[Note: Download the 4 Essential Writing Habits for quick reference. Keep it on your writing desk to remind you of the essentials whenever you start to stray from the routine.]
Why Do People Struggle to Write?
In the real estate investment community there’s a commonly quoted statistic: only 3% of people ever invest in real estate. And of those 3%, only a small percentage ever buy three or more properties.
I’ve often wondered how many people actually get down to writing. I bet it’s similar to real estate. Only 3% actually write, and of those 3% only 10% write consistently.
Both long term real estate investing and a writing habit have massive benefits, but very few see them through to completion.
Most people never get down to writing because they don’t have the habits for writing success.
There are four simple habits to practice every day:
- Write Daily on a Schedule
- Fill a Quota [but don’t go over]
- Publish on a Schedule
Yes, it’s this easy, and in the rest of the article I’m going to show you how to apply these simple habits to develop a writing practice.
Habit#1: Write Daily on a Schedule
This is the first and most important rule. It doesn’t matter what time of day you write, but you must have a schedule. No schedule = no writing.
Any time of day works, but I’m going to strongly suggest the following:
- Write when you’re at your best – nighttime writing is fruitless for me. My brain is dead by night. This might not fit for you. You might come alive at night. Whatever suits you best, but try to be at your peak mental state when you write.
- Keep it short to start – I’m an ‘all or none’ thinker. So, it took me a while to understand that more is not necessarily better in writing. Short, high intensity bursts are usually more effective than long distracted sessions. When you know you only have an hour a day you will make the most of it.
It’s up to you to choose how you make the habit happen. I can’t prescribe it completely I can only provide guidelines. Nothing is more vital to writing than the daily habit.
Let’s imagine you sit down to write one day and find you are lacking the vital energy required to put words on paper. Do you force yourself to sit there for the time set aside? Or do you chalk it up to a lack of inspiration and come back the next day?
You fucking sit there.
Trust me on this. Writing is hard. You will find a million justifications not to write. It’s like going to the gym. Once you do it you never regret it, but before hand you will find a million reasons not to do it.
So you just create the habit by staying there and trying even if it’s hard at that moment.
Some people say the daily writing time is purely for rough draft writing. Others will say that you can use it for any writing related task.
I will say this: try to spend at least some time every day writing a first draft of something. This keeps the mill of ideas churning.
Most writers love the first draft the most, because it’s the chance to let loose and write automatically. It’s not like those pesky 2nd through 8th drafts, which require hard thinking, making hard decisions, and looking objectively at the product in front of you.
Being objective means seeing our work’s faults. You can’t flow with a first draft while aware of the holes and problems. When writing a first draft all self-criticism must be turned off.
During the first draft you are knocking out the insights and telling great stories [some of which you will later realize are total bullshit].
Drafting and editing require different mental processes, and by doing them both at the same time you never get into a flow in one or the other.
It’s up to you what you do with your writing time, but I suggest you spend at least half of your time writing a first draft of something.
So, you’re going to write every day on a schedule. Great.
The minute you decide is when the resistance will begin.
“If only I could find the time to write,” people say. Of all the reasons people don’t write, this is the most commonly used.
If you find yourself saying this, it means writing isn’t a true priority,
Some very busy people find the time to write. J.K. Rowling famously wrote Harry Potter from busy cafes with her baby sleeping in a carriage beside her [while on welfare]. If you think you have a hard time getting writing just imagine how hard it was for one of the bestselling authors in history.
My friend Kent Bonertz works as an oilfield consultant. This job necessitates him being on the job site for 10 hours every day. How could he find time to write?
He’s figured out a way.
Out on the job site he’s in his vehicle much of the day, so he steals 30-minute blocks of time to write poetry.
Through these stolen moments he has uncovered something incredible: he is a damn good poet.
Not only that, but he also dreamt up a retreat experience while on the jobsite. Now he’s created a retreat business [his dream] to go along with his regular job.
J.K. Rowling and Kent have something in common – they’ve made writing a priority.
Making it a priority will allow you to overcome the objections in our mind.
“I’m too busy.”
“Nobody will care.”
“I’m not a real writer.”
“My grammar sucks.”
None of these will matter when you’ve made writing a priority. If getting half-drunk at the pub every day is a priority, then writing might never happen.
Habit #2: Fill a Quota [but don’t go over]
This is a rule I got from an old school newspaperman [and true wordsmith] from Detroit named Lowell Cauffiel. After spending years in newspaper, Lowell became magazine writer and editor. Then he wrote true crime [including a NYT bestseller], then novels, and now he writes screenplays in Hollywood.
Lowell writes, and he writes well. So, my ears perked up when he mentioned writing to a quota.
To be honest, though, it was counterintuitive. I really had to think about it. In past times I would just try to get as much done as I could.
I decided to ignore my gut and do as Lowell said. After using a quota for a couple of days I finally understood.
Hemingway [as always] says it best:
“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
Hemingway is referring to this thing called our subconscious, that place from which most of our actions and desires arise.
Good writing makes connections between things. Often we can’t see connections consciously.
This is why we don’t employ our logical, critical mind to the first draft — because the subconscious is the seat of all those wonderfully demonstrative stories we like to tell.
The best book, articles, and blogs in any genre always tell a story that speak to deep human needs, wants, and desires. As writers, we need to do more than just speak to a readers’ surface concerns. We need to tap into their ‘why’ and understand their deep beliefs.
To get into the minds of your readers you’ll need to tap into your own subconscious and make hidden connections.
The unconscious is tricky business.
It’s taxing to dig in there, and if you drain it too much in a given day it takes time to replenish. Living life, sleeping, exercising, spending time with people, and doing things you love all replenish the well.
Draining the well on any given writing day can be just as detrimental as not writing at all. We sabotage our efforts by writing too much. Hemingway himself famously spent plenty of time fishing and taking part in other manly pursuits.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Daily effort is the formula.
Before instilling a quota, my output fluctuated every day. I once went so far as to set the insane goal of writing 5000 words per day.
I hit it too!
Other days I’d wake up wanting to do anything but write. On those days I’d struggle to write 100 words. On those days I’d find any excuse to avoid the work.
Housecleaning, Facebook, filing my nails, calling friends, texting. Any distraction was good enough.
Back then I lived by the, “shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll fly far” school of thought. This is bullshit for writers.
Consistency is key.
Every night when you go to sleep, your unconscious cleans itself up. It integrates all the stuff you experienced with your past experiences, your new perceptions, etc. Let your unconscious work for you rather than against you. Set a quota and stop when you get there.
Set a quota.
Fill the quota.
Stay in the chair until it’s full. Resist the amateur temptation to go beyond the quota. Stop when the whistle blows and go replenish your body, mind, and spirit with other good things of the world like family, fitness, cooking, gardening, and reading [especially reading].
Habit #3: Publish on a Schedule
If you ask a kid on Monday to have his bedroom cleaned by Friday at 8 o’clock, he’ll start cleaning on Friday at 7 o’clock and finish up sometime around 8.
This pattern will persist for the rest of his life.
If you have a big report due at work you will be working on it at the last minute.
Did you ever complete an essay, report, or lab assignment well in advance?
I didn’t. Every paper was completed just on time.
I grew up on a farm in Northern Alberta, Canada. Things were always getting done at the last minute. The seeds went in the ground when they needed to go in the ground, not before and not after. The crops were harvested when they needed to be harvested.
Timeliness is a condition of life. Things get done when they need to get done. An economist named Parkinson figured this out somewhere along the way, and now it’s called Parkinson’s Law. The law states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Tasks are completed by necessity only — even creative tasks.
Very few things ever get done without necessity. Yet we cling to this belief that if only we had more time. This is wrong-headed. We will never have enough time.
Unless we have to do something right now, we will put it off.
Most of us don’t have an external force bearing down on us. We don’t work at a newspaper or have a book contract with a major publisher.
Writing is an extension for most of us. It will transform your life and business, but you’ll also survive without writing.
So, before the workday starts or after it ends, most of us conserve energy like hunter-gatherers do between hunts. Dragging our ass to the desk to pound out words is about the most unnatural thing we can do.
Unless we have a deadline.
When we have a deadline, we suddenly find ourselves working on our writing every damn day. We find clarity of focus at our desk that can’t be replicated without a deadline.
With a deadline, you’ll type up a couple hundred words on your lunch break. You’ll carry a notebook with you wherever you go to jot down ideas. You’ll write for an hour after the kids go to bed. You’ll do what it takes.
The world has a way of instilling discipline upon us to live a certain way. If we miss work we get fired. If we don’t take care of clients we lose them.
But, unless we purposely set it up this way the world doesn’t discipline us to write. We have to instill discipline on ourselves.
A publishing schedule is a huge step towards this. We need a deadline. We need to make it so that the lion will devour us if we don’t do it. However, for most of us a deadline to ourselves isn’t enough. We need public accountability.
Publishing schedule + accountability = lion chasing us.
Which brings us to our final habit.
Habit #4: Accountability
Accountability is the glue that holds the other habits together. We humans are notoriously weak at sticking to the promises we make to ourselves. We’re even pretty crap at keeping promises to others if there is no consequence to our not keeping that promise.
Why do you think marriage exists? We need to enter into an ironclad contract to fulfill marital obligations. Marriage is like entering into a lifetime accountability agreement. When you sign on the dotted line and make your vows, you will be held accountable by all of society for the rest of your life.
Cynical Zander would say we need accountability because we’re a bunch of weak-willed babies. Positive Zander thinks the picture is a bit more nuanced than that.
Whatever the case, accountability works.
Remember how we spoke of creating the feeling of being chased by a lion? In theory any deadline should be enough to create that feeling, but self-imposed deadlines have very little, if any power over us.
Accountability works. Get some in your writing life.
My friend, Dave Brett, once made a $1000 bet about losing weight. They both pledged to lose 15 pounds in a 3-month period or they would have to pay $1000.
They both succeeded.
Of course they succeeded. That’s what happens when you have accountability
Studies show the success rate with public accountability is far beyond the success rate of the New Years Resolution method, where nothing is on the line.
Get accountability into your writing practice now and see the change that happens.
[This article was adapted from a short ebook I wrote. Download the entire book here.]
Hey! I’m Zander, and I’ve ghostwritten more than 20 books for major publishing houses and self-publishers. I’m also editor-in-chief of the ManTalks blog. When I’m not writing I help others uncover their own stories through a process I call a “story extraction,” and get writing through my coaching programs. I believe the world turns on powerful, raw, and true stories. Book a call with me [or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org] to uncover your own story and to get writing now.