How to...build healthy writing habits
Updated: Nov 3
So you've come up with an idea for a novel, or the next big blog, or a blockbuster of a screenplay. You're burning with enthusiasm and passion. Now, you just have to write the thing.
Perhaps the kids are at school. Or you've finished work for the day. But, you finally have that quiet time you need to focus and bash out pages and pages of bloody brilliant writing.
Or do you?
If you’re anything like me, you start writing with the best of intentions. Maybe, you even had that holy grail - the plan. Only, weeks later you're still laughably far from the midpoint of your narrative. Those clunky paragraphs are glaring holes into your wee writer’s soul. The blinking carat on the screen is definitely mocking you. You will find a name for that character later. You will.
Here’s the thing: writing is hard. There are tons of stellar resources out there to help you, and some incredibly supportive writing communities. However, none of that will get you over that finish line unless you work on the fundamentals: sustainable, do-able writing habits.
So, here are 5 top tips to help you build that writing habit.
1. Know when you’re productive
When do you feel that burst of inspiration? First thing in the morning? After the daily injection of caffeine? Knowing when you’re productive is an important tool for any writer.
This one takes a bit of leg work. If you’re not sure when your golden hour is, you’ll need to log it. Look at the dates on your digital files - is there a pattern? Scribble the times on pieces of paper. If you're feeling fancy, get funky with a spreadsheet. There are a ton of free templates online.
Personally, I love Toggl Track. It's a free time management tool, which lets you track how much time you spend on projects. You can add all kinds of tags and descriptions, group your projects, and so forth. It's simple, whilst giving you a lot of control over how to track your time.
Once you’ve figured out when you get the most writing done, make this a deliberate part of your routine. It doesn't matter whether writing is a hobby, or you're a bona fide professional. When that time hits, make sure you’re in your space with hands poised above the keyboard (or pen above the paper),
Use your golden hour to work through bigger block of writing or those particularly tricky passages that have been plaguing you for weeks. Not only will you be more focused, but you'll have a dedicated time for working on those projects. Meaning you won't scream into the void because if you have to look at it one more time - No? Just me? Well. Moving on.
Save your less productive time for planning, research, and those writing projects that flow from pen to page.
2. Mindset over space?
COVID-19 hasn’t been kind to anyone. Our workspace has changed. Our home environment has changed. Our mindsets have changed. 'Space' is transient and multi-purpose and this can be a very difficult relationship to manage. One study in Canada found that between 35% and 44% of parents have struggled with their mental health, including alcoholism, stress and depression.
We’ve moved from being productive in a dedicated space like an office, to our homes. Being at home already comes with a whole host of distractions. Working from home encroaches on the rest and relaxation we’re supposed to find there. How many of us find it harder than ever to switch off and draw the line between work time and home time?
I don’t think it’s about having an office or a special place, necessarily. It is important to turn your back on work at the end of the day, and closing the door on a physical space is a good way to do this. But many of us don’t have that spare room, or empty corner, or breakfast bar in the kitchen. So, what do we do?
We get into the right mindset. Perhaps this means putting on a playlist? The Pride and Prejudice (2005) soundtrack is a personal favourite of mine. Or maybe you like the background noise in your garden? Or the sounds of the street drifting in through your open window? The dull thrum of traffic. The sounds of nature. The white noise of the wind. Our coffee shop soundtrack when we can’t get to the coffee shop, right?
Or maybe you need to cast your eye over something whilst you mull over the next point in your writing. If you’re sick of people watching out of your own window, try someone else's. WindowSwap lets you do just that.
When you know how to get in that lovely, quiet place that helps you focus on your writing, you can write anywhere. Personally, I’ve found putting too much emphasis on space makes me write far less. That book is sitting at a funny angle - so I’ll just straighten it. Hmm. This whole corner of the room is a little cluttered, so I’ll spend the day clearing it and I’ll be more productive! Ha. Sure. Only next thing I know, it’s been a week and I’ve barely written 500 words.
3. Get your little black book
Or green book, in my case. This is by far the best investment I’ve ever made as a writer.
We know when our golden hour is, right? But we never know when inspiration will strike.
I carry an A5 ring binder full of scrap paper (which I ruthlessly scrounge from others) with me wherever I go. To my day job? Yup. My bedside table? Aye. My suitcase when I go on trips? Definitely.
This little book is there to scribble ideas, thoughts, even the odd excerpt or two. We never know when the perfect line or plot point, or slogan might pop into our head - so have that refillable book on hand to take a note of it. The Ethical Market has a lovely selection - sustainably sourced, eco-friendly inks, and handmade? What's not to love.
4. Do your writing exercises
Lots of people think writers simply put pen to paper, and just…go. Wouldn’t that be grand? I’d have a veritable library of books to my name if that were the case.
The fact is, writing takes stamina. Novels take more stamina than most other forms of writing. You build worlds, breathe life into characters, plot, and plot, and plot. You draft and redraft. Cut sections out, put them back, put them somewhere else, then end up right where you started.
Folks. Being a writer is fucking exhausting.
So, we need to limber up. We need to exercise and keep ourselves writing fit. But how?
The warm up:
Free writing is an excellent exercise. You don't think about it. you don't plan. There's no scratching things out. No pondering over word choice. It’s ten minutes of writing and nothing but writing. Do it before you begin work. It can be your intentions for the day, or what you want to achieve. It could be absolute nonsense and not related to anything. No one's going to see it. Just don't stop. Free writing shakes off those cobwebs for the writing day ahead of you.
The Writing Scientist has a brilliant blog post dedicated to free writing for anyone looking to get started.
Write 50 word prompts to get better at writing. A novel is a massive undertaking, but writers need to be concise and to the point, too. It gives writing variety, keeps readers engaged, and creates a hell of an impact when used at the right time. A 50 word prompt, or flash fiction, is a really good way to test your skills as a writer. How on earth can you write a narrative arc with a plot and a conclusion in 50 words? It's harder than you think. MasterClass have a handy 7 step guide.
Thankfully, there are loads of places you can find prompt lists and even a competition or two. Christopher Fielden has a really comprehensive list you can use to get started.
Writers can be their own worst enemy. I’m writing from experience, here. Are you a perfectionist - loathe to put pen to paper unless it’s absolutely perfect? Until it has rhythm and flow, and perfectly encapsulating the core message of your writing with clever imagery?
To build healthy writing habits, you need to write. And yes, it’s going to be rubbish to start with, but it’ll never get better unless you put something to paper. Or screen. Or whatever your medium. The adage that you can’t edit something until it’s written might be a cliché, but it’s been one of the truest pieces of advice I’ve ever been given.
Seriously. Write that on your white board. Blow it up and print it on a poster in your writing space. Repeat it like a mantra in your head.
Get the words out of your head first, then edit them later. Or hire an editor. There’s loads good ones. (Like me. I’m winking very subtly over here, I’ll have you know).
So there you go! My tips for building do-able, sustainable writing habits:
Know when to write.
Prioritise mindset over space.
Never be without a wee notebook.
And get out of your head, and just write.