How to Create a Regular Writing Habit
Kevin T. Johns is an author, podcaster, writing coach, and ghostwriter residing in Ottawa, Canada. He has published five books, ghostwritten several more, and helped hundreds of writers from around the world get their ideas out of their heads, onto the page, and into readers hands.
Near the beginning of my career as a writing coach, I thought I would be mostly be teaching writing craft. What I found is that the majority of what I'm doing is supporting people in the development of their plans and their writing habit — helping them to stick to their schedule and providing some accountability.
If you are not making the progress that you want to make in your writing, there's probably two major reasons for that:
You don't have any stakes. Because there is nothing at stake, you don't do the work. And because you don't do the work, you don't achieve your goals.
There's no accountability in place to keep you on track towards achieving your goal. We're going to talk about it because that's part of creating a regular writing habit, is building stakes and having those things in place to keep you on track.
You just haven't made writing a habit yet. It's not ingrained into you the way other habits are.
These two factors are the biggest things preventing writers from achieving their goals. I work with writers every day and the things that I see time and time again are no stakes and a lack of habit formation.
Writing habit formation
We want to reach a point where writing comes as easily as brushing our teeth: you don't need to get motivated to brush your teeth. You don't get jazzed-up or wait for the muse to inspire you before you brush your teeth every night and morning — you just do it because it's become a regular habit. That's the stage we want to get to with our writing.
I write nearly every day whether I'm doing freelance writing or working on a novel or ghostwriting for someone and I'm rarely ever enthused about it. I love the work that I do, but I don't need the muse to inspire me to do it because it's part of my daily ritual. It's part of my daily habit.
Most of the time, I approach my writing in the way that we call "going pro." That means not waiting until everything is perfect, not waiting until the kids are in bed, and the dishes are done, and the moon has aligned, and everything in your life is perfect before you write. Going pro means scheduling your writing — doing it on a regular basis whether you feel like it or not. That's one of the big differences between a hobbyist and a pro. A pro gets the writing done no matter what.
NNWT: Non-Negotiable Writing Time
This is the time that you schedule into your life for uninterrupted writing. You're not waiting until you're inspired, or you're waiting until the kids are in bed. It means writing from 7 in the morning three days a week or over lunch hour five days a week at work. You won’t be going to the movies or joining your friends for dinner during these times. It is a part of your life, and you are going to guard it as sacred time and space. Because if you don't, that time is going to evaporate.
Life never plays out the way we expect. Things never align perfectly, and if we're going to wait for those moments to do our writing, we're never going to achieve our goals of writing something like, say, a novel or a big project where you're going to need to put in hours and hours and effort. You need to protect to protect that non-negotiable writing time and how you protect it is our next topic.
Non-negotiable writing time isn't saying, "Oh, I'm going to write two days this week probably if things free up." Schedule Non-negotiable writing time into your calendar. You get out your iPhone, and you add it there. Write it up on that old-fashioned paper calendar hanging on the wall. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but it's there in your schedule so that everyone in your life, included you, knows what you're going to be doing during that block of time. That's how you build a writing habit.
No ‘Two in a Row’
There are a lot of things we can take from the world of fitness and apply to writing and productivity. One thing I love is the “Two in a Row” rule.
If you have a fitness regime, you’re going to miss a workout here and there. If you're trying to go to the gym three or four days a week, once in awhile the car is going to get a flat tire or there's going to be a storm. Whatever. Something happens, and you miss an exercise session. The two in row rule says, "Don't miss two sessions in a row." It applies to writing and non-negotiable writing time just as much as it goes for getting your butt to the gym.
The problem is, if you start to miss more than one day in a row, you're developing a new habit. The idea with scheduling Non-Negotiable Writing Time is to create a regular writing habit. We’re looking to build that neural circuitry where your brain can easily switch over into ”writing mode.” You need time and effort to create that type of habit. We all miss things once in awhile but don't miss two in a row
Word Count Goals
An excellent way to keep track of your progress — making sure you're moving in the right direction — is to use word count goals. With word count goals, you're not saying, "Oh, I'm going to write whatever I feel like today." You say to yourself, "every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I'm going to write a thousand words." That way, you keep your butt in that chair until you have that word count down.
How you determine your word count is dependent on a lot of things. It depends, for example, on how many words you can get written to say in an hour. It's dependent on what the project is, as well as your intended timeline.
Creating a timeline
Using a simple mathematical formula, you guys can figure out what your regular word count goal should be.
Let's say you want to write a 50,000-word novel in 90 days — this works out to 555 words a day over 90 days. Now, maybe you don't want to write every single day. In fact, I usually don't recommend it. 555 words a day works out to 3,385 words a week. If you've already decided that your non-negotiable writing time is three days a week (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays from 7 am to 8 am) you know you need to write 1,300 words in those three sessions to achieve my goal of writing a 50,000-word book in 90 days.
The point is, you need to identify your daily word count. Having that goal makes it simpler to keep track of your pace. Instead of telling your friends, "Oh, I'm working on a book that I hope will be finished sometime next year," you can say, "I'm working on a book; I'm 20,000 words in and it's going to be completed at 60,000 words next August."
You need some way of knowing whether things are on track or not. If you're not tracking your progress, it's easy to fall off course. Before you know it, two months have gone by, and you haven't made any progress on your novel.
Obviously, especially with an author who doesn't have a contract yet, your deadlines that you create in your word count goals and your estimates for how long your book is going to be are all just that estimates. It's better to have an estimate in place to know the general direction that you're going instead of just sitting down and writing and having no clear path to where you're going.
Tracking your Hours
Working to a word count is pretty valuable for a first draft. That’s the phase where you're just trying to get ideas out of your head down onto the page. When you start moving into the revision phase, you will want to shift over to tracking how many hours work. After all, you might work two hours on a chapter and cut it by 50 words, probably improving it significantly — you'll want to track that you're moving forwards, not backward. Tracking your hours isn't going to make your book better or worse, but it's going to make you a better writer because it's going to help you stay focused on achieving your goals.
Planning isn’t writing
Even if you don't consider yourself a planner, I still think you should at least do something like brainstorming before you start writing.
Let’s say you’re writing a blog post on the topic of ‘success.’ Before you start typing, do a little mind map — a quick brainstorm — about what success means to you. It could be just a few key ideas: respect, fame, and satisfaction. With a little free association, you’ve now got three potential chapters for a book or paragraphs for a blog post about success: respect, fame, satisfaction
The idea is that when you do a bit of thinking beforehand — when you put your butt in the chair to do your writing session — you need to be writing and not thinking. We're trying to get away from that thinking phase. When you come to write, you must be putting words on paper, and for that to happen, you need at least a general sense of where we're going.
Research isn’t writing either
Something I would highly recommend is to segment out your research. It's so, so easy to use research as an excuse not to write.
Writers all know writing is the most difficult part of the process. Doing research relevant to your project is a simple way to justify procrastination to yourself. Yes, some articles need research. Yes, some novels require a lot of background investigation, but that must be its own contained thing. It can't be something that sneaks into the middle of the drafting process.
Your ‘Left Brain’ and ‘Right Brain’
There's this quasi-scientific theme behind all of this habit formation stuff: it’s about making connections in our brains. There's a school of thought that our left brain is more focused and logical, while our right brain is the creative, wild, and exciting part. As authors, I like to believe we're using both of those.
If you are telling a coherent story that makes sense, grips people's attention and moves them, you will be going back and forth between those two brains. I think maybe, on a metaphorical level, we can say that our right brain stuff — our creative time — is anything to do with brainstorming, research, plotting, and outlining. Once you have finished all the prep, it's time for the left brain to kick into action with all the worker bee stuff. That means getting the words onto paper.
I recommend you be conscious about what phase, or which brain, you are in. Are you doing that creative thinking, or are you getting the words on the page and telling the story?
Something else that you can look at regarding being productive in those non-negotiable writing times is just the environment in which you're doing your writing. Some people write well in a coffee shop; they get off on the noise and the excitement and people coming around. For other people, that's an entirely distracting environment, and they want to be at home where they can shut the doors and focus and get their work done.
The point is to know what works for you: know where you get your best work done and try to schedule your writing times around those environments.
Think about other elements you can control within those environments. Think about is the temperature of the room that you're in. If you're at home and you do have some control over that, we tend to be more focused, more productive in a cooler environment. If things are nice and warm, you want to relax and take a little nap. You don't want to be writing in a super-warm, comfortable environment.
Make sure that you have drinks to hand, whether that's tea, coffee, or water. You want to keep those refreshments with you so that you're not interrupting your flow to grab a drink.
You also want to eat real food, not highly processed, high sugar carbohydrate junk food. You want meats, vegetables, fruit, the things that nourish your body.
You might be writing in your lunch hour at work. Even if you can't change the temperature or silence the loud person in the cubicle next to you, there are still some things you can manage. Things like music. Some people find music useful for drumming out the world and focusing in on the writing.
Music to write books by
Maybe the only time you have to write is on your lunch hour at work. If that's the case, you might find it hard to control the temperature of your environment and keep a coffee urn next to you. However, there are still things you can control — like the background noise.
Some people like to write while listening to songs with actual words and lyrics, but what I would recommend is just go to YouTube and type in "study music" or "alpha brainwave music." There's this whole genre of droning New Age music that I find useful for stimulating the brain and turn out off the world and get to writing.
Stay off the internet
Here's a tough one Most of you probably aren't going to do this, but maybe some of you have the discipline. During your non-negotiable writing time, the biggest distraction is going to be the Internet. You're going to want to check your email, Facebook, Twitter. All of that is going to try to pull you away from your writing.
You can disconnect your Wi-Fi during your writing time, or use a program like Freedom that will cut off your internet during a certain. Whichever way you can, just do it. You're going to stick to your writing habit easier without the distraction of the Internet.
I think too many writers just sit down and go straight into their manuscript, but our bodies and our minds need to time to get into the groove — the same way that hockey players have to warm up before a game.
Something I recommend is starting with some free-writing. Just do five minutes of jotting down anything in a notebook just to get ideas out of your head. Then try transitioning into some journaling. Instead of going just from whatever pops out of your skull, do something organized. That can be a productivity journal, a gratitude journal, or just a diary of what you're thinking about in your life right now. It's just a way to transition from your "getting words on a page" frame-of-mind and into more organized thinking. Then out of that journaling, transition into your writing. Give yourself time to warm up.
Give yourself a break
If you're one of those writers who likes to do long writing sessions, you need to think about scheduling conscious breaks. You may have heard of the Pomodoro Technique, which suggests 25 minutes of work, followed by a five-minute break. It's just to give your body the opportunity to move around, to stretch, to get you out your head before you come back to your work, refreshed. I know sometimes we don't want to break our flow, but by staying in the zone for too long, we can find ourselves exhausted or drained at the end of a session —which you don't want. You want to be kind to yourself, keep yourself energized, motivated and feeling good. Schedule in those breaks.
Making your sessions productive
We're now going to look at sticking to your plan. Once you've established your goals, how can you make sure you achieve them? One method is called Visual Representations of Success, and it's to be different for everyone. It might mean putting a check mark on a calendar every time you write or updating a sheet where you're tracking your word count. Some writers print out what they wrote that day and add it to a stack. It's a visual marker that will show you the success and the progress that you're making.
The point is that as authors, especially novelists or people working on long-form books, we work for a very long time without reward or feedback. You have to reward yourself. You have to be the one to congratulate yourself on sticking to your goals and making progress. There's a great endorphin rush that comes from checking something off on the calendar and putting a sticker on a thing.
Another thing that's going to be hugely helpful is deadlines: knowing when you are going to finish something. For most first-time novelists (including myself), it can take years to write the first book — often because we haven't set a deadline for ourselves. We're just writing into the wilderness and finding our way along, and that's not the most productive way to get your writing done.
Very often, this means getting an accountability buddy: another writer that you touch base with on a regular basis. It could be a writing coach like myself — someone you've hired to work with you and to keep you on track — or a writing group. I have a group coaching program where almost a dozen writers support one another.
The reality is, it's easy to make excuses to ourselves. It's easy to tell yourself, "Kevin, you worked hard today. You don't need to do any writing." But by getting on the phone with a coach or to go to a writing group and say, "Guys, I didn't do what I said I was going to do," you can find a good way to keep you on track.
Don't Stop Believing
We run into many challenges and roadblocks on the path to success. You've got to believe in yourself and dedicate yourself to achieving your goals because you can do it. Writing a book is a big project — an incredible challenge — but it's not that hard. You can do it if you stick with it. If you keep coming to these Reedsy Live presentations, keep seeking out mentors and communities of authors, you're going to learn the things that you need to find success in your writing journey.
Learn more about the techniques used by authors to create an unbreakable writing habit. Take Reedsy' free 10-part course titled, "How to Stop Procrastinating and Build a Solid Writing Routine." Also, find out more about Kevin T. Johns by checking out his Reedsy profile or heading over to his website, where you can find out more about his latest novel, M School.
What challenges do you face when trying to schedule your Non-Negotiable Writing Time? Leave your thoughts and any questions you have for Kevin in the comments below.