Tips for Building a Writing Routine

MacBook Pro near white open book

One habit that many people want to start? The habit of regular writing.

When I was working on Better Than Before, my book about how to make and break habits, I was surprised by how many people want to cultivate the habit of writing regularly. They have different reasons:

  • for creative expression—working on a novel, writing family newsletters, keeping “morning pages”
  • for preserving memories—keeping a journal for a new baby, making “five-senses portraits” for relatives who have died
  • for gaining clarity—writing daily priority lists, keeping track of a major project using a one-sentence journal

But even when we see the value of writing regularly, it can be a difficult habit to acquire. (Because many habits are difficult to acquire!)

Here are some steps to consider:

  1. Select time and frequency. Decide what time of day you will write, and how often. For some people, such as me, writing every day works best. Others may choose to write on Saturday mornings or during weekday lunch breaks. As you think about when to schedule your writing, pay close attention to your energy level. If you’re a morning person, schedule your writing time early; if you’re a night person, use a later time. For many people, putting an activity on the calendar means that it happens. (Upholders, that’s especially true for you.)
  2. But if the idea of scheduling your writing sounds extremely unappealing, don’t do it! (Rebels, I’m looking at you.) Think about your identity as a “writer,” and remember, the one thing that writers do is…write. See #12.
  3. Consider your space. Figure out where you do your best work, and make that space as convenient and comfortable as possible. Corner of the sofa? Kitchen table? Public library? Bed? Do what you can to put yourself in an environment that suits you.
  4. Adjust your sound environment. To do deep work, some people (such as me) prefer silence. Other prefer music with words, music with no words, one song on a loop (!), white noise, or the busy clatter of a coffee shop. Create the sound surroundings that suit you.
  5. Upgrade your tools. Beautiful tools make work a joy, and bad tools make work unnecessarily irksome. If you’re putting up with poor tools—inadequate light, an ancient laptop—make the effort to upgrade.
  6. Start a focus ritual. Maybe you light a candle, or walk around the block, or make your favorite coffee drink, or sit next to the same window when it’s time to begin. By repeating that action, you’re signaling to your brain that it’s time to enter a creative, associative state.
  7. Articulate your why. Why do you want to establish a writing routine? To make progress on your book manuscript? Carve out space for self-reflection? When you understand why you’re pursuing a habit, it’s easier to keep it up. (Questioners, this is a crucial step for you.)
  8. If you need accountability, get it. Join a writers’ group or class where you’re expected to hand in work; work with a writing coach; post a schedule where your family members will see it; recruit a friend to read your drafts. (Obligers, you know you need it! Do not skip this step!) One writer told her son, “You have your homework, and I have my homework—which is working on my novel. When you’re working on your homework, I’ll work on my homework. If I’m not doing my homework, you don’t have to do yours.” Her son watched her every day, hoping to get a day off.
  9. Choose a metric. How do you know when you’ve completed your writing time? Is your metric a word count, minutes spent in the chair, or a completed draft? Perhaps your metric is to keep writing for the duration of your toddler’s nap time. Pick a marker that’s concrete, measurable, and realistic. Note: While many writers use word count, this approach has a risk: it encourages some people to write in a padded, verbose way. As a former lawyer, I never give myself an incentive to write long.
  10. Don’t forget to read. The best writing routine includes reading. As Randall Jarrell wrote, “Read at whim! read at whim!”
  11. Set up safeguards against loopholes. Put guardrails in place for the days you’re tempted to abandon your writing practice, and anticipate challenges. What will you do when you go on vacation? If you’re traveling? If you have house guests? If you don’t have any ideas? Make a plan.
  12. MOST IMPORTANT: Never forget that to write, we must write. These things are not writing: research, interviews, formatting, outlining, daydreaming, talking about writing. These things may be absolutely necessary for writing, but they aren’t writing.

As with all habits, remember, we gain the benefit of that habit day by day. With writing, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, but day by day, we make progress.

As novelist E. L. Doctorow observed about writing: “It’s like driving at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can can make the whole trip that way.”



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