Guest Post: 3 Tips for Developing a Daily Writing Habit by Kevin Tumlinson
Good writing is about two things: Persistence and making up a second thing as you go.
I’m not the only one who says so. Octavia Butler wrote, “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
Here’s the honest truth: There is no good writing without lots of writing.
You can argue (pretty strongly) that grammar and mechanics, spelling, knowing how to construct a plot or develop a character, or any number of other aspects of writing are essential, even vital to being good at writing. I won’t put up much of a fight on those. But I will point out—patiently, quietly, lovingly—that each of those vital skills can and will come if you are persistent in your pursuit of the craft.
I wish that weren’t true. Honestly, I do. Because after 30 years of doing this work, putting ideas on the page day after day, I still have so very much to learn, and so many ways to grow as a writer. It’d be nice if I could sit back, fingers twined over my stomach, a sigh and smile of contentment on my lips, and just know that I’m done. The learning has stopped. The forever push of making myself better at this has ended. Achievement Unlocked.
I’m still a growing writer. You are too. I can tell, because you’re still reading.
So how do we develop the persistence we need to do this better? How do we come back to the keyboard (or the notebook) every day?
Here are three tips that can help you develop a daily writing habit—
Commit to a time and stick to it
I like writing in the mornings. I get up at 4AM every day, because that’s the time of day when I’m at my most creative. It’s also the time at which I’m least likely to be interrupted by anyone who needs my attention. So you should get up at 4AM every day.
Kidding! I am so kidding. Please come back!
For me, 4AM is my time. For you? It may be 7AM, or 5PM, or midnight. There is a time, though. There is an hour of the day where you are both energized and ready to tackle anything, and have complete freedom from distractions.
I’m an early riser, you may be a late bloomer, but we definitely have our times. Find yours, block it off on your daily calendar, and commit to writing (and only writing) during that time each day.
The commitment part of this is crucial. You have to decide, right now, if the writing is worth it to you. You have to decide that you really do want this, that you can’t stand the idea of not having it. Writing has to be this thing that drives you nuts when you aren’t doing it. And the only way to get to that level of passion about it is to decide, to commit, and to start doing it with persistence.
Commit to a Daily Word Count (DWC)
When I’m coaching writing clients, I have a formula I teach. I refer to it as “triangulation.” If you know any two sets of data, you can calculate the third. In the case of writing a book, we can assume at least two general points of data from the beginning: Our deadline and our Total Word Count (TWC).
Those two data points aren’t really set in stone for most of us. Unless we have a contract with a publisher, we’re probably not working to a firm deadline. But we should always (always, always) set one for ourselves anyway. And, even more important, we should always (always, always) commit to that deadline. If we say that we’re going to finish this book by July 4th, then we should put the finishing touches on it before the first plate of BBQ is served and the first fuse is lit on the fireworks.
That’s the American version. For everyone else in the world, just know that the important part is that you meet this deadline even if you’re the one who set it.
The TWC is also somewhat variable, but at least it’s more forgiving. I tell clients to determine their approximate TWC by looking at books similar to what they are planning to write, finding three that seem about right the right length, and averaging their page counts. Multiply that average by 350 (the average number of words per page for a 6×9 book), and that’s your target Total Word Count. You may go over or under that number in the end, but it’s the goal that counts.
So for example, let’s say that you found three books like yours, and they averaged 300 pages. The TWC would be 300 x 350 = 105,000 words.
So now you have your deadline and your TWC. To find your Daily Word Count (DWC), you just have to divide your TWC by the number of days to your deadline.
So let’s say your goal is to write your book in 30 days. Your DWC would be 105,000 divided by 30 = 3,500 words per day.
I really apologize for not mentioning there would be math.
But now that you have your DWC, you have a daily target. And that makes it much easier to commit to doing the work each day. Your goal is to write 3,500 words (in this example) every single day, and preferably at your daily writing time. The only thing stopping you from hitting that goals is your commitment to it. Persistence will produce a book in 30 days, believe me.
Write in scenes, not in chapters
I admit, this advice feels like it’s aimed solely at the fiction writer. But the truth is, no matter what sort of writing you fancy, you’re really doing it to tell a story. And stories have natural break points—moments of pause for the reader to breathe and take in what they’ve just read.
In news articles, writers will put these little beats in as quotes, as small asides, as short, punctuating sentences that are meant to make a point and let it linger. In non-fiction and fiction, these beats come at the end of a point made, and generally act as transitions in the narrative. We change points of view, we jump to a new location, we jump around in time to get a backstory or see a future outcome—anything that breaks from the narrative should be its own scene.
These breathing points are vital for readers, but even more so for authors. Too many writers come to a book as a marathon exercise. They see the vast volume of words and pages that inevitably has to stretch out before them, and they gulp. Because, honestly, no matter what length your book is … that’s a lot of words.
But writing a book isn’t a marathon. It’s a series of sprints. You don’t start at the beginning and plod your way through to the end. You take quick jaunts. You leap forward at times, and stroll along at others.
Getting into a daily habit of writing is a lot easier when we enjoy the process, and when we can see our iterative progress as we look back and as we move forward. Focus on writing the scene you’re in, instead of worrying about the scenes that follow (or even those that came before). Practice a bit of zen—live in the now of your writing. You’ll find it easier to swallow if you’re taking small bites at at time, rather than trying to eat the whole elephant.
Elephants are delicious, by the way.
Persistence comes with the sheer act of coming back to your writing daily, so stack the odds in your favor. Write in scenes, not chapters. Write what’s happening right now, and when you’re done, you can move on to writing the next thing.
One last tip …
Don’t wait to start. Persistence is an immediate thing. You have to start building it the second it occurs to you.
Also, don’t get discouraged when it takes a few tries to get into the rhythm of this. Actually, it should take time to develop this as a habit, because that’s the point. You’re building your persistence muscles, and you’re committing to this thing you’ve decided to do with your life. It should probably come with a bit of sweat and work, to make it taste that much sweeter.
You can get better at writing if you do it often. You can improve grammar and mechanics, spelling, structure, characterization—any aspect of writing you feel is important or vital is yours to improve and master. But mastery only comes when you’re putting in the time. So put in the time. You deserve it.
Kevin Tumlinson is the Wordslinger | Author, Speaker, and Entrepreneur. He has written dozens of books, and has helped hundreds of clients to build their own author businesses. He is the host of the Wordslinger Podcast, as well as co-host of the Self Publishing Answers Podcast. You can learn more about Kevin and his work at www.kevintumlinson.com.