5 Ways Writers Can Find a Routine
The hardest part about writing is… well, writing. Here’s how to make it work.
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Back in January, I sent out a call on Twitter: who might want some advice from #writersonwriting? The response was surprising. Today, I am following up with two requests — one from @amandajinut and another from @RachelEMenzies. When the news reads like somebody scrambled scripts from 11 sci-fi horror movies (badly), and social media with its combo hit of serotonin + anxiety becomes an accident we can’t look away from, how are we supposed to find focus or build a writing routine?
STEP 1: Relax
Deep breath. Look at the water. Go see a sunset. Find your happy place. To be honest, one of the biggest hurdles to writing is how much pressure we put on ourselves for doing it. Some folks like to record and post their word counts. To be honest, that stresses me out completely. Thing is, we are at our most creative — and we have the most flow — when we feel calm, relaxed, safe. (I chose the cover photo because it makes me go ahhhhhhh.)
How do you normally feel when sitting down to write? If you sit in front of the machine and the first thing that occurs to you is “how will others judge what I am about to write,” then it isn’t a safe place. You came to writing originally for the fun of it; maybe it started when you were a kid who liked to make up stories. Try to recapture that sense of play. If you don’t write much today, it’s okay. Did you enjoy what you did write? Was the process of making something you enjoyed? If you make it enjoyable, you will come back and do it again.
STEP 2: Unplug
I have seen a trend lately — folks suggesting that the best way to write is to turn off the computer, the phone, the social media, the world. It probably works for plenty of people. But it doesn’t work for me. I use the wifi to do research as I write, so I can’t go off line. But there are other ways to unplug.
Sometimes it’s about picking your battles. If there is a particular platform that stresses you out, avoid it (see #1). But to deny yourself a peek at something you like, whether it’s Instagram or Twitter, the latest Wordle, or some chat group, is going to feel like prohibition. And when we prohibit something, it actually can take up MORE space in our head, rather than less, as we sit around resisting it.
I often begin my mornings by doing the internet first. I actually have it scheduled into my calendar — between 7–8, I catch up social media. Then, once in my office, I dedicate an hour or so to answering emails and other online duties. Once I start writing, I’m bound to come to natural breaks. I finish a scene, or a section, let’s say. It’s not a bad time to do a quick check — but I do have a rule. I am allowed to check email, but I try not to answer any during the writing time. I let myself peek at Twitter, but I don’t let myself tweet or engage much.
Instead of thinking about it as ‘this, not that,’ think of unplugging as allocating resources. I need the writer juice over here, so no writing emails or long tweet threads right now. You don’t have to unplug from the internet to avoid distraction. You have to control what you do with the plugged-in time. And when you think about it as resource management, it’s a lot easier.
STEP 3: Define your terms
rou·tine; /ro͞oˈtēn/: a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program (according to Oxford Languages, anyway.) One error we all make when trying to make a new routine is forgetting that we already have one. Ever try to follow up on a New Year resolution that stands cross-ways to your usual way of doing things? I am happy to work out more. But I’m silly for thinking I’ll get up a 6am to do it when I normally stay in bed till 7:30.
What is your routine now? Write it up and be honest. Take a look at the sequence of actions you follow regularly; where in that routine, would writing make the most sense? Given #1 and #2, ask yourself: when am I at my most calm? and at what point in the day do I need to have social media/email/plugged in time? Don’t establish a brand new routine to write. Put writing into your routine. Again, like going to the gym, it’ll stick if it works with the life you already live.
STEP 4: Choose your tools
One of the problems I have with giving (and receiving) writing advice comes down to the absolutely individual and unique way everyone goes about it. It’s like assuming all mammals are going to need the same advice about child-rearing; the platypus and giraffe are just not going to be on the same page. So I am calling this ‘choose your tools.’ I don’t necessarily mean pens, pencils, and PCs, though that’s part of it. I really mean finding your own comfort zone as a writer.
To make this a little easier to visualize, let’s consider a portrait artist. You could make a portrait lots of ways; a camera lens, paint brushes, oil crayons, ink, papier-mâché, clay, bits of glass, glitter — car parts, old rags, animal bones. An artist always has a favorite medium; in fact, we usually have several. But! A fun trick to remember is how we rank the tools. Let’s say out portrait artist is an oil painter. But they love to doodle with ink pens. The artist will think of the oil paints as quite serious and the ink pen doodling as a fun thing to do while on long phone calls.
Technically either can be serious, or not, of course. But the artist will perhaps put more pressure on themselves in oil — and just enjoy the doodling. Remember #1? If you find you can’t focus on your writing, or struggle to make yourself return to it as a routine, it might be due to the pressure of your medium. I knew someone* who used to be terrified of a blank computer Word document page. They couldn’t practice ideas there. But if you gave her a lined notepad and some colored pens? She could write for hours.
Choose your tools not just with an eye toward what you are most comfortable with, but also with an eye toward discovery. We are more like to ‘play’ (and play leads to growth) when we aren’t taking ourselves too seriously. Get stuck during your writing hour? Switch mediums. See what you find.
STEP 5: Relax
“Brandy, you did that one.”
Yes, but it’s the hardest one to do — much harder, in its way, than building a writing routine in the first place. So I wanted to end with some ways to start building safe spaces for yourself as an author.
Place and position matter. You will want to find a physical space to work that pleases you. It may not be the big desk and chair (perhaps there is too much pressure there, or it reminds you too much of work). Maybe the dining table. Maybe your lap as you sit on the sofa. Where do you feel relaxed, safe, comfortable. Choose that as your area, and try to return to it consistently. We are embodied creatures, full of muscle memory and complex brain-body wiring. I know when I sit in my ‘writing chair,’ my body sort of turns on the writing vibe.
Personal feels matter. Have you had the WORST day? Go binge on Netflix and eat chocolate. We all have an inner self-critic, and if you are already in a rough place, the worst of that critic may come out. Don’t let that contaminate your safe writing spaces; better to take a day off.
Know when to share, and with whom. If you know you are sensitive writer, tell your readers that! You are allowed to say “right now, I just want to hear about what is working.” You will have to get to a place of comfort with criticism, but if you are still trying to give birth to an idea, it’s all right to say so. I make four categories: 1. the sympathetic hearing (love me!) 2. the what’s working draft (what did I get right) 3. the what isn’t working draft (what did I get wrong) 4. BE RUTHLESS (I want to publish this and I need a hard edit). Sometimes a reader can do more than one of these, but you both have to set clear boundaries.
Be kind to yourself. I’m terrible at this. But we can all get better. The best way to write, and to keep on writing, is to make sure the process brings you joy.