Just Write Every Day Of Your Life
How to develop a daily writing habit, and why you should.
When I was ten-years-old children’s author Tomie dePaola came to Kettering Elementary School for an author visit. I remember sitting somewhere in the middle of the auditorium, feeling the world shift.
This man, who looked like anyone’s grandpa. This regular old man was a writer. It was the first time I made a connection between books and the people who wrote them.
He said something about The Trump of the Swan. I don’t remember quite what, but for a long time, I thought he wrote it. I was an adult before I realized it wasn’t E. B. White that came to my school that day.
Memories from when you are ten are sketchy sometimes.
It wasn’t until I was a mother and I came across a Strega Nona book that I really remembered. It was Tomie dePaola that first made me realize that real people write books.
And it was Tomie dePaola that sparked the idea of a writing habit in me.
He talked about how he wrote every day on a yellow legal pad with a Sharpie marker. So did I, for a long, long time.
I’m pretty sure I’ve written every single day since then. Consciously, I’ve had a daily fiction writing habit every day since I wrote my first novel during Nanowrimo in 2004.
The goal for that habit has shifted some. But I’ve written every day since then. Even when there was a whole year between the failure of my first published books and the start of my MFA program when I barely managed my bare minimum.
I often think about that as the year I didn’t write. But I did. I did write. Not much, but enough to keep me moving very slowly forward.
Daily writing might sound daunting. Maybe it seems like such a huge commitment that it’s keeping you from writing at all. I get that. But even so, a daily writing habit is a good idea.
Really, it’s a career-making idea.
And it doesn’t have to be daunting. Stick with me here.
Don’t take my word for it.
Ray Bradbury said:
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.
Stephen King said:
The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddam birthday anyway.)
Ernest Hemingway said:
I write every morning.
Khaled Hosseini said:
You have to write whether you feel like it or not.
Now for the good news.
You don’t have to write for hours every day of your life.
You just have to pick up your pen or put your fingers to your keyboard and exercise your writing muscles a little every day.
Set a teeny, tiny daily goal for yourself — something so small that it’s psychologically harder to skip it than it is to just do it. For me that goal has been writing ten minutes of new fiction (editing doesn’t count) for a very long time.
It never changes.
I’m a full-time writer. Obviously, most days I write for more than ten minutes. My teeny tiny goal isn’t a maximum. I don’t set a timer and then stop mid-sentence. It’s a minimum.
Really, my teeny tiny writing goal’s purpose is just one word. The first word.
It gets me over the hump between not writing and writing.
Some days, I get to ten minutes and I stop. That’s all I can do, and I barely can do that. Some days it’s hard. And sometimes the hard days stretch into weeks or, rarely, even months.
The only thing that makes me write for ten minutes those days is not wanting to break my chain.
On those days, I might stare at a blank page for nine minutes and then write a sentence.
It still counts. Full credit. Gold star on my calendar.
But most days ten minutes turns into more. I might write on a new story for an hour or two.
Occasionally, especially when I’m in the thick of starting a new story or I’m rounding the final bend on one that’s almost done, once I get started, I can’t stop.
On those days, I sometimes have to pry myself away from writing to do normal human things like eat or sleep.
I could probably shift my daily writing goal to something bigger. Half an hour, maybe. Or 500 words. It actually was 500 words for a long time. The problem was that if I didn’t think I could write 500 words on a day, I wouldn’t write anything.
If I was sick. Or busy. Or caught up in some family drama. Or whatever. Anything. I wouldn’t cut back to writing 100 words. Or for ten minutes. I’d just skip it.
And skipping it is a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you haven’t written for a week. Or a month. And then getting back to it requires figuring out how to get back into the story you haven’t looked at for a while.
That way lies writer’s block and unfinished manuscripts.
You have plenty of daily habits. You don’t only brush your teeth when you have time, or tell yourself you’ll make your kids lunch as long as you’re not too busy with something else. You don’t
There’s no need to get fancy.
I know a lot of writers. I know even more people who want to be writers.
A writing habit is the difference between the two.
And, happily, there isn’t any need to get fancy about it. You don’t have to have a special writing space (although that’s a nice thing to have.) You don’t have to write at the same time every day (although, if that helps, go for it most of the time.)
All you have to do is make the decision to write in every 24-hour period for whatever small amount of time shifts you into the mindset that it’s easier to do it than to skip it.
Really, the fewer artificial boundaries the better. So what if sometimes your ten minutes happen as you scribble in a notebook in between clients at work or typing on your laptop while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil or in the last ten minutes before you cork off for the night.
If you train yourself to only be able to write at a certain place, at a certain time, under certain circumstances, with certain tools, you’re doing yourself a serious disservice. You’re building in the kind of barriers that cause you to believe you can’t write at all.
It’s the habit that matters here, not the quality.
I know. I know. No one wants to produce crap.
But it happens.
Anne Lamott has a great essay about shitty first drafts. You should read it if you never have. And if you have? You should go read it again.
Octavia Bulter said:
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
Jodi Picoult said:
You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.
What I’m saying is that writing something is more important than insisting on writing perfect. If you wait for perfect, you’re going to be waiting a long time.
Most of the time, your writing will be better than you think it is. Sometimes, it will really shine. But other times? Those times you’re going to know that for ten minutes you wrote absolute crap.
And that’s okay. Give yourself your gold star and put it away until tomorrow.
You can have bigger goals, too.
It’s perfectly fine to have more than one writing habit.
Maybe you write until noon on your days off.
Or you one weekend a month you rent a hotel room and hole up to binge on writing. (I want this habit.)
Whatever. That’s okay. That’s awesome even. I am for sure not suggesting that you stop what you’re doing and instead write for ten minutes a day.
What I’m suggesting is that you have a small, underlying goal. If every Wednesday you write from 2 a.m. until the sun comes up — good!
You’ve met your tiny goal.
But if one Wednesday you have the flu and you can’t get out of bed until noon, you’ve still met your goal as long as you manage to scribble something fictional for ten minutes at some point during the day.
You have still met your tiny goal.
The purpose of your tiny goal is to catch you on the days when it’s just not happening. So that you don’t go from 2000 words or two hours or whatever your loftier goal is to . . . nothing.
And so that those nothing days don’t build up into just not writing at all.
How to develop a daily writing habit.
Choose a goal that’s so small, it’s harder to skip it than it is to just do it.
Get a calendar and give yourself a star for every day that you meet your goal. If you don’t like stars, just X off the day.
Don’t break the chain.
You can start with ten minutes. If it works or you — awesome. If you find that you can easily skip ten minutes, make it smaller. Five minutes. One minute. One paragraph. One sentence. Experiment until you find what works for you.
Don’t worry about quality. That’s what editing and revision are for.
Do not put restrictions on your habit. Write where ever, when ever, how ever you can manage it.
If you have another writing habit, it can stand in for your tiny goal on any day. As long as you’re writing new fiction (or a new poem, or new creative non-fiction, or a new blog post . . . whatever your flavor is) it counts.
Give yourself absolute full credit or meeting your tiny goal. This doesn’t work if you say your goal is to write for ten minutes a day, but really you’re a big failure if you write less than 2000 words.
Resources for Building a Daily Writing Habit
Twila Tharp’s The Creative Habit is a must read for every creative. It’s specifically designed to help you develop your habit.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a classic with lots of exercises that will help drive your daily habit.
The Storymatic Classic is my favorite tool for unsticking myself. It never fails me.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.