What’s the Most Difficult Thing About Writing?
The most difficult thing about writing may be developing a workable writing schedule.
Well, for most of us it isn’t coming up with ideas, plotting, characterization, story arcs, subplots or any of the nitty-gritty aspects of our craft.
If we’re already professional writers, then it isn’t finishing what we start, either. Those are all problems new writers face. They may tax a professional writer from time to time, but in no sense are they the greatest challenge to writers.
I think it’s almost universally accepted that the most difficult thing any writer has to achieve is the habit of consistent and regular production.
Putting artistic merit aside, it’s the ability to work to a writing schedule, to meet deadlines, to persevere and be consistent in her writing practice, which sets the professional writer apart from the amateur, the aspiring writer or the “wannabe.”
Treat Writing as Your Job – Especially If It Is Your Job!
I can’t help being reminded of the now ubiquitous quotation from Stephen King, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Consistency and perseverance are the keys to success as a writer.
Talent matters. Creativity counts. Without imagination we are nothing. But no matter how much talent, how much creativity, and how powerful a writer’s imagination, her writing will never be a real business – enabling her to write for a living so she can continue to live for her writing – unless she develops sound habits of consistent and regular production.
It’s one thing to write often. It’s another thing to hit high word counts. This isn’t an argument about quantity or frequency; it’s about consistency and regularity.
What that means, in a nutshell, is summed up in the adage to write something every day. For most of us, building even a small amount of writing time into our daily schedule will lead to better results – both in terms of word count and sales – than intensive, maniacal bursts of productivity followed by days, weeks or even months in which we write squat.
The word counts may be similar, but every aspect of the writer’s craft develops more successfully for she who writes a little every day than she who writes only once in a while.
I’ve written before on this blog about the link between persistent productivity and commercial success.
It’s the deciding factor.
Use a Writing Schedule to Be More Productive
A less meritorious writer can be more successful, if she’s productive, than an original and ingenious writer who doesn’t get the job done.
It’s the former, not the latter, who deserves the success. Because even though she may not be a fainting genius she’s knuckled down, worked hard and optimized the small talent nature granted her.
As I have already mentioned in this post: “Shakespeare with his 37 plays and 154 sonnets; or Charles Dickens who aside from his 15 best-known novels, wrote hundreds of short stories, essays and other works; Enid Blyton wrote 800 books for children and they’re all still in print; Isaac Asimov in SF and Georges Simenon in Mystery published close to 500 books each. The list could go on with thousands of examples. And none of these writers sacrificed quality for the sake of quantity.”
It was always the case that productivity and regularity are vital to visibility and sales. Nothing has changed.
In today’s competitive book marketplace, whether you are independently published or published by a third party, sales and visibility are influenced by productivity and the rate of publication. The more books you can write and publish, without sacrificing quality, the more visible you will be and the more sales you make.
And there’s no doubt this level of production is only achievable if you have a sustainable writing routine.
Professional writing is a job. It takes discipline and hard work.
If you’re a hobby writer, you can do whatever you like, just as and when you feel like it. If you’re aiming to make a decent living as a professional writer, regard your writing as your job.
As with any other job, you need to put in the hours.
You need to turn up in the morning and work until your lunch break; and then go back to work after lunch and keep going until you knock off in the evening.
It’s as simple as that.
In the first year or two when you’re just starting out you’ll probably have to hold down your regular day job, too. Yes, you will work two full-time jobs. But even if you can only write part-time around your day job, you still need to be consistent and productive to make any headway.
The best way to support writing productivity is by developing a routine.
Desiring something isn’t the same as working to achieve it. Intending to do something isn’t the same as doing it. You’ll never realize your objectives unless you undertake a clear, step-by-step plan of action. The best way to support your writing is by developing a practical, sustainable routine – and sticking to it.
The most successful writers work to a writing schedule. They build their writing into a habit.
Get in the Zone
We’ve already seen that one hallmark of a successful writer is her established writing routine. Establishing a routine that works for you will take time, creativity, imagination, and persistence. It means creating a new habit in your life.
You’ll always do your best work when you’re “in the zone.” But don’t mistake being in the zone with the romantic notion of being visited by the Muse or being blessed with a flash of inspiration.
It’s a common misconception that inspiration must precede work. The reality is the other way. Once you start work, inspiration will come.
It was someone who said, “I only write when I’m inspired and I make damn sure I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
I’ve seen that quotation attributed to William Faulkner, Somerset Maugham and Raymond Chandler. It could have been any of them. Maybe it was all of them. Or someone else. It doesn’t matter. It exposes an important truth.
So how do you build a writing routine into your daily life?
Make Writing a Daily Habit
The first thing to recognize is you won’t get it right straightaway. You must develop your writing routine understanding at the outset that there’ll be a period of experimentation. There’ll be failure at first, and that’s all good: you’ll be generating data about yourself; the way you work; the time of day you work best; the factors which help or hinder you. You must refine the details of your routine as you go.
Remember you need to re-train your brain to develop a routine. It’s synonymous with creating a new habit, and habits take time to form.
I’ve read it can take between 30 and 90 days of regular practice to set up a new habit. In my experience it can be shorter or longer. So, it’s no good bashing out a timetable and expecting instant success.
One of the most common reasons writers fail to develop a sustainable routine is that they don’t understand the simple psychology of habit-forming.
For example, when most people write a to-do list, they make the error of writing a wish-list. But a wish-list catalogs everything you want to be done. That’ll include many things which you can’t complete – either in the current circumstances or in the time available. A wish-list sets you up for failure.
Set Yourself up for Success
To form a habit you need to reinforce the new behavior with positive rewards when success is achieved. Writing wish-lists and failing to fulfill them only leads to abandoning the project altogether.
To-do lists can be an important part of your daily writing routine, but they’ll only work if they’re achievable.
To build a new productivity habit, it’s far, far more powerful to do a little – and to achieve it – every day, than shoot for the moon only to find you don’t have enough fuel.
Don’t say, “I will get up at 4:30 AM and write 10,000 words before breakfast every day of the week,” if you’re not used to getting up before 9 AM and the most you’ve ever written in one session is 500 words.
You set yourself up for failure that way.
To imprint a new habit, you have to give your brain a positive stimulus; day after day, in small increments of success.
In the case above, a much better plan might be to say, “I will make no other appointments before 9:30 AM. I will write 150 words every morning between 9:00 and 9:30.” And if that is too hard, scale down your ambition to 100 words, or 50 words, or just one sentence.
Build Your Writing Muscle Gradually
Once you’ve something you can easily achieve, you can build on it. But you must start with something you can already do.
Write that one sentence every single day and once it becomes an easy habit, add another sentence. By the end of the year you’ll be killing 1000 words a day before breakfast without even thinking about it.
But if you start out demanding 5000 words from yourself and fail, a year from now you still won’t be writing anything at all.
It’s a model which requires you focus not on the whole journey, but on the next achievable step. Note it’s not the next most desired aim. It’s the next achievable step; however small.
In this way, with a little discipline and determination, you’ll train your brain to put itself “in the zone” either at a given time each day, or for a given duration, or in response to a given set of circumstances.
You’ll no longer be a slave to the Muse, but have her at your beck and call.
Little and Often Is a Great Way to Start
Don’t forget it’s better to do five minutes of scheduled work, than a few hours here and there with no regularity. The first is habit-forming, and the latter isn’t. And once a habit is ingrained, you can build on it, expand it, maximize it. But you must form the habit first. The brain is reluctant to form new habits. It’s wise to make it easy to keep the commitment at first.
Another useful thing to know is that habits respond to triggers. That could be a location, a time of day, an action, or anything which initiates an habitual behavior.
The trigger effect occurs naturally, but you can reverse engineer it intentionally. So for example, you might play a particular piece of music at the start of your writing sprint. Some people like to light a candle. Others sit at a desk only ever used for writing, or wear a particular item of clothing, or use a dedicated pen. It doesn’t matter what. It only matters that it works for you.
My last useful tip for turning your writing routine into a creative habit is to make sure every small success is rewarded.
Reward Your Successes
One author I know is fond of a tipple. He rewards a certain word count with a dram of his favorite malt whisky. A piece of software such as “Write or Die” will reward you with a picture of cute kittens when you reach a milestone. I find congratulating myself out loud is enough. Again, it doesn’t matter what; it only matters that it works; that the principle is put into play.
So just a quick recap for clarity:
- New habits are best formed by starting simple, making it easy and building up to bigger challenges incrementally, over time. Patience is required.
- Good habits can be programmed to start in response to a trigger. Choose a trigger which works and stick to it.
- Each small success should be reinforced by a reward associated with the goal.
Building a writing routine into your daily life, making a schedule and sticking to it, depends upon making it a habit. And making a habit depends upon understanding how habits work and using that knowledge to re-train your brain.
It ain’t gonna happen overnight. It takes wit, a little discipline, and a lot of patience; but the final reward is a well-fixed writing habit that will last you the rest of your life – and may well be the difference between your success or failure as a writer.
And never forget, you can only succeed by failing more than once.
If you’re a writer, or know a writer, or aspire to be a writer, I would love to hear your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments.
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