Developing the Writing Habit, Part II
Last time we discussed how, prior to becoming a writer, one has to ‘acquire the desire’ to actually buckle down and write. (TL;DR: You do it, with regularity, such that you actually make a little progress at it and thus feel a little better about it—and yourself—and thus continue to do it, with regularity, until your desire to write eventually outpaces your available time, thus rendering the question of “making oneself write” forever moot.)
For now, let’s talk about that word, regularity (whatever that means for you and your life), and how to achieve it. As mentioned, you don’t make time, you allot it. (Making time is like printing your own money—basically magical thinking. However, allotting time is like budgeting the money you actually earn—much more realistic, and much more likely to succeed.)
And here’s the big secret to allotting time: to do it successfully, do it well before you plan on using it. If you do the hit-and-miss thing where you tell yourself, I’ll just see how my day goes and try to find time to write at some point, you’ll find this is more often than not a failure path. To the point where you may become discouraged with your lack of progress and pretty much stop trying.
However, there’s a proven success path for allotting time (or money, or any other resource): remove the variables. Remove the element of chance (will I find time today?), the element of choice (do I want to write today or not?), and the element of making determinations (how much should I write today?). You still employ these elements (the last two, at least) but you do it ahead of time—and only once—when you make the initial choice (I choose to follow this schedule to the end) and the initial determination of the schedule (I will allot this much time, on these days, to writing). Then, once that’s done and you’ve committed to it, it’s simple. Not necessarily easy, but certainly easier than if you had to constantly fight to convince yourself to “make time” to write on a daily basis.
Writing, for experienced writers, is simply doing what we enjoy, being who we are, and doing our job. But for aspiring writers—at least at first—it’s training. Not on how to write, but simply to write. And the first rule of training is: have a reasonable plan, and stick to it.
If you can do that, there are few limits on what you can accomplish…
Once upon a time I put out an open invite to a large group of people, asking if they’d like to run a marathon. (Because it’s almost universal that people will hear someone mention running a marathon and they’ll say, “You know, I always wanted to do one of those… someday.” Very similar to someone finding out you’re a writer and then replying, “You know, I always wanted to write a novel… someday.”) And that was my basic pitch to them: You want to do one “someday?” Well, someday can be this year. Let’s do this!
And of course there were lots of questions…
“How do I know if I can do it?”
“I’ve never done one—how hard is it?”
“How in the world do I get ready for something like that?”
And my answers were basically:
1. You can’t do it. Not yet, NFW. But if you do the training, you will absolutely be able to do it.
2. That’s up to you. If you follow the training plan, it will be challenging but do-able, even fun. If you don’t, it will be virtually impossible.
3. No worries. There is a plan for that. And we’re going to follow it, all the way to the finish line.
I ended up with seven or eight serious takers, which was a pleasant surprise. (I would have been happy with half that many.) I sent out the training plan, and we all started training. Occasionally together, mostly individually. But we communicated and checked up on each other via email frequently. One of the guys—probably the youngest & fittest of the bunch—exceeded the training plan very early on… he went out and ran ten miles when the plan only called for an easy three-miler that day, and he ended up injured and had to drop out.
Everyone else stuck to the plan—or a very close approximation of it—and our mantra during the eighteen weeks of training was “Respect the Distance.” We knew if we respected it—by doing the required training and not taking those 26.2 miles for granted—we’d likely succeed. And we also knew if we blew off the training—like skipping studying for a big exam—we’d likely end up as roadkill halfway through.
The punchline is everyone made it to the finish. Happy, healthy, and very proud of what they’d accomplished. (This was Big Sur, hardly a walk in the park.) And no one was prouder of them than I was. One of them—who’d struggled during the final miles but overcame and made it—told me afterward he’d learned something vital about himself: He had more willpower than he’d ever imagined, and if he could do this, he could do anything. (I’m not crying… you’re crying.)
And really, it all started with making a commitment to following a reasonable, rational, do-able training plan, and then following through on it. Some writing-related lessons here…
* It’s not a race. The goal is TO FINISH, feeling good about yourself and what you’ve accomplished. Period. As we’ve said before, writing a book faster—or slower—than someone else doesn’t make it better. Or worse.
* Having friends can make a huge difference in keeping you going. These can be fellow writers, beta readers, or just supportive friends/family/spouse. Either IRL or as part of an online community. You don’t have to go it alone. (Unless you want to, of course. You do you.)
* It can be good to have a coach—someone who’s been there before—to ask questions of, or bounce ideas off. A brilliant teacher, who was teaching me how to teach (Col. Jeff Cooper, for those who may know of him), once told me that the primary attribute of a good teacher is that the success of the student takes precedence over the success of the instructor. Find someone who feels this way… who will help you write your story as best you can, instead of telling you how he would write it. If you can’t connect with someone like this—either locally or virtually—there are plenty of writers who put their thoughts about writing on the internet, via social media, blogs, forums, etc. And of course, there are actual books, by actual authors, showing you their way. (As discussed here.) As always, YMMV, so pick what works for you and feel free to ignore what doesn’t. There is no one right way.
* Have a plan, commit to the plan, and remove as many decisions as possible. But don’t beat yourself up if life occasionally intrudes. You missed this week’s scheduled Tuesday night writing session? Try to make it up Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning, if you can. Or just let it go and move on. It’s what you do the majority of the time that matters, not the occasional exceptions.
* And finally, respect the distance. A novel is like a marathon. You’re going to need more than just a burst of enthusiasm at the start to carry you to the finish. It’s going to take a while, there’ll be times in the middle when the going is a little rough, and you can’t really hold the whole thing in your head at one time. But you don’t have to. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, working on the part at hand, and you’ll get to the finish line sooner or later. But don’t worry about the finish line when you’re in the middle of it. Just keep moving, and try to enjoy the process. Why else do it?
So, how do you “get in the habit” of writing? First off, don’t rely on habit. Rely on commitment to schedule. At least in the beginning. Then, once you start getting the intrinsic rewards of writing, you won’t need to follow a schedule to make yourself write, any more than most of us need to follow a schedule to remind ourselves to eat. You will want to do it. Maybe even too much. (The good news is, excess writing won’t result in excess calories…)
So, for those of us having difficulty getting started or maintaining a head of steam when it comes to writing, here’s a three-step plan:
One – Create a writing schedule that you believe you can reasonably achieve. (The specifics are of course up to you, but it should have you writing on a regular basis.)
Two – Write the plan down, post it where you can see it every day, and make a commitment to follow it.
Three – Follow it. All the way to the finish line.
Developing the Writing Habit, Part I
When talking with aspiring writers, you inevitably get questions about “getting on a schedule” or “sticking to a schedule” or “making time to write” or “getting in the habit” of writing. Boiled down, the question is basically, “How do I make myself write?”
But if you listen beyond the noise and get to the question behind the question, it’s actually more like, “How do I make myself want to write?”
(And some so-called experienced writer will inevitably answer the first question with, “It’s easy. If you really want to write, you’ll make time.” Which, besides being rude and dismissive, is also not helpful. And as we’ll eventually see, it’s also kind of bullshit.)
If you’ve been writing for a while, it’s easy to forget what it was like when we first decided we wanted to try writing. It’s like trying most other new skills: we’re not sure if it’s for us, we’re not good at it yet, and we probably don’t automatically enjoy it. We just know we want to give it a try. So we attempt to get in the habit of writing. And this is where a lot of aspiring writers flounder.
There are lots of books and theories and videos on the science of developing habits, with lots of different ideas on what it takes. Sometimes I think we’re focusing on the wrong aspect – it’s not just the number of repetitions, it’s the feedback we get for doing it… the intrinsic feedback. In other words, if you approach writing in a way that works for you (i.e. gives you results that make you feel good about writing, and about yourself) then you’ll want to continue this behavior. And vice versa, of course.
Just wanting (even wanting really really badly) to be a writer won’t necessarily lead to you becoming a writer. We all know people who have “wanted to write” for years, yet never really do. And I don’t think this is necessarily some moral failing on their part. I just think they didn’t approach it with the right mindset, and consequently didn’t follow an adequate training routine.
Once upon a time—as an adjunct part of my main gig—I would take squad-sized groups of people and help turn them into runners. The basic goal was to have them able to run five miles or so, including up and down hills, as a means of increasing their overall CV fitness. This training happened over a period of 12 to 16 weeks. There’d usually be a few who were already pretty fit and active, and then there would be a good sized group who were of average fitness but hadn’t run since their school days. We’d start pretty low and slow, but even so, right after the first run I’d always get the question: How the hell do you ever learn to actually enjoy this?
And I’d say, running is like smoking. Really.
Let’s say you’re a teenager and you want to smoke (because your friends all smoke and you want to be cool like them, of course). And the first time you smoke you feel pretty much like you do after your first run—your lungs hurt, you’re nauseated, and you feel like you might puke at any moment. And if you only smoked once every couple of weeks, you’d feel crappy every single time you smoked. But instead you do it pretty regularly. And after a while you can smoke in front of your homies and not cough like a dweeb. Then pretty soon you don’t really mind it that much. Then you find yourself sort of looking forward to it. And—if you hang in there and continue to smoke regularly—after a while you really enjoy it and then you discover you have to do it.
And then the punchline: Well, running is exactly like that.
And it is. But guess what? So is writing.
Which is why my most fundamental advice to aspiring writers is always: Try to write regularly. For whatever value of “regular” works for you and your life. I’m the last person to tell someone when and how much they should write—you know better than anyone what your life-load can handle. However, I think I can safely say if you write for 45 minutes and then not again for two or three weeks—when you write for half an hour—and then you don’t write again for a month or so, when you manage to squeeze in an hour, and so on… you’ll be like the intermittent smoker, continually starting over from ground zero.
Because here’s the big secret... the thing that the smug “you just gotta make time” pundits don’t tell you... You don’t make time. You allot it.
And there’s also a secret (which of course is just a marketing word for technique) to successfully allotting time.
Which we’ll talk about next time when we discuss the hidden value of scheduling.
Until then, happy writing!
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.