We all have habits. Some are good, and we try to cultivate them. Some are bad, and we try to break them. One thing just about anyone would agree with is that if you do anything consistently, it will become a habit. “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going,” Jim Ryun said. He had something there.
Writing, as with all endeavors, improves with practice. As a writer, I am constantly looking for ways to improve my craft, to find newer and better ways of describing things, to attempt to describe what is happening in a story so vividly that the reader forgets she is reading and begins to see the landscape before her. The wind is not then simply rushing through the character’s hair, but the reader’s as well.
How Do I Find the Time?
But how? How can a writer improve their craft while still doing all the myriad things necessary to structure, map out, develop, write, edit, and polish a story? It seems simple enough, right? Write a story and put it out there, write the next story, and as you go along you become more adept at the craft. Well, no.
There are so many aspects to publishing a book (even self-publishing) that there is actually very little time spent just writing. After all the upfront work (for those of us who structure and plan stories), there is a blissful chunk of time wherein the rough draft is written. That is pure writing, without all the fluff and necessary incidental work. But that’s it. The majority of the author’s time is spent on other parts of the process.
After the rough draft, it is an endless stream of edits and revisions, checking facts and timelines, and making sure everything works. Then comes the actual compiling and publishing. Don’t forget all the work that goes into product descriptions, gathering of metadata, cover art, and the publishing process itself. Then, there is marketing and blogs, mailing list work, and (if lucky) fan mail to read and answer.
All of this leaves the author without much time to actually write. So what happens? We become rusty. Editing is great and is necessary, but it’s not freeform writing. The problem then, is to figure out how to write consistently, making it a habit, while doing all this other work. For those of us who work a “day job,” it is even more difficult. There are only so many hours in a day and if we take them all to edit or market or do any number of other things, we’re left at the end of the day with no time to actually write. What to do?
Many authors set a word count for themselves to write each day. Come hell or high water, they get those words in. I have read comments from them, heard of the benefits, but still I resisted trying to do daily writing quotas. I didn’t have the time. I had too many other things to do. I may get around to it eventually, just not now. It was always something to do in the future.
November caused a few cracks in my argument. If you don’t know or remember, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), wherein writers are encouraged to write a 50,000 word novel by writing each day. I participated in 2015 (you can see my journal of it here) and found that I liked it. No, despite how difficult it was to find the time, I loved it. Writing each day gave me a little treat as I saw a story, one I had done the structure and scene list for beforehand, unfold before my eyes. Still, as I said, it was difficult and I was glad to go back to my lazy way of doing things in December.
As the new year came and I read more and more about the benefits of daily writing quotas, I finally succumbed. Starting in February, I set a goal for myself to write at least a thousand words a day. I resolved myself to doing my writing as soon as possible each day. If I could do it before work, that would be ideal, though that does not happen often because of how early I have to get up already just to go to work. Normally it means coming straight home each night and writing first thing. On the weekends, it’s the first thing I do in the morning. I have kept up with the task, making it a habit, for 44 days as of this morning.
It’s tough sometimes. I recently took a road trip on which I drove more than 20 hours a day. I’m sure the writing I did on those days will be heavily edited, maybe even thrown out of the rough draft. But I did write. My string of writing days stayed intact and I got my needed practice. As with anything worthwhile, keeping up with my daily writing requires sacrifice. I think it’s worth it.
As mentioned, the main reason for writing daily as a separate, word-count driven activity is to get much-needed practice. Writing in a journal is great and helps to become more articulate, but that does little to develop the skills for weaving all the threads of a story together into a coherent whole. A chunk of time sitting at the keyboard and searching for the magic is invaluable for sharpening the writer’s tools. Following are some benefits I’ve already experienced with the daily writing quota habit.
Speed – I type relatively quickly. Sure, I could be faster, I could be more accurate, but in general, I think my speed is good. Normally you hear the rate at which someone types expressed in words per minute (WPM). While that’s a good indicator for gauging how long it takes to write a letter or to have a standard metric with which to compare two typists, it is inadequate for writing novels. There, words per hour are more informative.
When I began my daily quota, I was writing at about 1200 words per hour. So, to finish my writing each day took me about an hour. Keep in mind that this total includes time taken to think or to look something up, so it’s not just straight typing. At this point, I’m at almost twice that rate. It’s not just that my typing speed has increased. I believe that by practicing, by creating my habit, I have improved the efficiency by which I write. That means, simply, I am able to think through a scene, develop how I will describe it, and then put it onto the screen in less time than it took before.
Quality – It’s an interesting thing that the more you practice something, the faster you get, but also the better the quality of what you put out. I have noticed that my more current stuff is better, less in need of drastic editing, than material I wrote even a month ago. I’m analytical by nature and so I imagine lots of new neural pathways being formed by my new habit. I am actually rewiring my brain to not only write faster, but to do it better. If I continue to improve, I can see a time when my rough drafts will be as good as my second or third revisions are now. Who knows what the limit is.
No Writer’s Block – The trio responsible for the Self-Publishing Podcast, as well as three excellent non-fiction books on writing (Johnny Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright) have stated repeatedly that they don’t believe in writer’s block. I would have to agree. I have had rough spots where I couldn’t write a particular scene in any way that seemed acceptable, but I’ve never been incapacitated by a blank screen. Part of this is the pre-writing preparation. If you have a list of scenes that you have to fully flesh out, you can almost always type something. Writing daily, being comfortable with transferring thought to screen, does a lot to keep blockages from happening. If you keep the machine moving each day through action, it is not as likely to seize up when you try to start it at a particular time. That’s my take on it, anyway. I never have a problem with being able to write, just with having the time to do so.
Lots of Stuff in the Queue – Another benefit from writing daily is that you can quickly build up a collection of rough drafts. True, you still need to find the time to edit and revise those drafts, but having them there, waiting in the wings, does a lot to build confidence and keep motivation. Chipping away at a novel of over 100,000 words by writing small parts of it each day almost seems effortless. Isn’t that what habits are supposed to do? Right now, I have several stories in-process. Keeping up with my daily writing, I can foresee most of them being published by the end of summer. No doubt, by that time, I will have started on several others to feed my habit.
But Does It Take Up Valuable Time?
Ok, so all that is great, but what about the edits and revisions that need to be done? Does writing for a half an hour to an hour each day take up valuable time that could be used for doing those other tasks? Yes and no.
Joanna Penn has famously said that she believes there are different types of time. For example, there is creative time during which your mind is imaginatively working overtime and you are making art. Then there are times when you are less creative, more analytical. Still other times you are so tired, such as at the end of a work day, that about all you’re good for is checking e-mails and maybe scheduling some advertising campaigns. The point is, I feel that the editing part of my brain is not the same as the creative, rough-draft writing part. When I’m most creative, I’m really not sure I want to waste that on an edit pass where I’m focusing on grammar or fact-checking. I would rather use the creative juices to, well, create.
Also, the benefits of being able to let loose and imagine can’t be underestimated. So many times, I begin writing a simple scene that should be very short and somehow, during the process, I come up with something that changes the whole story trajectory. A simple scene may become two chapters and may be the linchpin on which the entire tale becomes based. I liken this to a muscle. Letting the mind do its creative thing relaxes it, makes it more efficient, more fluid. It lubricates all the moving parts (figuratively speaking, of course) and then when I do go to tackle the editing, maybe an hour or so after, my brain is clear and uncluttered. In a word, it’s efficient. So, though I do spend time on writing other works, I think the net gain in my efficiency in working on my top-of-the-list project more than makes up for the time. Again, that’s totally my opinion, but I think I have a basis for stating it as truth in my situation.
I have found that making a habit of writing every day, targeting a specific number of words, to be beneficial. It makes me happy, makes me feel as if I’m developing my skill, and it goes a long way toward completing the projects I have planned out for my year. Sean Covey, the son of Stephen (7 Habits of Highly Effective People), stated: “We become what we repeatedly do.” I myself want to be a writer who improves with every story I write. What better way than to write every day? Would this work for you? Why not give it a shot and see. I’d love to hear about your success.