Charles Dickens by Watkins, 1858

How to develop a regular writing habit – part 1

Time and money are the things most people, including my writing students, say stop them from writing. I was chatting recently to a freelance colleague with a full-time job and young children, who dreams of being able to do his creative writing more often. But building up a proper writing discipline, he said, has always eluded him, and he doesn’t know what to do. It’s not as if he can get up at the crack of doom to write either because he’s not a morning person, and that’s the only time he seems to have.

I put on my thinking cap as to how I could help. How had I learnt to write fiction easily and more often? For years, an intense career as a freelance journalist meant I was too exhausted from writing at the end of the day to, well, write some more. The demands of being self-employed meant I had little free time and little spare cash for writing retreats. On top of that, I had buckets of fear-born procrastination about doing the kind of writing that deep down I most wanted to do. Drafting my first attempted novels done was a grinding, stop-start ordeal that I pushed myself through.

In this two-part blog post, I’ve listed all the things I’ve done that have helped develop a daily writing routine. Not all of them will work for you, but I hope that one or more of them will make a difference:

1. I worked out when I write best and factored that in (and accepted who I am)

I’ve got a friend who regularly gets up at 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to write, then goes off to a full-time job. He also always awards himself an hour of exercise daily and gets eight hours sleep. I admire this person immensely. Could I imitate this? No, never and niente. Once I realised this, it was a big help.

Like my freelance colleague, I am not a morning person. I could never rise at 5 a.m., brew a fearsome pot of coffee and hit the keyboard. It’s about as likely as me making it to the gym at 6 a.m. I’m also an erratic sleeper who can rarely guarantee a good night’s sleep, so that’s out too.

After years of trying at different times of day, to my surprise I’ve found morning writing works best for me, just not early in the mornings. I need to be fully awake. I enjoy writing with a mind that’s a tabula rasa before the demands of the day clutter my brain. Between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. are optimal start times for me. This cuts right through the day, but it’s essential knowledge to have – even I can’t always work at this time. Your optimal time will be different. It might even be midnight or 2 a.m.

Tip: try writing at different points in the day over a few weeks or months, and keep a journal about what works best for you. Don’t feel bad that you’re not a morning/night person if you’re not, and go with your own rhythm when you can.

2. I worked out my writing ‘must haves’ and learnt to write wherever

I’ve learnt that to write I need time alone in the week, preferably every day, even if it’s a 20-minute walk round the block or a 10-minute bath. This gives me time to listen to myself. When I spend a lot of time around other people, I need downtime. And as much as I prefer eccentric eating and sleeping schedules, I’ve learnt that routine is good for me. “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” said Flaubert.

My other needs are peace and quiet – preferably being in a space on my own – a comfortable desk and chair, good lighting, a charged up laptop, a pen and paper, earplugs, and perhaps my iPhone for the timer (the laptop works for this too). Just this week I’ve got those needs met by:

  • writing on a picnic bench in the open air until rain stopped play
  • writing in a car
  • writing at my folks’ house
  • writing in various libraries
  • hot-desking in an office when I got stranded in a lightning storm
  • writing on a train with earplugs in
  • writing at home in a boat.

I’ve kept my writing habit going when working 120 miles away from home and doing a full-time contract, by nipping into a local library for 20 minutes at lunchtime or after work.

Tip: jot down your absolute essentials for writing and find ways to get your needs met. Forget the idea of a perfect room of your own – if you wait for this your writing will never happen – though it’s nice to have a space to write at home too.

3. I made friends with other writers and artists

For a long time I didn’t have any writing friends and didn’t even know how isolated I was, or that that might be stopping me. A good support network is vital to keeping going and for accountability, for not taking yourself too seriously, and getting hugs when the going gets tough. Find creative friends or acquaintances who make you feel good about yourself and who fill you with enthusiasm.

I like hanging out with other types of creative people too. Now I know so many writers I’ve moved onto painters. I’m in good company here: Patricia Highsmith hung out with painters rather than writers. Mind you, lots of writers also paint, so it gets complicated.

Tip: find like-minded creative people and keep in touch, whether that’s at your local writer’s group in a cafe or online like in my writer’s club. Even knowing one fellow writer who you connect and conflab with regularly can make a big difference.

4. I found a supportive partner and worked on my family

While we’re on the subject of supportive networks, check your home life too. To paraphrase Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, an artist can marry but they must marry well. I left a major relationship where my partner was not supportive of my writing, and found one who was. Does the love of your life want you to succeed or would they rather eclipse you? It is quite common for women artists to negate their talents and put their formidable creative energies into supporting a partner who’s also creative: that’s a mistake I have made. If you’re one of those lucky people whose partner is prepared to support them financially for a time while they write – great, go for it.

Don’t forget that writing can be tough on your partner too, since writers need solitude and to set boundaries, and some are a wee bit eccentric. Check that your intended is simpatico with these things. Be empathetic to your partner not a prima donna.

Family is family. You can’t change them but you can educate them slowly. Mine wanted me to be pretty much anything other than a writer. It’s taken a few years, but they accept it now. Try to be gracious when they offer bounteous gifts of help that are the exact opposite of what you need.

Tip: relationships with supportive, giving people are great for writers, and for humans in general; but remember to be a supportive, giving person back.

5. I created supportive systems, habits and routine

Every day I jot down in a notebook (it happens to be a table on my computer but it could as easily be a book) the time I start writing, the time I finish, my aim for the session and what I actually did. I find this a really useful habit that helps me get going and helps me stay accountable to myself. I can be hard on myself, so when I say, as I did start of this week, ‘I didn’t get any writing done last month’, I can look back at my table and realise that that is complete rubbish and give myself a pat on the back for all that I did accomplish.

A simple gold sticker chart that I made and put on my fridge got me through a particularly long and painful revision. I stuck a kids’ gold star on my chart every time I got a chapter done, and allocated myself rewards. My current main writing goal with all the key steps broken down and dates by which I want to accomplish them is on my fridge.

Tip: keep a note of when you start and finish a writing session, what you aimed to achieve and what you did. This helps you stay sane when you think you’re not making much progress. Even 10 focused minutes is progress, and 10 minutes a day (or often) counts as a routine. This system will also help you refine your optimum times and writing days.

Look out for part 2 of this blog post coming soon.


Want to build a daily (or other, regular) writing habit?

My online writing club helps you achieve your big writing goals by providing daily, weekly and monthly accountability and support. Find out more about the writing club

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  1. Author

    So glad you found it useful, Gulara. Now to do part 2 …

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