How to Make Writing Your Greatest Obsession
A 10 step guide to cultivating better writing habits
A true writer is often a little eccentric, sees the world in a certain light and usually has something meaningful or passionate to say. This is the person who has little money or time for luxuries, who rises early before work or writes during the night, on their lunch break, on the train, in a park and almost everywhere and anywhere they can. Because they are obsessed.
But it’s an obsession well worth your time.
However, fecundity in writing is no small feat. How do writers finish manuscripts? How do some succeed in a world full of endless distractions? Are there certain rules to being a writer?
Hemingway once said…
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
The prototypical illusion of a writer is someone nestled away in a log cabin somewhere surrounded by scenic views, sipping on their Long Macchiato as they beaver away at their Pulitzer Prize masterpiece — destined to join a bestseller list.
All true writers know the risible folly of this cliche. The truth is that writers make enormous sacrifices — a healthy social life, their mental well-being and financial security, to name a few. And while the writer may eschew common pleasures, such as serial binging Westworld and weekend pub crawls — the writer gains in other areas: Crafting compelling stories and visceral characters, world building, expanding or rekindling history.
“I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters.” — Tahereh Mafi
In Carmel Bird’s book ‘Dear Writer’ she makes note of not only treating your writing as a vocation but as one of the most important tasks in your life.
I have written these 10 steps after learning what works best for me. Keep in mind, this is about workflow and productivity and not marketing or publishing your book. After all, the most important part is the writing.
1. Avoid social media and other distractions while you work
Not only is it incredibly easy to get distracted but it’s a common pitfall. Once you tumble down the rabbit hole you’re not only going to lose valuable time but you’re in for some information fatigue. Social Media also triggers a dopamine high as people seek validation and attention. Moreover, the entire affair feeds the procrastination monkey (we’ll get to that soon) which will later come back to bite you, especially when you start comparing yourself to more established writers. I only use the internet for research while I’m writing and never anything else.
2. Write down your daily goals and place them in front of you
Without goal orientated action you will not finish your stories (fiction or non-fiction). I usually create a single writing goal for my day and this usually involves a story I am currently working on. I write this down on a notepad and place it where I can see it. A daily goal might look something like this:
New short story — Shifting The Eclipse. 4000 words. Continue on story climax. 3 hours. Deadline: 19th December.
I usually aim to write at least 1500 words a day. Some days I write more, some days less. It’s important to create a realistic goal — if you add a high word count and don’t meet this then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
So what’s the average word count? It’s different for everyone, but the general consensus is an average of anywhere between 500 — 1000 words a day. Hemingway used to write around this and Stephen King is said to write approximately 2000 words a day.
Finally, make sure you create realistic due dates for each writing project. If you’re an emerging writer then try to imagine you have an agent and a publisher and must meet your deadlines. A due date will push you to stay on target and keep you motivated. For example, if you write 1500 words a day and you plan to write a 70,000 word novel then you might expect your first draft to take around 7 weeks at 10,500 words a week. And maybe not. Life throws curve balls at the best of us — some days you may only write 500 words. So then estimate it might take 3 months instead.
3. Stick to a daily schedule
This sounds obvious, but a writer must find a balance between their writing and the rest of their busy life. Writing whenever you feel like it just isn’t going to cut it. It’s imperative that all creatives block out reasonable units of time and create strict daily routines.
For me it’s my mornings. I start writing around 8 am and allocate 2 — 3 hours a day for each piece, working in hourly intervals with 15 minute breaks in between.
Remember to reward yourself when you achieve your goals — it could be as simple as eating out or catching a movie. You can’t be a writing machine all the time, you’re human too.
4. Write down your own daily mantra
Daily mantras are important to reconfirm why you are doing this and that it’s really worth it. I write a short mantra above my goals but you may want to write yours on a separate piece of paper.
Perhaps your story has won an award or you’ve recently been published. Great! Work with that. The point of this is to give yourself a little reminder as to what your strengths are. It might read a little like this:
You are a notable author who has a strong voice and is able to develop arresting stories and relatable characters. You are currently working on a new short story Shifting The Eclipse, due December 19. You are on target. Well done.
My mantras often change on a daily basis, but you get the idea. Why bother with a mantra? Simple… it’s nice to remind yourself that you’re on track and that the sacrifices you’re making are worth it.
5. Remember to create assets
Poet and creative coach, Mark McGuinness has a wonderful podcast called ‘The 21st Century Creative’ where he discusses productivity and forming healthy writing habits. One of the key points I learned was the importance of creating assets.
Ask yourself: What are you doing with your work? What is the larger picture? If you’re writing short stories then perhaps you can start thinking about a collection for publication. If you’re writing poetry, how about self-publishing a Chapbook?
If you’re serious about being a writer then you need to think of your career in terms of building assets.
6. Confront negative emotions with small acts of self-kindness
As a writer, one of my daily challenges is to confront my own negative emotions. These emotions can range from feelings of inadequacy through to guilt, hopelessness, anger, regret, frustration and feelings of depression. So it’s important that you not only stick to your mantra but also practice small acts of self-kindness. This may be as simple as a short meditation, sharing your work-in-progress with a trusted friend or going for a walk every couple of hours to admire some nature. Find things that work for you and will make you smile.
On the other hand, if you are struggling with depression or other mental health issues, then it’s important to see your doctor and try some form of therapy. I recommend CBT to tackle cognitive distortions and low self esteem.
7. Gratitude is an attitude
Be grateful for anyone who takes notice of your work, even if it’s one person. These are human beings who have stopped to donate their precious time to read what you’ve created. I used to take notice of the number of likes on Facebook, claps on Medium, followers on Twitter… but now I am honestly thrilled if even one person stops to read my work. These readers do not owe you anything, as the world does not owe you anything. You are in the business of self-expression and not competition. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build your readership and take your business seriously, because you should, but there are a lot of writers out there, so cultivate the attitude of gratitude.
8. The procrastination monkey is real
Writing is hard work and sometimes anything else seems like a better idea! But anyone who has seen Tim Urban’s hilarious and honest Ted Talk ‘Inside the mind of a master procrastinator’ will relate to the temptation of procrastinating. That little monkey who wants to distract you from your daily goals is real. We rationalize our digital distractions by taking some ‘time out’ but we also know when we’re in avoidance mode. Taking a well deserved break is fine, avoiding something because it’s a challenge is not so fine.
“If you want to have a career … say in the arts. There’s no deadlines on those things at first because nothing’s happening yet. The money’s sneakiest trick is when the deadlines aren’t they’re.” — Tim Urban
Urban also explains that long term procrastination can make you feel like a spectator in your own life. So create deadlines and stick to them.
9. Be an avid reader and interested in the world
To become a better writer, even a truly good writer, it’s important to be an avid reader. Irish author Claire Keagan calls this ‘close reading’ and during a recent workshop I attended she stressed the importance of reading as a writer — taking note of the writer’s structure and prose. I keep a notebook of phrases and words from different novels I read for inspiration.
“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.” ― Patrick Rothfuss
You should also take an interest in the world around you. The best writers take an interest in politics, climate, philosophy and any impeding or strange events happening in the world, and not always in the news.
10. Rejection is a natural part of being human
It’s important to understand that rejection is part of the business. The world is horribly over-saturated with content and that means whatever you are submitting had better shine. I had numerous short stories rejected before I was finally published. But those rejections taught me to hone my craft more and tighten my stories.
Sometimes a publication might reject your piece simply because its themes or style may not suit their particular vision. But that doesn’t mean your work is awful, it just means: Not right now. Or perhaps the piece needs a little more editing. I had a publication reject some of my poetry, but then they wrote back and asked me to flesh them out. I did so and they were accepted. If an editor invites you to submit again, that’s a great sign.
There’s so much more of course. No. 11 would probably be about the importance of good posture. Remember to keep your back straight and avoid slouching. Then there’s the importance of avoiding TV during the day and while you work. Watching TV means you’re not reading and not reading means you’re not exposing yourself to good writing; writing that will help you hone your craft.
Finally, writers are, for the most part, quiet achievers and so they should be. Claire Keagan said that the writer should render themselves invisible. This means that your story is more important than you. You are merely its vessel, its host. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn what’s in your toolbox, because a good writer has a particularly competent grasp of grammar, sentence structure and should possess a more than adequate vocabulary. But in the end what really matters is that you make your writing a daily ritual and an obsessive, goal orientated habit.