How to Grow a Sustainable Writing Habit

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. It demands sustained effort and motivation–even when the fickle muse has taken off for an extended vacation, the dishes need doing, and a thousand social media posts are vying for your limited attention. Not many of us have the privilege of writing full time, without distractions or interruptions.

If you want to be a writer, write.

Regina Brett, “Life’s Little Detours: 50 Lessons to Find and Hold onto Happiness”

Even when we do have free time, that’s easier said than done, right? And sometimes getting started is the hardest part. So today, I’m sharing my tips for creating a sustainable writing habit and sticking to it.

Know thyself.

Pantser or plotter? Early bird or night owl? Dead quiet, soundtrack, or cafe ambiance? Fast drafting or slow and steady? Keyboard or longhand?

Writing is very personal and individual. Some people have their best ideas first thing in the morning, others do their best work late at night. Learn what works best for you. Sometimes, the only way to find out is trial and error. Change something up in your environment, timing, or process and see if it helps. If it doesn’t, ditch it! If it does, integrate it into your toolbox.

For instance, I find I’m more consistently productive at night, after dinner. I can’t write with music on or with people nearby. I need silence, solitude, and a solid block of time without other commitments or appointments ahead. So I build my writing time around that.

Set reasonable goals.

Part of knowing yourself to support your writing habit is knowing your ideal writing pace. Some people do great with pounding out 50k words or more in a month (that’s 1667 words a day on average and the rate for “winning” NaNoWriMo). Some people can do even more than that when fast drafting.

A mustached man typing on an old-fashioned typewriter. "I'm going to type every word I know! Rectangle. America. Megaphone. Monday. Butthole."
Sorry, but this is what I picture when you tell me you wrote 10k words in a day!

I don’t know how those writers pump out 100k in a month, though, because I am not a sprinter. I am a turtle. 40k a month is still a stretch goal for me. 20k to 30k is much more reasonable, but can still be challenging. 20k words a month is already an average of 645 words a day.

If you don’t have a lot of time every day to write, start small. If you want to go big later on your goals, work up to it. Writing is a muscle. It gets stronger over time. Is 100 words a day a good goal for you? Or can you shoot for 10k words a month, or about 333 words on average a day?

Having goals that seem doable will help you meet them and meeting them will set up a positive feedback loop in your brain, increasing your confidence and feelings of self-efficacy. You can always write more and get ahead on your benchmarks if the words are flowing fast and furious on a particular day.

Track your progress.

One of the major things that keeps me motivated is progress tracking. I used to use a site called WriteTrack for this, but when the site went down a few months back, I created my own spreadsheet that tracks my progress. I had to get my household Excel expert to help me create the formulas, but now I have a chart that shows me how many words I need to write each day to meet my goals. If I don’t meet par for a day, it dynamically recalculates my future days’ goals to tell me what I will need to write going forward.

A screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet showing daily word count goals and actual word counts, goal remaining and total expected vs. actual
Ex: the current state of my word count tracker

This helps in several ways. It’s a built-in motivator because it shows me exactly what I need to do to meet my goal and the cost of slacking off. It also shows me that missing one day, or a few days, does not mean I can’t hit my goal. Finally, it rewards even a small amount of words by showing that my future daily goal decreases. When that future number goes down, it provides what I personally need to feel motivated: instant gratification.

Basically, I use this spreadsheet to hack my brain into understanding the consequences of my actions.

Tom Hiddleston of Loki, cleanshaven with a blue collared shirt and black suit coat, holds a cookie and turns to a blue muppet who rolls his eyes and flaps his mouth while Tom says "delayed gratification"
My brain just wants cookies.

You don’t have to write every day.

I don’t typically write every day even when I’m on a stretch goal like NaNoWriMo. It’s just not a reasonable expectation for me. Life happens. Part of life for me is migraines and autoimmune flares. If I push myself too hard when my health is already bad, it can make things worse. Being kind to yourself is a skill and a practice that will only benefit you in your writing life.

With that said, having a routine can help. Your brain is a creature of habit. It loves routines and if you teach it that 7 pm is writing time, it will have an easier time kicking into gear. And even writing just one word during your time can help establish or maintain a habit. One word often leads to another, and it’s already one more word than you had before.

Novels are written by increments. There’s no rule that says those increments have to be big, or daily, or even monthly. If you need to take a break, take the time you need. Your writing will be better for it.

Fill your well.

Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well…If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked. Any extended period of piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well.

Julia Cameron

It’s not reasonable to expect yourself to produce consistent creative work without feeding your creativity. New experiences, self-care, other media you love (or don’t love!), exercise, mindfulness, and relationships can all refill your well. This also goes back to self knowledge: what refreshes your creative mind?

Julia Cameron writes extensively about how to fill the well in her classic self-help book for creators, The Artist’s Way. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it. Some of her advice can come off as what I’ve described as “woo-woo white lady spirituality,” but even so, I think the core principles are solid. Working through the book’s exercises changed the way I think about the creative process.

One of the exercises she suggests is the “Artist’s Date,” time set aside to nourish the well. She recommends doing this once a week. To which we all say: “Who has the time?!” But as with writing as a whole, making the time to prioritize your creative life is a choice. It’s a relationship with yourself.

Make a commitment.

In the end, the world isn’t going to burn down if you don’t write. Even if you are a published writer, you can always get a different job! Writing is a choice. It’s not mandatory. No one is depending on you to keep creating (unless you have a contract with a publisher, which is a whole different discussion).

No one, except one person: you. Writing isn’t easy. It’s not that lucrative unless you are very lucky. Not everyone will love your work. In the end, you are doing this for you. In order to stay motivated, it’s important to remember your desire, your dream, your ambition to be a writer. And it’s on you and no one else to prioritize that dream.

It requires a radical commitment to yourself and your creative impulse.

Give yourself permission to fail.

A dark haired white man with a checked collared shirt looks upward and to the side, saying "I'm such a perfectionist that I'd kind of rather not do it at all than do a crappy version."
IT ME.

Hello, my name is Erin, and I am a perfectionist. Perfectionism is probably the root cause of every writer’s block I hit. I want so badly to get things right the first time. But perfection is impossible, and what’s more, it’s undefinable. In discussing my creative perfectionism with my therapist, I realized that I couldn’t even tell her what perfect writing means to me in a concrete way. Does it mean that everyone loves it? That it is above all criticism? That it satisfies me completely? If so, why do my goalposts for what is satisfactory keep moving?

Finally, I wrote this down (on the back of an envelope that probably contains an unpaid bill, because I am a perfectionist and also a chaos muppet):

The real perfection value is being true to myself.

I’m embarrassed to share this because it rings like a truism, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. My yardstick changes over time, because I change and learn and grow over time. My standards and expectations for myself change, and that’s ok. This also means that if I manage to achieve what I think is perfection, I’ve stopped growing.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. The perfect is also the enemy of the done.

Put another way, in order to create, you have to be willing to take on the risk of failure.

A friend of mine said it better than I can, responding to this year’s Writer In Motion prompt with this moving, personal meditation on giving herself permission to fail.

I need to be allowed to fail. I need to stop getting in my own way. I need to get comfortable with writing shit. With writing words that will never make the final cut. With being inefficient on the page and yes, in real life.

Keir Alekseii

YES THIS.

Give yourself permission to not write it right the first time. Go forth and write, and fail, and then keep writing. It’s the only way to get to The End.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s