Guest post by Emmanuel Nataf
You’ve wanted to write a novel for ages, but can’t seem to ever find the time to start writing. Or maybe you’ve started and just keep hitting walls. Why? For most of us, the answer is that commitments like family, jobs, and life keep getting in the way.
Or, it might be procrastination, and these obstacles are what you tell yourself are the issue. All you are missing is discipline. Every writer has a vision of being able to sit down and write a complete prize-winning chapter in one sitting, but this isn’t realistic. To get a flow going on a regular basis you will need to implement a writing routine.
Forming a regular writing habit builds stakes, holds you accountable to your goals, and keeps you on track as a result.
The reality is, you’re not going to feel like the muses of novel writing are hovering above you and guiding you every time you sit down to write. Building a solid, consistent routine will help you write, and write well, even when you’re not feeling motivated or inspired.
A writing routine will be different for everyone in terms of your environment, time availability, aims, goals — the lot. Even so, if you follow these tips for establishing and, more importantly, sticking to a routine, you can’t go far wrong.
1. Schedule your writing time
Try to choose a time and a place so that other things can work around your writing time, not vice versa. This way, you’ll be able to get into the habit of writing — even when you don’t feel like it.
If you wait for this time to come around naturally, especially in increasingly hectic lives, the hours required to achieve our goals of writing a novel or similar are not going to clock in.
We can draw on Stephen King’s wisdom here:
“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop, and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind … I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.”
This time should be non-negotiable. Author and book coach Kevin Johns sees this as such a crucial part of creating a writing routine that he gives it its own acronym: NNWT, or non-negotiable writing time. Even if you can’t write every day like Stephen King, make sure you have time locked in multiple times a week.
Nothing is stopping you from starting right now: literally, open your phone and schedule writing time into your calendar — this will make you stick to it. Put in a realistic amount of time that you know you can afford, make sure it’s more than once a week, highlight it in something bright that you can’t ignore, and set an alarm to remind you.
2. Make this writing time sacred
J.K. Rowling, who knows a thing or two about writing successfully, advises writers to “be ruthless about protecting writing days.” She urges us to guard these moments that we set aside for writing and not to cave in to “distractions” such as meetings or social engagements.
Whether it’s every workday evening from 8 to 10, or three mornings a week starting at 7, don’t let anything get in the way of your writing. You’ve scheduled this time into your life, and it must be granted importance and gravitas.
This also means that writing time is for writing and writing only. Being lax with it will hold back your progress. If you set aside two hours to write, and in that time answer your emails, do a laundry load, and check Twitter, you’ll probably end up doing half an hour of writing, maximum. That would move the needle extremely slowly.
Research and planning should be done outside these hours. Writing time is just that: time to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
3. Quantify your progress
To know the progress you’re making, set yourself a word count goal per day or per week. The power of setting tiny, achievable goals cannot be overstated.
We as humans love having these little wins. Hitting daily goals (like Fitbit step-goals) gives us little boosts — spikes of dopamine — and makes us feel good about what we’re doing. Writing can be frustrating, so word count goals give you control over at least one of the factors of the writing process. That’s why daily word-counts are such a crucial part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) competition.
If you have a particular goal, for example, “I want to have a first draft of my manuscript done in six months,” this would mean working out what this translates to in words per month, week, and day. Track this to stay in line with what you have set yourself.
The fun side of this is rewarding yourself. Crossing things off that calendar, physically printing off pages you’ve written and adding them to a done pile — anything that gives you a sense of public, visible achievement is worth it.
Writing something as long as a novel may often feel like working for a long time with no reward. As a writer, you have to reward yourself when you reach your goals, which is much easier when these goals are concrete and achievable.
4. Publicize it
Your public could just be your friends and loved ones. Purposefully use shame and disappointment for your own benefit by telling them that you’re writing a book. This puts pressure on you, as does publicizing your goals.
If you have something visible, like a calendar that shows your self-set deadlines or workloads, this can help keep you accountable to goals that would otherwise be easy to pretend you never made. Equally, you can tell your friend/fiance/fellow writer that you’re going to write 400 words every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday after work, and get them to check.
Starting a blog and publicizing your progress is another way to give you that extra incentive, as you don’t want to look bad in front of your followers by not meeting your goals .
You’ve got this!
Know what environment you work best in and use this to your advantage. Whether it’s the bustle of a coffee shop or a silent room at home, you know where and when you produce your best work.
Appreciate that these are all estimates, especially if you don’t have a contract yet. A writing routine will give you direction, even if you don’t have an actual deadline. It will help orient you, rather than just writing whenever you feel like it.
Writing is a challenge, but so rewarding. The key is to stick to it. Establishing and dedicating yourself to the process says that you believe in yourself, and that you can do it.
Emmanuel Nataf is the founder and CEO of Reedsy, the world’s largest marketplace of experienced publishing professionals. In addition to connecting authors with editors, cover designers, and book marketers, Reedsy offers a series of free online courses, including one on building an unbreakable writing routine.