What do you think is the one thing that successful writers have in common?
Talent, you might say. An extraordinarily creative mind. Persistence. Maybe just plain luck. All of these can play a role, but they aren’t the determining factor. Consider what these well-known authors have said.
Maya Angelou: “I keep a hotel room in which I do my work… I try to get there around seven, and I work until two in the afternoon.”
Alice Munro: “I write every morning, seven days a week. I write starting about eight o’clock and finish around eleven…. I have a quota of pages.”
Steven King: “I try to get six pages a day. … When I’m working I work every day — three, four hours, and I try to get those six pages, and I try to get them fairly clean.”
The one thing that unites virtually all successful writers is a writing habit. They write often, they write regularly, and they write a lot. What does that mean in practical terms? How can you develop a writing habit?
Deliberate organization means that you stay in control of your schedule so that you can get the most done. You have a plan, you stick to it, and you accomplish what you set out to do. We can’t establish a solid writing habit without deliberate organization. If this is a struggle for you, don’t worry – you’re far from alone in that!
Dig into why you find time management so difficult. Do you have some negative associations with time management? Do you tend to be a bit lazy, prioritizing the fun activities over productive activities? Perhaps perfectionism or a fear of failure are holding you back. If this is the case, what would it take to let go of that weight and move towards deliberate organization?
It’s time for an honest assessment. Ask yourself:
- In what ways are you well-organized?
- Where could you improve? Why do you think this area is a challenge for you?
- Do you waste time because you haven’t planned? This might look like procrastinating on dinner because you don’t know what to make, or even what ingredients you have available.
- Are you spending enough time on the important things, like sleep? Most people need about seven hours of sleep to perform (and write) at their best.
- Do you really know where your time is being spent? Are you honest with yourself about what activities take up most of your time?
If you were creating a budget, you would first need to track your spending so you know exactly what your money is currently being used on. Similarly, tracking your time is the first step towards managing it well – which is crucial for a successful writing habit.
One invaluable resource is 10 Minute Novelist CEO Katharine Grubb’s excellent book, Write A Novel in Ten Minutes A Day. The digital version is available for only a few dollars here. The basic idea that 10 Minute Novelists is built around is that your writing dreams are worth spending your time on – even if all the time you can set aside for your writing habit is ten minutes a day.
Start by tracking your time in as much detail as you can for at least a week, using this chart (or whatever tracker you prefer). If your schedule varies from week to week, you might prefer to fill in more of these; perhaps one for each week in an average month. Put each activity in one of five categories: home management, creative time, outside obligations, social life, and personal. This will allow you to see what you are doing with your time.
Fill in your time tracker and assess what it’s telling you.
When do you sleep? Mark the times you go to bed and get up each day. Maybe you stay up late or sleep in on the weekends – make note of that. How many hours of sleep do you get on average? Ideally, you need at least seven hours; otherwise, lack of sleep can dramatically reduce your productivity.
When do you eat? How do your meal times vary during the week? Also mark down the time you spend shopping, cooking, and cleaning up after meals.
When are you working? Be sure to include any time spent commuting.
What other regular obligations do you have? Things like book clubs, religious services, and soccer practice for the kids all go in this category.
Is there anything else you do regularly that should be included? Doctor’s appointments, meetings, playdates, the weekly 10 Minute Novelists chats? Make note of those too.
Efficiency vs. effectiveness
In his book What’s Best Next, Matt Perman has this to say about time management: “When most people think of productivity, they think of efficiency – getting more things done faster. While efficiency is important, it is secondary. More important than efficiency is effectiveness – getting the right things done. Efficiency doesn’t matter if you are doing the wrong things in the first place.”
Take another look at the schedule you made. Based on what you’ve tracked, assess what needs to change.
Are you taking responsibility or blaming others for your lack of time?
Have you been coasting, frustrated with your lack of organization, but not making an effort to solve the problem?
Do you count the cost of the activities you engage in? Have you said “yes” to some obligations to avoid conflict, without considering your own needs and wants? Would it be better to refuse some so that you have time for better or more important activities?
Have you been focusing on the wrong things? Things that might be unnecessary, not worth the time you invest in them? Can you avoid those things?
Are you realistic about meeting your own basic needs? Do you get enough sleep and movement? Are you able to maintain your household needs, like meals, laundry, and cleaning?
What areas should be bumped up the priority list?
What areas should you cut back on?
Are there any noticeable gaps that haven’t yet been accounted for? Your time will be used up whether you spend it productively or not. Maybe you fill in those gaps with Pinterest, or video games, or Twitter. Take a closer look at how you are using that time. Can these gaps be better managed or set aside for one of your five categories – perhaps for your writing habit?
Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals
A significant part of using your time effectively is knowing what you want to accomplish — in other words, what your goals are. How well do you follow through with the goals you set? Are you fairly focused and self-disciplined, or do you fizzle out quickly? Setting better goals, S.M.A.R.T. goals, may help. S.M.A.R.T. goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.
SPECIFIC. Can you visualize your goals? It’s easy to say your goal is to “write more,” “read more,” or “get a book published,” but how will you know whether you succeeded? The key is to make your goals specific. A specific goal often incorporates a number. For example:
“My goal is to write 100,000 words this year.”
“I want to read at least two books a month.”
“My plan is to submit 100 pitches to agents who work with my genre.”
Think about what you want to accomplish, and write your goals out as specifically as you can.
MEASURABLE. Can you measure the progress you’ve made towards your goal? Consider our example of writing 100,000 words. That averages out to roughly 2,000 words per week. It’s easy to keep track of how close you are to reaching that number and to objectively determine if you’ve met that goal or not.
Knowing your progress also allows you to plan your efforts more effectively. Perhaps you have a family reunion to attend. If you’ve been keeping track, you might know that you’re 750 words ahead of your goal – which means you only need to find time to write 250 words in between visiting with Aunt Mary and meeting Uncle Joe’s fiancee. That can take a lot of pressure off!
To measure your progress, you will need to track your writing. There are as many ways to do this as there are writers. The most common method is to record how many words you write each day. You can use a spreadsheet, write your number on the calendar, or fill in a chart like one of these:
You could even use a paint-by-numbers project by assigning each number-color combination to a word count goal. When you reach that goal, you get to fill in all the sections labeled with that number!
If you just want to put in more writing time, you can modify any of these to track minutes or hours spent writing. Another idea is to track the number of consecutive days that you’ve written. At the 30-day mark, you officially have a writing habit! If you’re a procrastinator, though, it’s probably best to focus on your word count.
ATTAINABLE. This is the tricky part. Do you know what you are capable of? Is your goal possible, or are you reaching for a goal you just can’t make? To set attainable goals, you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll need to acknowledge where you have fallen short in the past and look for ways you can improve in the future.
REALISTIC. At first glance, this might seem redundant. Realistic, attainable – aren’t they the same thing? The difference is subtle but important. An attainable goal is possible. A realistic goal is possible for you, in your current circumstances.
To illustrate, consider this: maybe you have set your goal at 365,000 words in a year. That’s 1,000 words a day, every single day for a year straight. Is this possible? Yes. Other writers have done it before. It’s attainable. But is it realistic? Is it possible for you, right now?
Maybe you’re a parent with a newborn, a toddler with special needs, or older kids who participate in approximately 117.4 extracurricular activities.
Perhaps you have a job that requires long shifts, or you have a two-hour commute each way.
Maybe, like many other creative people, you have depression, bipolar, or another mood disorder.
Can you manage to write 1,000 words every single day for a year, no matter what? While it might be possible in theory, it isn’t very realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure and discouragement by choosing unrealistic goals. It’s far better to set a smaller goal and celebrate when you reach it than to break your own heart reaching for the impossible.
TIMELY. Do you have a time limit in mind for your goal? Time constraints turn dreams into goals and provide a sense of urgency that can motivate you to keep going. Also consider whether now is the right time for your goal; does it fit well with your current needs and commitments? Pitching your book to agents and publishing houses is a great goal – but if you only have half an outline and a few pictures saved to Pinterest, you might be getting a bit ahead of yourself.
Establishing a routine
Now you have a plan. You’ve put in the effort to track your time, decided what you want to accomplish, and chosen a S.M.A.R.T. goal for yourself. What’s next? Let’s put the plan to work by establishing your writing habit as part of your routine.
Leo Tolstoy: “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.
Routine is a powerful thing. Once something becomes routine, it becomes much easier. You don’t have to convince yourself to do it anymore. It’s just what you do, and you do it consistently because not doing it would feel wrong. If you need some help establishing your routine, a writing accountability partner or group can be a great motivator for staying consistent. 10 Minute Novelists has its own accountability group – the 365 Writing Challenge. Sign-ups open for a few weeks each fall, and the challenge kicks off at the beginning of January.
Another great place to find an accountability partner (or several!) is at the 10 Minute Novelists writing conference. The next conference will be July 15-17, 2021. Go here to read about the conference schedule and the speakers who will be sharing their expertise with us!
If you can make writing part of your routine, reaching your goals will be a thousand times easier.
Make the most of your mornings
Henry Ward Beecher: “The first hour of the morning is the rudder of the day.”
A fair amount of evidence supports the idea that we do our best work first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, it’s very tempting to start our day at the last minute; perhaps scrolling through social media or pressing the snooze button a few more times. That may be a sign that we aren’t spending our mornings on the right things; things that give us joy and a sense of purpose. Instead, consider getting up about an hour early for the sake of your writing goals.
Ernest Hemingway: “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible.”
Mornings offer two things that are hard to find later in the day: a well-rested mind and quiet, uninterrupted time to yourself. That golden combination can help you write more and write better than at any other time. However, for this to work, you need to follow some simple guidelines.
- No email, social media, tv, radio, etc. You want input from your own brain, so don’t let anything else get in there!
- Drink some water – it’s good for you and your creativity. If you need to have breakfast or coffee right away, that’s fine; but if not, consider using it as a reward for writing.
- Find a good spot to work. Settle somewhere comfortable, but not so comfortable that you fall back to sleep! Next, gather your tools, whether that’s a pen and paper or a computer. If it’s still dark outside, dim your screen to protect your eyes.
- To avoid the “what do I write?” problem, try starting with a question. What does your story need next? Start there. Brainstorm solutions for any story problems and then write the one that sounds best. If you have a clear plan for what happens next, stop writing mid-scene so that for your next writing session you can simply pick up where you left off.
- Set a timer. 20-30 minutes is short enough to (hopefully) keep you from getting distracted, but still enough time to write some words and feel satisfied. If 20-30 minutes doesn’t work for you, experiment until you find what does.
- Don’t research during your writing time – write first and save the research for later. You can stick (INSERT DETAIL) wherever you’re unsure of something and come back to it later. This has several benefits – it can keep you from disappearing down a research rabbit hole instead of writing, and help keep you in the flow of the story. It can also help you avoid info dumps since your brain will file away the important details while you sleep and leave out the clutter. Of course, it’s still a good idea to keep notes on specific terms, dates, and things like that; just not while you’re writing!
For writers like us, that first hour is prime creative time. Our brains are still on the edge of sleep, still shrouded in the misty wisps that dreams come from, enabling us to create vivid descriptions and prose that’s almost poetic. As an extra perk, using our creativity early on can boost our productivity for the rest of the day. If you have never written first thing in the morning, I encourage you to try it!
The next step
It’s time to put these tools to good use. By managing your time effectively, choosing the right goals, and harnessing the creative power of mornings, you can establish a solid writing habit and turn your writing dreams into a reality. Picture this: if you make it your habit to write only 500 words (or about two pages) every morning, you could finish a full manuscript in six months – and that doesn’t include any writing later in the day. Just imagine how good that will feel!
Now, wordsmith, go forth and write.
Do you have a writing habit? What tools do you plan to implement? How have they worked for you?