Quite often, when I tell a stranger what I do, they follow up with something to the effect of “I wish I was a better writer” or “What I wouldn’t give to be able to write.”
The truth is, there are few shortcuts in this business. That’s because much of improving your writing has to do with writing more. It’s like running. You’re probably not going to become an Olympic marathoner if you only run once or twice a month or even a week.
To become really accomplished at something, you must practice it on a regular basis. Yes, I’m talking about writing daily or almost daily. If you want to jumpstart your writing, you need to create a writing habit.
If you’re not already writing every day, I suggest you start building this new habit by taking baby steps — otherwise it won’t be sustainable. Think about weight loss. You may see someone who lost 50 pounds and you think, “Hey, I want to do that — by Thanksgiving!” So, you cut everything out of your diet but water and lettuce and you exercise three times a day. Within a week, you will inevitably burn out and eat an entire chocolate cake by yourself.
That’s because the changes you tried to make and the way in which you tried to make them were unrealistic.
If you want writing to become a habit, focus on starting with five minutes per day. Every single person I know has five extra minutes. Deciding you want to begin a new habit is the easy part. Making this habit a reality can be a challenge.
Author James Clear wrote a book called Transform Your Habits, in which he refers to the “Three Rs” of habit building:
You want to write every day. You intend to write every day. But you keep forgetting to do it. That’s where “Remind” comes in. Clear suggests making a list of things you do every single day: Get in the shower, put your shoes on, brush your teeth, sit down for dinner, and so forth.
Once you’ve made your list, identify which of these activities will best serve as a trigger for your writing habit. I take a morning walk every day, rain or shine; the fresh air does my brain some good and I choose to write as soon as I get home. You may decide it works better to have a journal next to your bed and writing first thing in the morning or just before you go to sleep is the ideal time for you. Remember: We’re only talking about five minutes.
The Reminder will get you writing. Then, bam, you’re suddenly at Step 2: “Routine.” By taking the time to write, you are developing a writing routine. Do it today, tomorrow, the next day. A 1960s cosmetic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz wrote a self-help book called Psycho-Cybernetics. In the book he claimed it took 21 days to create a habit. Unfortunately, he made that claim without any scientific testing. Research conducted by a team at the University College London in 2009 suggests that, on average, it takes doing something for 66 consecutive days to make it a habit. Keep at it. Before you know it, you’ll find those five minutes are such an integral part of your day that you’ll feel like something is missing if you skip a day.
Step 3 of this habit-forming process may feel silly, but it’s important because of the ways in which the human brain responds to “Reward.” We all want to keep doing things that make us feel good.
Your reward can be whatever you want. Maybe it’s telling yourself, “Well done.” Or, you can decide to reward yourself with a cup of tea or a bite of chocolate. Maybe it’s as simple as a calendar on your bathroom mirror, where you make hash marks every time you write. Tell yourself that when you collect 20 or 30 hash marks that you’ll buy yourself a new journal or take yourself out for lunch.
The first time you sit down to write, it’s probably going to feel awkward — especially if it’s something you don’t currently do often. But, like running, it will get easier over time. After a while, you’ll find you don’t struggle to think of things to write about. In fact, you’ll start to collect ideas as you go about the rest of your day. You may even decide to stretch those five minutes into 10 or 20.
Baby steps. The important thing is to write.
Not sure what to write about? Here are five-minute prompts to get you through your first week of daily writing:
- Write about one of these firsts: Your first day of school, your first kiss, or your first broken heart.
- Write about a lie you told. Why did you tell it? When was the lie revealed/discovered?
- You’ve been invited to dinner at a famous person’s home. As the meal progresses, it becomes obvious the famous person is trying to kill you. Write the scene
- Write a breakup letter. You can write to a boy/girlfriend, a toxic friend, an annoying neighbor, a bad habit — anything/one you need to break up with.
- Write something — anything — using this as your first line: They had been hiding in the closet for hours.
- Write about your happiest birthday ever. What made it spectacular?
- Describe yourself at age 5. What did you look like? Who were your friends? What did you like to do? What were you afraid of?
Mary Boone is a Tacoma, Wash.,-based writer and editor with a broad base of experience. She headed up communications for a Top Tier Fortune 500 Company, handled media relations for a liberal arts college, and has written more than 40 books for young readers. Check her website at www.boonewrites.com or follow her on Twitter at @boonewrites.