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Routines for Writers: How to Develop a Writing Schedule and Stick to It

Posted in creativity, discipline, finding time to write, finishing your novel, Getting published, how to be a prolific writer, how to complete a novel, Learning to Write, motivation for writers, Productivity for creatives, prolific writer, Writing a novel, writing books, writing life, and Writing Tips

A writing schedule you can stick to is the key to success

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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16 Comments

  1. “than intensive, maniacal bursts of productivity followed by days, weeks or even months in which we write squat.”

    Haha, your writing is no-nonsense and savage. For some reason, it makes me smile. :))

    I think you’re right. The carrot and stick approach is a good way to spur you on, although it takes a lot of handwork and discipline to turn writing into a habit.

    At the beginning of this month, I used to struggle writing 500 words, but I did it. Now my average seems to be 2500 words per day. Highest is about 3500 words. Baby steps are necessary. I wonder how high I can get it next month. 10,000 words? 😉

    In my dreams… 😀

    September 28, 2016
    |Reply
      • Austin Hackney
        Austin Hackney

        Understood. 🙂

        September 28, 2016
        |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Well, word counts do matter, but as I wrote in this post, regularity is the real key. You must know the fable of the tortoise and the hare?

      September 28, 2016
      |Reply
      • Very true. 😀 Even so, I want to finish this project as fast as possible, so I can start on my next idea – it’s going to be a psychological thriller. I’ve had it in my brain since I dreamed about it this summer. 🙂

        September 28, 2016
        |Reply
        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          It’s good to have another project bubbling away on the back burner.

          September 29, 2016
          |Reply
  2. Great post Austin. I’m still working on this myself. Am discovering that having a restricted amount of time to write every day is key for me. When I have the whole day to write (which at the moment I’m very fortunate to have) then I am the Queen of Wasted Time, but give me an hour and I am suddenly Princess of Perfunctory Word Counts.

    October 15, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Danielle. Thanks for your generous comment – and witty as ever!

      Yes, I know what you mean about having infinite amounts of time or restricted writing periods. There’s the famous Parkinson’s Law which states that “work expands to fill the amount of time available to do it.”

      Writers working, as we usually are, in solitary confinement with no-one overseeing our activities, can find a myriad of ways to fritter away the hours in those dangerous “writing-related activities” which don’t actually involve any writing!

      At the same time, we all have to discover our own limits and boundaries which will be different for each writer. I think that the routine (the regularity of the writing habit) is far more important than the schedule (the specifics of how much, for how long, and when). I would recommend cast-iron discipline in the routine, and humane flexibility in the schedule.

      Do you know the software Write or Die? It puts you up against the clock to achieve a certain word count in a certain time limit (you set it yourself) and if you stop writing the screen turns blood red and it shows you images of scary things like giant spiders. When you achieve a writing goal it plays zen monastery bells and shows you pictures of fluffy kittens. It’s absurd, of course, but it does work! That’s how simple we are. Try it (I think it’s about 20 US dollars or something) and see how it changes your writing habits!

      October 15, 2016
      |Reply
  3. “Because even though she may not be a fainting genius she’s knuckled down, worked hard and optimized the small talent nature granted her.”
    You’ve described me perfectly.

    I’m a bit of a disciplinary dork and I thrive with structure. Other people run a mile when rules are laid out or need external motivation and accountability to others. Writing challenges have worked for me to instil a daily habit (e.g. plug for writingchallenge.org or nanowrimo) and they also have the bonus of an encouraging community.

    Btw I love the glorious art. I adore Dutch master still life. Yum. So sumptuous.

    October 15, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Madeleine.

      Thank you so much for calling by, and I’m delighted you could relate to this post. I think that sentence describes many of us who grind the magical millstone of words!

      I enjoy a routine, although I can be flexible with my schedule. Skilled prioritization is worth developing, too, I think. In the end, whatever gets the work done is the right thing to do and that’s bound to vary a little with each writer.

      I agree that finding some species of community to support the often solitary writing life can be a very important factor in maintaining the discipline and keeping motivated.

      I love the art, too. I hope it makes the blog a little more appealing to the eye. I find all sorts of inspiration in other art forms, such as painting, sculpture, dance and music. I try to choose beautiful works which reflect, however obliquely, something of the subject of the post. Choosing the art is a little reward, a treat for completing and editing the text.

      Incidentally, I just checked out your web pages and went on to purchase Evangeline the Alchemist for my Kindle. Looks as if it will be great fun. I love gas-lamp, steampunk and historical fantasy – among many other things!

      Thanks for dropping by and do call in again. You’re always welcome – even just to browse the art. 🙂

      October 15, 2016
      |Reply
        • Austin Hackney
          Austin Hackney

          Hi Madeleine,

          You’re welcome. I read about a quarter of it last night before going to sleep and so far I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s great fun and full of invention. I like Evangeline very much. When I’m done, I’ll gladly review it for you on Amazon and Goodreads.

          Thanks for calling back in, that’s kind of you. Happy writing!

          October 16, 2016
          |Reply
  4. I stumbled across you on YouTube which lead me to this blog. I’m impressed with the quantity and quality of content. I agree with your assertion that the key to success in this business is consistency, and how it will lead to improved quality. I’ve also found in my personal experience the longer I write, the faster I write, and the faster I write the less I self-edit, leading to my best work.

    In the past, I’ve always written only when I had a project that ‘inspired’ me. However, in December I started writing daily and slowly I’ve been increasing my daily word count demands of myself, week by week. I’ve found that success breeds success. It’s hard for me to miss my word count goals now, because I have this 39 day streak I don’t want to break. I will note that I count editing as part of my word count goal, but I have to do three times as many words to equal my writing goal.

    Thank you for the great blog posts. I’ve read maybe eight today, and I’m still going keep reading more.

    January 22, 2017
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi nakbaldron!

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment – and for your very kind words about this blog. It’s always heartwarming when someone talks back!

      Yes, I think you are absolutely correct and your strategy sounds like a good one. It’s about forming new habits more than anything (I must write that post!) and doing so takes time and patience. Our modern culture demands everything ‘easy’ and ‘fast’ – and those concepts are the selling point of many trashy books and blog posts claiming to make you a better writer while you sleep. The truth is, it takes time, persistence, discipline and ingenuity. Those are rare qualities. But they can be cultivated. And she who cultivates them, will find herself always ahead of the game.

      Of course, the quest for increased word count is an enticing one and worth pursuing up to a certain point. Everyone will discover her natural limit. That may be 10,000 words a day, 5,000, 1,000, or just a few hundred. The real key is consistency of practice.

      Thanks again for your interest. If I can be of any help at any time, by all means ask. 🙂

      January 23, 2017
      |Reply
  5. genevawaldorf
    genevawaldorf

    This is brilliant Austin. You always share such amazing and useful tips, AWESOME. It is quite incredible to think that the humble blog has come so far, and this blog really brought it home to me. You sound like a cool writer. I’ll be using all of your tips. You have done some great work here, keep it up!

    February 9, 2017
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Geneva,

      Thanks for your kind comments. All the best.

      February 9, 2017
      |Reply

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