Thoughts & Ideas

How to Build a Writing Habit

There are a lot of details that go into building a writing habit. But before we start, here’s the reality you’ll need to take to heart. If you want to develop a writing habit, you need to write every day. The quantity, quality, and purpose do not matter. Sitting down, focusing on the blank page before you, and putting words down is what you need to do.

Let’s dive into what I know about my writing process and how I’ve been able to build a writing habit.

Set the stage.

I like writing in silence. This allows me to hear my thoughts and translate them to words on the page. Some soundtracks put me in the creative spirit, anything without lyrics, or oddly enough, Kid A by Radiohead. Mostly I am vigilant in eliminating as many distractions as possible as I come up with ideas. Once I have a direction and the confidence in my abilities has returned, I will sometimes have music playing in the background.

Nothing will kill your writing habit more than obsessively checking email and social media while you are attempting to write. I fail more than I succeed in this area. This will be a life-long challenge as I allow the outside world to go away while I explore my imagination.

Understand the writing process.

Writing is a multi-stage process categorized by genres, styles, purposes, and products. While it’s not necessary to understand everything, it is useful to know a few details about what you are bringing to life. Are you writing fiction or non-fiction? What medium are you writing for? How long will it be? Once you have the answers to these questions, then you can start.

I prefer writing non-fiction as opposed to fiction. I’m usually drafting a blog post, a podcast episode, or an email newsletter with lengths of a few hundred words to less than 5,000 words. Anything more and everything changes (the tools, the intent, the focus, and the deadlines).

Start writing by capturing and shaping ideas.

The simplest way to begin writing is to capture ideas. It could be a single word, a sentence describing a feeling, the juxtaposition of two opposing views, a character, or a setting. I like to capture thoughts in a sketchbook or on a yellow pad. Loose, messy, and free. I’m not bound by any medium or fully-formed end result.

From here, I start smashing ideas together to see if a theme emerges. This usually happens in my mind while I am walking, taking a shower, or spacing out. This is an extremely fruitful part of my process because I get ideas for phrases, titles, and an overall shape to the piece.

From here, you have a choice as you move forward:

  1. Start writing and see where you end up.
  2. Build a rough outline and start filling in all the pieces.

Regardless of your choice, you have to do the work of writing. Start stringing together thoughts and ideas, words, and sentences into a rough draft that communicates ideas through stories, reflection, or analysis. Your words might illuminate or confuse, but don’t worry, it’s only the rough draft. Words change quickly from draft to draft.

Wait, there’s more than one draft? Yes, countless drafts and endless revisions. Wrap your mind around that reality. Writing is not only getting something down on paper, but refining it over and over until it is right.

Why not get it right first? The biggest frustration to any writer is trying to be perfect from the very beginning. Writing becomes more complicated than it already is, and it takes more time. That’s a great way to not develop a writing habit.

Edit your words for simplicity and clarity.

Once you have a draft, now it’s time to go into editing mode. But first, take a break. It could be for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months. Get your mind clear so you can come back to your writing with a hint of objectivity.

The number one goal of editing is to simplify and clarify what you are trying to communicate.

Assuming you are working on a digital device, save a copy of your work before you start making changes. While I don’t always follow this rule, I understand it’s importance. Especially when you are 14 revisions in, and you realize you really love how you wrote chapter two in the second revision.

Editing is a different skill than writing. It requires various tools and a new set of eyes. Have a trusted source you can send your work to for feedback. It helps to give your trusted source direction on the type of feedback you would like from them.

Designing == Writing.

Once the editing is done, now you get to design and polish your ideas in their final format. Whether you are producing an ebook, a printed manuscript, a blog, an email newsletter, a podcast, or an audiobook, you will edit and refine your writing even more.

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed in the writing process: viewing your work in context reveals additional errors and misunderstandings. The more you can see your work in the final typeface or design, the more you can anticipate future problems.

Know what medium you’re writing in.

Every week I’m writing in a variety of styles. I journal my thoughts every morning. I also write email newsletters and podcast episodes, draft emails and other forms of communication, and piece together long-form content for guides and courses.

Whether you are writing an email, a blog post, a podcast episode, a feature film, a short story, or a novel, the structure of the medium often fuels your decisions. On top of that, there are three different interpretations of that structure that either propel you forward or hold you back: 1) The standards set by gatekeepers and professionals, 2) your creative understanding of those structures and rules, and 3) what an audience wants.

The more I write, the less interested I become in what the standards are. I have become obsessed with my own interpretations and how the audience responds. But be prepared to experiment and see what resonates with yourself and others.

Set deadlines and release schedules that work for you.

Let’s start with deadlines, they are an absolute necessity for any writer. Over time I’ve realized an important reality: there is a difference between having one and being committed to it.

If I don’t take a deadline seriously, I’m not committed to it. I’ll make half-hearted attempts. I’ll let the dissonance between my imagination and reality stop me from starting, let alone finishing.

Where deadlines usually fall apart is when I don’t have an idea of what to write, no process of discovery, no clue of the structure of the finished piece. If I don’t know what an appropriate deadline should be, I arbitrarily pick and date and see what happens.

Another important lesson about deadlines: learn what keeps you motivated and design your deadlines with that knowledge. For me, whatever is in my calendar is what gets done. I make sure deadlines are in my schedule so I can see them in my weekly planning sessions.

Writing on an iterative release schedule.

Nothing will impact your writing ability more than a commitment to writing on an iterative release schedule. Whether you release a daily blog, a weekly email newsletter, or a bi-weekly podcast episode, sticking to a release schedule refines your craft over time.

The frequency of your commitment should be an attainable challenge. If you’ve never written on a schedule before, you are more likely to succeed in writing monthly or every other week. Pick a time-frequency, build your habit of writing and releasing, then up your commitment.

How you think determines what you do.

In writing, as well as any other creative endeavor, your mindset is everything. As you build your writing habit, ten essential characteristics will guide you from aspiring author to prolific producer.

1: A spirit of curiosity and discovery will motivate you through the bleakest of days. Some days you’ll find the words flowing through you as if you were inspired by the Muses. Other days it will be a slog through a slough. Get curious about what you could discover about your imagination, characters, and their world.

2: Your identity as a writer is less important than actually writing. I don’t consider myself a writer even though the majority of my work is writing. Don’t worry about the title, just do the task at hand.

3: Stop comparing your half-finished works with what other writers publish. This is the cardinal rule of any creative profession. Comparison is a destructive force. There is a time to use it, but not when establishing your writing habit.

4: Spend time every day, letting your mind wander in search of thoughts, ideas, feelings, and stories. In The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life, Dr. Tara Swart writes about a function of the brain called the default mode network. This is the area of your brain that works in the background when you aren’t working. When we wander, relax, and do things unrelated to our task at hand, the default mode network works on our behalf. That’s where the moment of inspiration comes from. Trying to remember the name of a song? Stop forcing yourself to remember and go do something else.

5: Develop a list of topics that you would love to write about for a long time. This recommendation comes from The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight to Impact + Wealth by David C. Baker.

6: Set daily writing goals and increase them over time. A lot of advice for new writers focus on page counts. In a recent interview, author Ellie Alexander shared her daily writing goal: 2,000 words. Set goals that make sense for you.

7: Write for a purpose. Whether you just want to have fun, write the next ground-breaking novel, or promote your latest product, take time to understand your motivation for writing. It will help you to fill the blank page with your thoughts, refine them, and share them with the world.

8: Introduce gamification into your writing process. Jerry Seinfeld bought a giant calendar and put an X through the day once he was done writing. The game was to not break the chain of X’s. I’ve added gamification to my writing process by trying to score 100% in Grammarly or a green light on my post in WordPress. How can you turn your writing into a game?

9: Never stop capturing ideas. Everything is useful. What doesn’t work today will eventually fill-in-the-blank in a future project.

10: Treat writing like a job and a hobby. Show up to your writing desk with intent and purpose every day, just like your day job. But a hobbyist mindset is helpful as well. Get obsessed, flirt with the muse, daydream, and pretend your writing will change the world. Most importantly, have fun.

Treat writing tools like a marriage, not a one-night stand.

There are endless writing tools and apps out there. You could spend all of your time trying to find the best tools possible and never write a single word. Spend some time to find the tools that unlock your creativity and make writing fun. Here are the tools I use and how I use them:

  • 8.5″ x 11″ Yellow Pad. This is how I capture my notes and ideas during business meetings, interviews, and work.
  • Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine Rolling Ball Pen. I love this pen. The right amount of line thickness and weight.
  • Strathmore 9″ x 12″ Sketchbook. The 60 lb. paper is a staple for my journals and daily collection of ideas and quotes from reading.
  • iA Writer. This app, combined with Markdown, a shorthand for quickly providing style and hierarchy to your documents, is where I do most of my work. I can also organize files and folders based upon my different projects. The program is light-weight and fast.
  • Microsoft Word. If iA Writer is light-weight and fast, Word feels heavy and formal to me. If I need to quickly add formatting or send a formal document to a client for revisions or feedback, I’ll often use Word.
  • Google Docs. Google Docs is essentially an online version of Microsoft Word with one massive difference: you can collaborate in real-time with other writers.
  • Grammarly. A tool that not only checks spelling and grammar, but ensures you’re writing in a style that is clear and direct.
  • Adobe InDesign. The software I use to design and publish my ebooks.
  • WordPress. The blogging platform I have used since 2008. I use the Classic Editor as opposed to the Block Editor.
  • ConvertKit. An online platform for building a mailing list and sending email newsletters.
  • Scrivener. I’m exploring Scrivener for long-form writing projects. It not only allows you to organize your work, but also stores your research in the same file.

There is so much more I could say about writing habits, but I’ll end with this: start writing every day before you think you’re ready. You’ll never be fully prepared for what will satisfy your mind.

What are you waiting for?