7 F***in' Great Ways to Build Your Writing Routine

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I spent ages looking for tips on building writing habits, and was disappointed. There's a lot of bland advice out there: write every day, don't edit while you write, have a goal… None of that is very helpful if you're trying to understand how you should actually put this stuff into practice.

Fortunately, there are plenty of interesting books on habit-formation out there, and a few good studies done on how creative writing actually works at the psychological level. I went through a bunch of those books to see what they suggested. I'll link some below.

I have tested everything I mention in this article, and the combination of these things has tripled my daily writing. I hope it helps you, too.

1. Find out where you are.

How much do you know about your writing habits? It's important that you figure out what you already know.

Here are some obvious questions to start with:

  • How long does your typical writing session tend to last?
  • How frequently do you sit down to write?
  • On average, how many words do you write per session?
  • At what time of the day do you do your writing?

Now for some less obvious questions:

  • Do you tend to write less than two hours after a meal?
  • How much caffeine do you drink on an average day?
  • How much exercise do you get?
  • How much sleep do you get?

Find out as much as you can just by thinking back. If you've got a good memory, you could look at a long manuscript and try to figure out where you started and stopped writing at every step of the way. Was Chapter 3 written over a week? How many words per day, on average, did you write over that week?

2. Identify your writing sweet spots.

I am a very fast dialogue writer. My first literary ambition was to be a playwright, and as a high school student I wrote a lot of dialogue every day. When I'm working on a dialogue-heavy scene nowadays, I can count on it taking about half the time of a description-heavy scene.

It's very helpful to determine what you find the easiest to write, and how much easier it really is. You may find that in the same project, like a novel, you can knock out 5,000 words over a couple of days because you've mastered action scenes and you happen to be writing one, and then spend two weeks slogging through the next 5,000 words, which are less exciting and easy for you.

My first-person narratives are a hell of a lot easier for me to write than my third-person narratives. I find it so hard to narrate anything in the third person, in fact, that I can think of a nice handful of third-person projects in the last couple of years that were going nowhere until I started them over in the first person. Something clicks for me in first person, and I know that once I get the voice going, everything's fine.

This step should be more than just interesting. If you do it properly, and regularly analyze your strengths, you will also grow aware of your weaknesses. You'll manage your time better, too. When I only have 45 minutes to do my writing, I focus on dialogue, because I'm likely to get as many words written in 45 minutes of dialogue-work as I will over an hour and a half of description, narration, or intricate plotting.

3. Commit to taking notes, like a frickin' scientist.

Don't ignore this step. Trust me. Don't ignore it. You will only really grasp this when you've been doing it for a while.

Always write down the time of day at which you started writing, and the time you finished. Then note the word count. This is the bare minimum.

I encourage you to mention how much time has elapsed between your last meal and the time you started writing. If it's 2 in the afternoon and you had a big lunch at 12:30, write that down. I was truly amazed, almost childishly so, when I understood how strongly affected I am by writing on a full stomach. Digestion destroys literature. Starving artists may have an advantage over the rest of us.

Also, note how much coffee you've had by the time you're sitting at your desk writing, and how much coffee you end up drinking during the writing session itself. I'm pretty sensitive to caffeine so I mention the strength of the coffee I drink and the amount of actual coffee I used in preparing the drink. I've found that by reducing my caffeine intake and only having my first cup during my writing, I write better. I'm less agitated, which means I'm less distracted, which means I am more focused.

If you've been to the gym or someone's been chasing you around all morning with a machete, write this down too, so you can evaluate the effect of exercise on your writing. I have discovered that doing hard cardio in the mornings (before everyone around me is up, at 6:30) makes writing a lot easier. How much easier? About 500 words easier, apparently. My average word count on days I haven't worked out is, yes, roughly 500 words lower than on my workout days. By contrast, strength training has no effect on my word count.

4. Unplug the internet, switch off your phone, and publicly ask people not to contact you.

If you haven't tried at least 3 writing sessions in a row without any access to the internet, it really doesn't matter what you say to justify being online — research seems to be a favorite excuse. You're probably kidding yourself about how little the internet affects your writing routine. Research when you're not writing. (The symbolic act of walking to the router and pulling out the power cord, by the way, is surprisingly powerful.)

And unless you really need to be contactable, because you're expecting a call from the hospital, just switch off your stupid damned phone. There, the universe said it through me. If you ignore this and it works out, give me a call and let me know. Leave a message if the phone's off.

5. Aim for a higher daily word count than you think you can manage, and adjust your writing routine to get there.

Say you have trouble getting more than 500 words done per writing session. That was the case with me for a long time. If 500 is what you tend to go for, and after that point you get tired or miserable, consider the reasons. Then tackle the things that get in the way of reaching 1000 words.

Be reasonable about this: 500 words in a half hour is pretty good. 500 words over 2 hours seems low. If you're at the low end, what's going on during your writing sessions? Are there distractions, and could you avoid them? (Is the phone off?) Do you write after meals? Do you drink too much coffee so that you end up distracted?

To give you an idea, I wasn't able to do more than 500 or 600 words per session for ages. I decided to try doing 2000 words a day, if I could.

This meant increasing my target word count by about 1000 words each day. I would not leave my desk and return to the world of people until I'd done it: No leaving the house, no work emails, no friends, no girlfriend, nothing until I'd reached the target word count.

I found myself incapable of regularly writing more than 1400 words a day; but that means that I now average 1400 words per writing session. I never drink any coffee until I've already started the writing because the sensation of "waking up" fits nicely with the rising interest in what I'm writing after I've spent ten minutes or so getting back into it. I used to start writing after my coffee, when I was feeling alert, but by then my mind was too eager to notice other things.

So, I can't quite manage 2000 words a day yet, but on the other hand, I'm writing at least 7000 words of fiction a week. I give myself two days off. This adds up and isn't too stressful.

6. Have an idea of what you're going to do in your writing session.

I got this rather simple idea from Rachel Aaron's eBook on increasing your daily output, and it's surprisingly useful. I'm not a big plotter, and I don't like the idea of knowing exactly where I'm going with fiction, but there's something weirdly productive about spending five minutes with a pen and notepad just scribbling fragmentary thoughts about what you're going to be working on that day. I'm not talking about a real plan; I'm talking about spending five minutes, minimum — trust me, do not stop before the five minutes are over — loosely jotting down ideas about what will happen in the scene you're about to write, specific details you should include… Try it.

7. Create little rituals to ease you into the writing zone.

It's not hocus pocus. Here's what I do: I unplug the wireless router, change into track pants, switch the kettle on for my coffee, stretch my legs, then — seriously — I take out one of those snoring strips and apply it to my nose. In that order, every time.

Why? Because I am an animal and I respond to environmental cues. Pavlov's dogs salivated when they heard a bell, but the association was artificially created. You turn left in your car on the way home when you have to turn left out of habit, not because you have to think about it every time. You can create cues that help you feel like you're entering a familiar process.

For me, the snoring strip is the most effective cue, although getting into the track pants is also significant. I only ever work out in shorts, so the track pants are specifically associated with writing. And the snoring strips during the middle of the day are, likewise, unmistakable in their purpose.

Going through these little rituals will get you used to the idea that you're about to sit and write. It will distract you from your distractions and make you think about your project. It's just preparation. It works.

Good luck.

Image of The Psychology of Creative Writing
Author:
Price: $45.28
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (2009)
Binding: Paperback, 406 pages
Image of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Author: Charles Duhigg
Price: $15.75
Publisher: Random House (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 400 pages
Image of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick
Author: Jeremy Dean
Price: $19.14
Publisher: Da Capo Lifelong Books (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages

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Comments

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. April 25, 2013 - 5:39pm

As baffled as I am by the snoring strip, and as much as I think we ALL wished there'd been a photo to accompany this article, I love the advice.I really, REALLY want to second these two: 1. know what time of day works best for you (although this recently did a major change for me - I used to be a night writer, now I am a first-thing-in-the-morning writer) because it makes a major difference, and 2. don't be afraid to plan a scene. That ALWAYS helps me.

Thanks for a great article! :D

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter April 25, 2013 - 7:52pm

Interesting ideas. I myself write in the morning, with coffee (half caf) after reading eithier the last few pages or the first few pages, till the kids off to school and the wifes of to work, Then I fill my coffee, light a cig, and write. Bout 1000 a day is my avarage.

 

I too have more fun in first person. It's a participation vs observation thing. I figure I'm writing the story because I want to be in it anyway. watching is no fun..

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles is reading LEVIATHAN April 25, 2013 - 8:56pm

I don't get the snoring strips either! I get that its part of the routine...BUT WHY?

 

Michael.Eric.Snyder's picture
Michael.Eric.Snyder April 25, 2013 - 9:19pm

I suppose you could place a rubber band around your wrist and snap it if you find yourself distracted. 

I personally love the idea of the nose strip, because it's so particularly unique and weird that I could see it work for someone for lots of subconscious reasons. Perhaps he has a snoring problem and had a run of some great pages one day when he forgot to take the strip off. Perhaps it was a suggestion he came across in his research.

A cue for me is white noise. My concentration improves significantly when it's on. Partly because it reduces distraction, but also because it became habit.

Here's something that's weird for me, but it helps me read without being too distracting because it gives me mental breaks from reading (I read alot, no surprise there) to focuse on something else. I'm creating a Spotify playlist, a BIG ONE, that consists of nothing but Penguin Rosette winners, and I'm listening to each CD as I go along. So roughly every hour I put down my book, reference the list I found online, see if it's in Spotify, add it to my playlist, start it, and go back to reading.

It's weird, but it works for reading for me. Otherwise my brain fatigues more quickly. For every hour reading, I probably have 5-10-15 minutes of non-reading, depending on how hard it is to find the CD in Spotify, or if I have to move on to another CD because it's a collection that's not yet in Spotify. 

Unpaid endorsement: Spotify rocks. It saves me oodles of money. It's like rolling around in a giant vat of oodles of musical goodness.

And I recognize this ritual probably sounds a little OCD or something.

I'd like to find a similar ritual for writing, but I don't have one yet. I'm not sure if it's possible, because creative inspiration is so variable. If I'm on a roll, the last thing I want to do is muddle the muse. 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts April 25, 2013 - 10:49pm

A problem I have is that my writing rig is also my music workstation. Days that I'm working on tracks I usually don't get much writing done at all. I wear a doo-rag when I'm working on music (so I don't get headphone hair) and my only writing ritual is I spray a ton of cologne on and turn on some basketball or 80s television shows a couple minutes before I start.

What has increased my productivity for both writing and studio work is losing the chair while I'm working. I write standing up with the computer on the kitchen island countertop and pace around the house while I'm thinking. It seems to expend my nervous energy much more efficiently than sitting at a desk. Though I do drink two or three of those energy drinks until my kidneys are screaming throughout the day, so that could be part of the restlessness.

Michael.Eric.Snyder's picture
Michael.Eric.Snyder April 25, 2013 - 11:10pm

Cologne? Really? That makes me laugh (in a good way). If I did that, and no one else was around, I'm sure I'd be too busy smelling myself to get any writing done at all. And I'm really hot. So hot. Hot enough for one, at least.

Now that I'm thinking about it, perhaps that's not really hot at all.

I am, however, proud to say the closest I've gotten to an energy drink in my entire life is a Pepsi Max. If anyone thinks I'm missing out on a truly great thing, please let me know.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts April 25, 2013 - 11:31pm

I always postulated that the cologne would trigger some sort of Proustian experience, despite me never reading Proust.

Michael.Eric.Snyder's picture
Michael.Eric.Snyder April 25, 2013 - 11:34pm

LOL

I've never read Proust, but he seems to be eternally on my list. Such a time investment. 

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks April 26, 2013 - 6:23pm

I know a lot of people can't write while listening to music with lyrics, but I have a playlist on YouTube that I start up every time I'm getting ready to write. It consists of songs that I've loved for at least a year -- for me, music is about lyrics when I first hear it, the sound after about three months, the lyrics after about six months, and the overall package after a year.

(Digression: that timeframe can be extremely sped-up if I listen to the song more than average. On average, I listen to one song two or three times a day when I first get into it. I put Otherside by Macklemore on my writing playlist even though it's only been a few months because I've listened to it back-to-back twenty or thirty times in a row, multiple days in a row. Another great example is Steady As She Goes by the Raconteurs -- I listened to that one for seventy-two hours straight when I was expirementing with my sleep deprivation, so it no longer sounds like music to me, like the others on my playlist.)

I only include songs that have passed that threshold, and only ones that encourage specific emotions. It started with The Professor and La Fille Danse by Damien Rice (and I Remember, the live version, by Damien Rice) because I needed to get angsty and sentimental and frustrated. It's worked for me so far.

Utah's picture
Moderator
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry April 29, 2013 - 12:10pm

Great article, Phil.  Thanks.

I'll have to see if we still have any nose strips left in the house.  If not, I'm sure there's some duct tape in the garage.

Sarah Brush's picture
Sarah Brush May 2, 2013 - 12:17pm

I love this, especially the ritual part, and I totally agree with Courtney about the music. If I'm not sitting at McDonald's (I frigging hate McDonald's, but for some reason I get a lot more done there and I've learned to just order a parfair and not question it) I absolutely MUST have the soundtrack from Oblivion (the game, not the Tom Cruise - ugh - movie) playing, and it MUST start with Sunrise of Flutes. It evokes beautiful imagery for me and that helps ground me from all the distractions in my environment. This is a great post, nice to get some suggestions that's not the same regurgitated bullshit you see all the time.

Rich Morton's picture
Rich Morton May 2, 2013 - 12:34pm

For those questioning the use of nasal strips: other than the ritualistic function, I would think they help with breathing which would only mean that the brain is getting more Oxygen. More Oxygen = More Creativity.

Percy Dlamini's picture
Percy Dlamini from South Africa is reading Everything is Illuminated, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Shadow of The Wind December 11, 2013 - 5:16pm

grrreat article man!