“Just write every day of your life,” Ray Bradbury famously stated, “Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers” (From “Ray Bradbury’s Nostalgia for the Future” by Timothy Perrin, WD, February 1986).
The idea of writing every single day seems to be the recipe for most successful writers. After all, consistent practice is indispensable when it comes to improving writing skills. The key here is to create a ritual that allows you to stay motivated and to sustain your writing practice.
For instance, Hemingway’s writing ritual involved writing daily in the morning. He discussed his routine in an interview with George Plimpton in 1958:
“You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.”
In a letter he wrote to his wife, Kurt Vonnegut, too, revealed his writing routine:
“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.”
Similarly, Angela Carter was often asked about her writing routine. On weekdays, Carter said, she woke at 7:30 a.m. and spent the first part of the morning getting her son fed and dressed. Afterward, with the house empty, Carter would take a shower—or not—don “baggy trousers and a longish sweatshirt,” and set to work:
“By about 10.30 I’ve slowly ascended to the top of the house where I work. Mark is always suggesting that I take up a flask or an electric kettle on the grounds that if I want coffee I come down to the kitchen where I find something to do or read. But I don’t see why I should be secreted away like some sacred object. I think I should be more integrated into the house.”The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (2016), Edmund Gordon, p. 400
Reading about other writers’ rituals is without exception encouraging—a quick look at the myriad ways in which successful writers wrote/write highlights the importance of finding the right routine that allows you to cultivate writing habits that yield results.
In my previous post on “How to Become a Better Writer,” I discuss the importance of shifting your perspective on the process of writing. Reflecting on why writing matters to you and why you’ve found yourself writing whatever you are working on, I suggest, can be paradigm-shifting in your writing practice. In this post, I share some ideas that can help you take the next step towards writing better.
Here are a few strategies that you can experiment with as you build a writing ritual that helps you develop and improve your writing practice:
Find the Right Time to Write
Early in the morning is the most creative time for some writers. For others, writing after midnight gets the creative juices flowing. Experiment with different times during the day and see when the most creative and productive time is for you.
Perhaps, you have the time to wake up early and write before work as you sip your morning coffee. If you have kids or other responsibilities, sometime after everyone gets to bed may work better. If you have a busy schedule, you could try writing for 10-15 minutes during your lunch break.
Maybe you light a candle, make some tea/coffee, turn on your writing playlist, do a quick yoga practice, or take five deep breaths right before you start writing. The idea is to signal your brain that it is time to write by turning this writing time into a ritual.
Find the Right Place to Write
When it comes to creating a writing ritual, designating a place to write can be as life-changing as choosing the right time.
Do you need a quiet, secluded place? Or do you find that the ambiance at your favorite coffee shop inspires you to write? Maybe you create a writing space for yourself on the kitchen table or in your living-room.
Either way, make sure that you will not be interrupted, and that you organize your writing space. If you prefer to eat snacks and sip water while writing, place it all on your desk. If a pot of lavender sounds lovely, let it accompany you during your writing time.
Create Goal Categories
My favorite mindfulness teacher Rachael Kable often discusses the importance of avoiding setting random goals and of creating goal categories instead.
Kable’s tip is to think actively about the areas of life that are most important to you and then set smaller and specific goals for each category. For instance, instead of establishing a goal to “improve relationships,” if you’d like to work on this aspect of your life, you can have 2-3 specific goals for the category of relationships such as “visit parents each Sunday,” “see a movie at least once a week with my partner,” or “meet best-friend for coffee or dinner at least once a week.”
Similarly, instead of setting your goal as “write every day” or “finish dissertation,” try creating goal categories (this may be especially practical if you’re working on different projects at once).
Let’s say, you are working on an academic article, and you’d like to set goals to successfully begin the process of writing. You could start by creating 3 goal categories:
- read another academic article on the subject-matter and annotate it every week
- sit at the writing desk for at least 15 minutes and work on the draft twice a week
- go to the favorite coffee shop to edit for half an hour three times every week
In this way, you can also categorize the types of action you can take to get some writing done. In the example above, I have three different focuses: reading, writing, and editing. Setting goals that are more specific leads you in the right direction–you know what you’re supposed to do and how many times. As Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky write in Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Everyday (2018):
“Shifting your focus to something that your mind perceives as a doable, completable task will create a real increase in positive energy, direction, and motivation.”
Establishing result-oriented goals, as opposed to action-oriented goals, will also make it easier for you to…:
…Put Your Goals in Your Planner
or on a post-it, on your Notes app, on a word-document…whatever works for you. The idea here is to block off a time slot for writing on your schedule a few times a week.
If you use an online calendar or a planner, chances are you often use time-blocking when you have an important meeting, a presentation, or a coffee date with a friend. Once you write it down on your calendar, you try your best to honor it. Similarly, when you allocate time for writing throughout the week, do your best to honor that time–even if it is only 10 minutes three times a week during lunchtime.
I experimented with time blocking when I was writing my dissertation, and although I never used the website or the app (because I love my Passion Planner!), Todoist’s guide to time blocking was quite useful in helping me get started.
As I sat down every Sunday and prepared my week, being realistic was key to incorporating writing into my daily life. If I had a conference coming up, for instance, I only scheduled two 10-minute writing sessions throughout the whole week. If I knew I would be having a not-so-busy week, then I’d make sure to integrate longer sessions into my week.
Currently, if I have a particularly challenging week ahead such as a grading week or student-conferences week, I schedule my brief writing sessions (usually 15-20 minutes, at least 3 times a week) in the morning before work. When my cat unexpectedly got sick and needed care, for instance, I did not even schedule any writing sessions for a week. Long story short, recognizing my limits and day-to-day reality has played a crucial role in not only establishing a writing routine but also in maintaining it.
We are all human, and sometimes life gets in the way. You may have an emergency that prevents you from keeping up with your writing goals–perhaps, you’ve become a care-taker or a parent. Perhaps, you are having an existential crisis and/or a mental breakdown and feel as though writing is just not it for you at the moment. Surely, everyone’s experience is unique, but I’ve been there. Many times. Observing my thoughts and feelings without pressuring myself to write helps me immensely during those trying times–along with some methods that allow me to get back to my writing routine (once I have the mental and emotional space to do so).
Here are some of those practices that help me get out of my head into a calm, productive zone:
Imagine this scenario:
You haven’t had the mental space to write for a week. But your mind and soul are craving it (and, well, you also have a deadline coming up). In an effort to get to work, you schedule time slots for writing. Once you are at your desk, however, your phone goes off, and you have to take that call. Then, you need some coffee, you know, just to focus better so you get up and go to the kitchen and make some. Now your writing desk looks quite picturesque with the coffee mug next to books and notebooks scattered all over it. So, you snap a photo and post it on social media, and take a sip, check the app to see if anyone has responded to your photo, and you find yourself scrolling up and down.
Most of us know how small distractions can derail a writing session.
I have found that unplugging–turning my phone off or using an app such as Forest app–has allowed me to maintain a laser- focus as I work on the task at hand. I also make ample amount of coffee or tea so that I won’t leave my desk (I’m one of those who seeks snacks and makes more coffee as a way to fuel my anxiety-driven procrastination). I’ve known friends and colleagues who turn off their WiFi. While disconnecting from the source is a brilliant idea, this method has never worked for me. I like to be able to do some research as I write so what I do is to log out of all my social media accounts, which works like a charm. So, try unplugging and be kind to yourself.
Write Out a Few Paragraphs of a Novel or an Article
But why would I waste my time doing that? You might ask. Hear me out.
A writing routine works if you stick to your schedule, right? Right.
What about those days when you are at your favorite coffee shop ready to write away, but you just cannot focus? Perhaps, the music is too loud, or it is merely one of those days. Instead of giving up on your scheduled writing session, write out a few pages of an article on your topic (or of a novel if you’re working on a creative piece). This method may not work for everyone, but it was a writing-routine-saver for me.
For instance, when I was writing a paper on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and the theory of postmemory a few years back, there were times when I got stuck. I couldn’t quite know how exactly I would read the novel through the lens of postmemory. So, when I wasn’t able to produce ideas and words, I took out Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory (2012) and wrote out a few paragraphs or pages. This method helped me:
- feel productive–it felt nice to see full pages as opposed to a blank page in front of me;
- comprehend her argument better–I was able to think deeply about Hirsch’s argument with the novel in mind, which made it easier to connect the two as I moved onto writing my paper;
- become a better writer in itself–when you dive deeply into one of your favorite scholars or novelists’s writing, you familiarize yourself with their style, tone, and word choice. This interaction can actually be quite inspiring.
Next time you’re having trouble writing, instead of giving up and calling it a day, try this method and see if it works.
Try ‘The Pomodoro Technique’
In addition to unplugging, the Pomodoro technique can be a useful tool that helps you avoid distractions as you write. The famous technique, developed by a university student, Francesco Cirillo ,in the 80s, allows you to pick a task, work on it in 25-minute increments, and then take a brief 5-minute break. The goal is to complete four 25-minute increments and then to take a long 30-minute break before you start over.
The Pomodoro technique helps you to break down your writing projects into smaller chunks and hence to make it easier to create a sustainable writing routine that works for you.
Keep a Writing Log
Whether journaling is an integral part of your life or not, keeping a record of your writing goals, efforts, and accomplishments can be a wonderful tool to help you brainstorm, collect ideas, and/or reflect on the whole process.
The best thing about keeping a writing journal is that you can customize it according to your needs and schedule. There are no rules, really; make to-do lists, write reflections, do free-writing, doodle–whatever works for you. You could keep your log on a notebook, planner, notepad on your phone, sticky notes, and so forth.
I prefer to start my writing day with a quick reflection on my focus for the day. After I’m finished with writing (or whatever I’ve planned for the writing session), I also take the time to meditate on what I’ve accomplished and what I’m planning to do in my next session. Of course, there are days when I’m pressed for time and I just get to work–so I skip journaling at times. But when I do journal before and after a writing session, I move on to a work-related project or to lunch with friends happily, acknowledging that I’ve spent some quality time on writing and that I already know what I’ll focus on during my next session.
Create/Join a Writing Community
The last tip is to not write alone.
Okay, sometimes–in case, like me, you may actually enjoy being a solitary writer. Although I’m not a “social writer,” I’ve found scheduling writing sessions with my friends and colleagues quite beneficial–and fun. At times, we need a fellow writer who knows what we’re going through to keep us accountable and to share ideas with.
In graduate school, I’d been part of two different writing groups both of which helped me reach my writing goals (almost) every week. I also had a “check-in date” with my friend and colleague Carley, where we would meet once a week for 15 minutes or so, create goals, and check in with each other the following week. These meetings allowed us to take a coffee break on a busy teaching day, to keep a weekly log of our goals, and helped us support one another throughout the year.
In the post-COVID19 context, it could actually be easier to “get together” online and have writing/check-in dates. In fact, if you can’t think of any writers with whom you can meet for a writing session, you can find your writing community online. From Camp NaNoWriMo to Scribophile, there are several platforms you can try. When I was a PhD student, I loved Thrive PhD‘s #AcWriMo through which I connected with other scholars-writers from around the globe.
Try meeting with another writer regularly for a writing session–could be once a week, once a month, or whenever your schedule allows. Writing may often be a solitary act, but a sense of belonging to the literary community makes us feel supported and improves our motivation.
And this brings me to the end of this month’s post in the “Become a Better Writer + Write Better” series.
I look forward to hearing from you, fellow writers, about your writing rituals: do you have one? What are some strategies that you use to maintain your writing practice?
Also, if you have any ideas or suggestions that would make this series more interesting and useful for you, I’d love to hear from you.
Have a wonderful Sunday–and a lovely week!