A confession and 7 steps to better writing habits

I’m experiencing a bad case of writing resolutions whiplash.

At the start of 2011, I was all revved up and ready to plunge into my writing practice like a pelican diving head first into an ocean seething with slippery, silvery deliciousness. I had plans – Big Plans. “This is the year,” I said, my heart full of confidence and enthusiasm.

And then my daughter came down with the flu. And then I came down with the flu. We had a succession of snow days the likes of which I haven’t seen since the famed Blizzard of ’78. We had school holidays and teacher workshop days and early dismissals. I landed two new clients. (That’s a good thing.) They both needed big deliverables in a hurry. (That’s not such a good thing.) And now, suddenly, it’s February.

A writer unravels
I had intended to get back to journaling. I had planned to finish reading the excellent eBook about structure by Larry Brooks of Storyfix. I had meant to get back to work outlining my novel, working on character studies, and creating a fabulously retro “map” of my story using markers, sticky notes, and some very large pieces of paper. But, these intentions were all summarily slaughtered by the demands of my Real Life.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I felt disappointment, anger, and guilt. This morning, I read a post called Blood, Sweat and Words: How Badly Do You Want This? (also by Larry Brooks) and I wanted to whip myself with a cat-o-nine-tails for being such a wuss. If I were a real writer, I would stay up all night to fit my writing into my overscheduled life. I would Make Things Happen. I would Sacrifice.

So, I brooded. I moped. I felt sorry for myself. I got mad at Larry Brooks. I moped some more.

The magic of habits
The beauty of a habit is that you do it almost without thinking. It’s not something that you have to work at; it’s just part of who you are and your life. It’s automatic. At some point, I stopped stomping around my house glowering at inanimate objects, and I decided to try and do something positive. The first thing that came to mind was coming up with a way to make writing a personal habit. It used to be a habit, but somewhere along the way, I fell off that wagon.

So, in the hopes that my plans might help some other writer in a Real Life crisis, here are my 7 Steps to Better Writing Habits:

Step 1: Find, make, or steal writing time
I wrote about this in detail last week in my post You DO Have Time to Write. It’s something I’m still working on …

Step 2: Have a purpose
I like the word “purpose” because it conveys a certain sense of fate. Goals sometimes seem cold and clinical, but a purpose is an almost spiritual thing. A purpose is bigger than any one goal or task. It’s the thing that inspires you to keep slogging, even through the worst days.  It’s what goes in your obituary when you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. Try saying, “Writing is my purpose.” How does that feel? What about, “Bringing joy is my purpose.”

Step 3: Avoid the shoulds
My Twitter friend @John_C_Davies left a wonderfully insightful and generous comment on my last post. It made me think about the way “shoulds” drag us down. Shoulds are those things that you think you ought to do – because someone said you should. Someone said that anyone who is anyone, anyone who is smart, anyone who is going anywhere does these things. If the should doesn’t strike a chord deep down in your soul, don’t try to make it into a habit. It’s not for you.

Step 4: Start small
If you want to guarantee failure, start out of the gate with the bar set so high that you can barely see it. Promise yourself that you will write for two hours each day. Commit to writing at a NaNoWriMo pace… forever. You’ll come up short, beat yourself up, and then wind up moping and brooding like me. Instead, start small. Plan to spend fifteen minutes a day working on your writing. It may not seem like much, but even just a few minutes make a dent … and a difference.

Step 5: Be consistent
The main reason you make your initial commitment so “easy” to keep, is so you’ll actually keep it. Habits are born out of routine. The more frequent your routine, the more quickly the habit will form. That’s why writing for fifteen minutes each day is more powerful than writing for an hour each week.

Step 6: Measure progress
As a mom, I can testify to the irrational power of a progress chart. Sticker charts, marble jars – kids love seeing their progress in a very concrete way. You can do the same thing with your writing by putting stars on your calendar or making hash marks on the wall. There’s something compelling about a long row of check marks that makes you hate to break the chain. Giving yourself a “gold star” is great positive reinforcement that will help even on the days when you don’t earn a pat on the back. Even on those days, you’ll be able to look at all the other gold stars in your writing galaxy and you’ll feel better about the occasional, inevitable slip-up.

Step 7: Find your joy
In his comment on my last post, @John_C_Davies wrote, “I had caught the bug. I started to fit writing into other areas of my life. All of a sudden it wasn’t a chore. It poured out of me. It was a pleasure. I had no problem retiring early to scribble an hour’s worth of writing in my bed side notebooks.” He was talking about how his emotional reaction to writing changed after he turned his back on some pesky shoulds. What made me smile, though, was the sense that he’d rediscovered the joy of writing. In my experience, if you start small so that you experience some initial success, you’ll start to feel that joy which in turn will inspire you to write more. It’s an “upward spiral” of the very best kind.

So, those are my 7 steps. What are your favorite tips for making writing a routine part of your day and your life?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps creative entrepreneurs (artists, writers, idea people, and creative consultants) discover their “natural” marketing groove so they can build their business with passion, story, and connection. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: dspruitt

79 thoughts on “A confession and 7 steps to better writing habits

  1. Thanks for this great Monday Morning Reminder. And for Step #3? A friend once gave me this little gem: “Don’t should all over yourself.”

  2. How about a reward? For example, if I write x words or x minutes a day 5 days a week for the next 6 weeks, I can (buy the book I want, indulge in a 30 minute notebook shopping expedition, or go try all the new pens at Staples). It need not be cost any money at all, just a small pat on the back for making writing a habit.

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  4. I admire your writing style. Spare sentences mingle with descriptive ones. I’m glad to find your blog.

    Yes, start small! I’m taking an online refresher writing course. (The darker months in Alaska offered the initial incentive.) Thanks for sharing your ideas—and your world.
    (main site is at http://www.jantimmons.net, but I discovered that I needed a .com site to comment)

    • Thanks so much for your kind words.
      Online courses are a great way to start putting some structure around your writing. I always find I stick to my intentions more easily when there’s an audience. ;)

      Have fun with it.
      Love the images on your site and the eclectic mix of topics and content.

  5. wonderful post Jamie :)
    If we learn to be happy for simple-Small things in life, like writing a poetry for the first time, writing an article which turned out to be real good. joy of seeing wonderful comments (all related to blogging and life), then nothing in life can beat us.

    • Thank you – for the compliment and the wise observations. There is beauty and triumph in even the smallest accomplishments.

  6. I sooo needed this. Thank you!

    I’ve been working hard on the #postaday2011. It has been a challenge, and it’s helped me grow, but there are days that I think, “Oh, heavens. What am I going to write about today?!” It is starting to become a habit, but I still find myself working hard to find time and substantive posts. I’m still a novice, I know. Your words are a welcomed encouragement. Thanks, again!

    • I take my hat off to anyone taking the post-a-day challenge. My advice for beating the OMG-what-am-I-going-to-write mode is to always be thinking of post ideas. Keep a running list of topics that you can dip into when it’s time to write. You can also play around with riffing on someone else’s post – use their words as a jumping off point and then spin into your own take on the ideas.

      Have fun!

  7. I’m a freelance writer and computer coach. The thing that has been working for me lately is to go to bed early, around 8-9pm when my kids lay down. I find that by about midnight or 1am I’m wide awake even without an alarm and I can stay up and write while the house is quiet for a couple hours. I then lay down again around 3am, sometimes 4am and get an additional power nap before the kids are up and about around 7am.

    It actually began quite by accident but I’ve since made it a routine and it has worked very, very well. I find that during the day I have more time to spend with my children because I got some writing work done late at night and only have a few hours of consulting work to finish.

    • Wow. There are some nights I think I could probably do this, but I’m not sure I could make it a regular routine. I do, however, LOVE to write in the early hours of the day when the house is quiet. There’s something about being productive while the rest of the world seems asleep that makes me feel like magic can happen.

      Here’s to your midnight writing!

  8. Oh. My. God. I SO needed to read this today – a day when I decided “that’s it” and “I’m done” and “I can’t do this anymore”. Well – it’s not it, I’m not done and I can do this. I allowed myself to be buried – not under snow (I’m in California) – but by resolutions and goals set so high there was no possibility of success. I’m taking a step back this week. It will be all right. I need to see where I’m at, where I’m going. But thank you for this post. It has me believing again.

    • Mimm,
      I don’t think a writer can receive a higher compliment than to hear that her words have helped someone overcome a hurdle. Thank YOU.
      I’m so glad that you believe and hope that you find joy whether you are writing about writing or yoga or both.

  9. hanks for this post, Jamie. I’m taking my creative journey one small step at a time and am starting to see it pay off exponentially. I really like the idea of having a marble jar. Perhaps if I add a marble for each page of narrative I write, I won’t feel like I’m losing mine :)

    • That’s a great idea! My 7 year-old daughter works well with those kinds of incentives … something about seeing it all add up is so appealing to her.

      Good luck and definitely don’t lose ALL your marbles! :)

  10. All the tips are very useful.

    I was doing a class at my local adult education centre and I got talking to Kate Harrison, a very successful UK novelist. Her books are aimed primarily at middle aged women.

    She told me that she aims to write just 400 good words a days, which she does between breakfast and lunch. In 250 days she has a completed 100,000 word novel.

    Where her routine is upset she always makes time for a couple of hours to get her ration of words typed.

    My trick is to plan in the evening what I’m going to write the next day. It gets over my early morning apathy.

    • Thanks for the contribution, Paul. I’ve heard of many writers setting a daily quota. I participated in NanoWriMo a couple years ago and found that pace overwhelming, but I can definitely see where a more reasonable goal could get you to your final destination more quickly and with less strife!

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    • Happy to bring some motivation to the WP postaday event. :) Good luck wrangling writing time away from those 3 kiddlins!

  12. I love this post. After I joined PostADay and made the lofty commitment – my husband’s transmission went out, our washing machine broke, our four kids and me AND my hubby got the flu, I had work commitments that prevented me from finding time to write, and on and on and on. It just stunk. So, I am happy to see that this funk happens to writers who are much more worthy and famous than I!

    • Monica,
      I”m hardly worthy or famous, but I definitely fall into that same funk. EVERY writer does. Nothing ever goes according to plan, especially – I think – for moms. We just have too many moving parts in our lives to be able to commit to much. Just keep on doing the best you can. You’ll hit your stride. :)

  13. New to your site but found thanks to WordPress, or more specifically Erica Johnson, part of the WP team encouraging more blogging.

    Anyway, this is a great post from what comes over as a good writer’s website; now bookmarked.

    I’m struggling with getting my first book underway so anything that moves me from the ‘planning’ stage to actually putting words on a screen is valuable.

    Finally, anyone know of an Arizonan Writers’ Network or equivalent? We live in Payson, AZ.

    Regards to all,

    Paul H.

    • Paul,

      I love your avatar. Grew up with a shepherd – they are lovely dogs.

      I’m so glad you’ve found us and delighted you’ve bookmarked the site.

      I’m big on planning myself. It’s easy to get caught up in that stage, but I always find that once I (finally) dive into the actual writing and give myself over to THAT process, it’s even more satisfying.

      Good luck with your book!

  14. Pingback: A confession and 7 steps to better writing habits (via Live to Write – Write to Live) « fragriver

  15. This post is filled with inspiring words. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom. It seems nearly impossible sometimes to be a committed writer and having a real life, but it is doable. Tips like these show the way. I think I’ll be posting a link in a day or two to share with my readers. Thanks again!

    • Thank you so much, Olivia.
      Mixing writing with real life can be a challenge, but – I think – one that’s worth the effort. Keep at it and have fun!

  16. Thanks for posting these tips. I really appreciate the idea of stealing time for writing. Things/our daily personal and professional commitments will never allow us to take time out. One has to actually steal that.

    Also the other tips are very helpful in keeping up with this habit and doing something constructive out of it.

    • You’re very welcome. :)

      Stealing or making time is crucial. If you don’t, life will take it for something else … always.

      Good luck being your own best thief!

    • Stop beating yourself up!
      If at first you procrastinate, just move on to the next opportunity and try to beat that procrastination monster.
      Guilting yourself to death won’t make you a better writer.
      Writing will, right? ;)

      Good luck. Hope your bum’s not too sore from that kick.

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  20. The joy thats the chord that struck home for me. I’m post a week and the sense of obligation has killed the inspiration! Good reminder to bring joy to the keyword.
    I am gaining so much from the post hints It is just great.
    neri – http://redpresence word press

    • Neri,
      It all has to come from joy and return to joy … otherwise, your inspiration will certainly be siphoned away.

      Thanks for your comment.

  21. Pingback: A confession and 7 steps to better writing habits (via Live to Write – Write to Live) | SarahSmilesInTheRain

  22. I too read the Larry Brooks post and immediately wanted to swat a man I don’t even know because he touched a nerve. Your seven steps are great suggestions, but even better is knowing that I’m not alone in suffering for my art.

  23. Always so true how it is hard to balance writing with life. Of course our family is important, but we have to stop thinking of our writing as something that can be put aside until later. Live in the now, write in the now! I struggle myself to find a balance with the kids at home, especially with one still out of school. Thanks so much for the tips.

    • “… we have to stop thinking of our writing as something that can be put aside until later.”

      I love that – so very, very true.

      Thanks for sharing it.

    • Always happy to bring some perspective to the table. It’s not something I’ve always got myself, so I have to take advantage when it’s there! :)

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  26. Yey, thanks for these! Ok, habit forming is great when used correctly. Saying please, thank you, etc.

    How to approach forming habits with joy so that they actually stick?!

  27. Jamie!

    Are you the Jamie Kelley S has spoken so highly of? If so, hello. If not, hello! Great wonderous post, and a great reminder of the importance of routine.

    I’ve been writing for 5 years, and about 3 years ago I realized if I didn’t get my writing in first thing, it would be the last thing to be done. Which means I get up every morning @ 5:30 and write 1-1.5 hours. It was hard at first, but now if I miss it for some reason, I get cranky. Thankfully, I rarely miss my writing date.

    The one other hint that helps me is reminding myself that there is no rush. To finish. To publish. The important thing is to write, every day, with a goal in mind. Break up large goals into smaller ones so they don’t overwhelm.


    • Linda – I’m not sure if I’m that Jamie or not. :) Either way – nice to meet you, too.

      I’m a morning person as well & I think your strategy of making writing the FIRST thing you do is an excellent one. My best bouts of productive creativity have always coincided with efforts to do just that.

      I’ll be trying to get back to that next week. Wish me luck!

  28. As a teenager, I can barely fit writing into my schedule. When it comes to homework, it takes up at least 15 minutes to an hour of my time. Snow days are appreciated, yet so scarce I enjoy the time to sleep late and read. I needed the advice; thank you!

    • Write whenever you can!
      I started journaling when I was 7 yrs old and those entries are some of my most precious treasures. Capturing your feelings, insights, and ideas throughout your life will give you a rich collection to pull from for future writing.

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  31. To everyone who has taken the time to visit, read, and comment – THANK YOU!
    I’ve been traveling & am having a mother/daughter today, but am looking forward to responding to your thoughts and stories.

    Thanks! :)

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  34. thanks for the great article! just got into writing and blogging recently. Your 7 steps to better writing habits can also be used as 7 steps to a better life! =) Cheers!


    • Well that’s just one of the nicest things you could say!
      Good luck on your writing and blogging journey – I hopeit’s full of adventure, discovery, and new friends. :)

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    • Kim,
      You are so welcome. The writing life does have its share of struggles, but there’s nothing I’d rather do more. I’m sure you feel the same way. Good luck on your journey!

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