposing viewpoint! I actually agree with you to some extent: I didn’t feel comfortable (and rightly so) calling myself a “writer” during the three years or so (aged 16-19) that I wasn’t writing. Saying “I’m a writer” can really push you to feel accountable to yourself – and to the world – as Kat was saying.

  • There is so much to be said for the habit of writing. And the fact that you don’t have write 40 pages every day. Write one. Write half a page. Why does it have to be so voluminous? That’s the great thing about every day writing, those half pages add up so quickly….

    I also highly approve of calling yourself a writer. Stand up and be proud!

  • BrianJUY says:

    Writing everyday is a must. But, even if you’re burnt out and can’t possibly write a single word, you should still write… it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go in order with what you are writing or if it isn’t grammatically correct… Your 1st draft doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s why there is editing.

    One thing that helps me when I’m blank is to read. It doesn’t really matter what it is (as long as it’s good)…Once I start reading, my mind starts going and then words start coming.

  • Zeynel says:

    Also, the form of presentation is as important as the content, probably more so. Assume that the same content is presented in two different blogs: in a plain Blogger theme and in a professionally branded WordPress blog. People will take a professionally branded content more seriously. Even though both say the same thing.

  • Aaron says:

    I find if I’m stuck, reading some potential references and then just starting and continuing is key. I’ll often throw away the original idea as I’m lead to more solid ground that comes naturally.

    As far as the notebook, I actually use my smartphone. I don’t have a data plan intentionally so I’m not distracted by it, but I keep several lists that I write things in all the time. This helps me avoid impulse purchases at the grocery store and more importantly capture and implement ideas.

    Thanks for the tips.

  • Ali Hale says:

    @Lindsay – Yep, half a page a day is about 180 pages in a year – quite a sizeable amount!

    @Brianjuy – Good grammar, spelling, punctuation etc all has its place – but as you say, just writing and not worrying about those in the first draft is the best way to make progress.

    @Zeynel – Great point for those of us who are bloggers or who are submitting work for competitions/publication … I would caution against worrying TOO much about formatting and presentation, though, it can often be a distraction from actually getting on with writing!

    @Aaron – Yes, I often find that the initial idea is a long way from where I end up … but it’s a crucial part of the process.

  • sonika says:

    Good advice…A writer may try http://glocalwriters.com
    They offer a get paid to write opportunity with an upfront payment option.

  • Terry Lange says:

    Thanks for the tips. I enjoy carrying a moleskine and write down things that come to mind or that I hear. It has been helpful to remember things that I want to write about on my blog at a later time.

  • Excellent post! You made a great point on how we can effectively build up the writing habit. Setting up a target and being perservent really helps a lot. And once we begin to start writing, the words just keeping coming and the writing becomes easier. In no time, we find that the post is complete!

  • Ali Hale says:

    Thanks Vijay!

    Yes, I usually find that once I get over that initial resistance, I get on a roll and the words keep coming…

  • Yuro says:

    That is great post Ali. I never thought that writing is a habit, I always though that it was a hobby. And so I declare myself a writer… just like you said.

  • Years ago, I took up the drums. But I hated to practice and ended up not drumming much. The only thing that got me going was joining some bands where I HAD to practice or look like a fool in front of people.

    If you want to build a writing habit, commit yourself to actually publishing articles that others will read – on a blog, in a local newspaper, for your church bulletin, anywhere. This making writing real and creates real purpose and actual deadlines.

  • Ali Hale says:

    Thanks Yuro, I think writing is a fantastic hobby but it’s more than that too!

    Great tips, Dean, I’ve definitely found blogging helps with writing discipline. It’s hard to have “writers’ block” when you’re committed to posting a piece that day!

  • Cisco says:

    Nice post here..I used to write a diary daily, just scribble my thought of my mind which I found very realxing and free-ing…need to get back on that it reallt keeps the writing juices flowing.

    thanks again for your great blog and posts

    Cisco

  • Thank you for the article, it is useful especially for me as the beginner :)

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