Serious writers keep a writing schedule — but even the most serious writer has trouble keeping a writing schedule from time to time. (If you don’t think you need a writing schedule, then read my post “Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule.”)
To help you, I’ve written a short (25-page) eBook called 5 Steps to Create and Maintain Your Writing Schedule, which is available for free if you sign up for my newsletter, wherein I reveal the secrets of life and death and time (plus some writing stuff).
Or, alternatively, you can buy it for $7. Your call …
Below, I share a section of the book — on how to establish an effective writing routine.
5 Elements of an Effective Writing Routine
Most writing schedules fail because they are not realistic and the writer becomes discouraged and quits. However, even the best schedule can fail when the routine itself remains flawed.
The most important part of a routine is its existence. The schedule, of course, is the basic element: you write at the same time every day, or the same few times every week. However, it helps to go further and approach each writing session in the same way. The more rigid a routine you have, the better.
Many writers resist establishing a routine. They feel that true creativity can only flow from unfettered process, from creative chaos. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
Literally. Ask one. Dig a few questions deep. You’ll see. Either they actually have a routine, which they don’t recognize, or they only create on occasion, miraculously. Often sporadically. And usually terribly.
There are five basic elements of a strong writing routine:
(1) Triggers (2) Focus (3) Planning (4) Work (5) Organization
Let’s look at each more closely. As an example, I will walk through my writing routine. Yours will differ — but think through each of these elements to see how they might work for you.
Train your brain and body to get into “writing mode” by establishing a set of triggers. You can use any object, action, or environmental cue as a trigger to help you stick to your writing schedule and prime yourself to produce. You have to be as consistent as possible and only associate the trigger with writing.
I use three triggers. One, an alarm on my phone with a specific ringtone (Elvis Costello’s song “Every Day I Write the Book”). Two, the music of the band Agalloch (I listen to the exact same songs, in the exact same order, every time I write — and never listen to this band otherwise). Three, coffee (I only drink coffee on two occasions: when I am writing or after I have written … so it is halfway between a trigger and a reward).
I’ve heard of people putting on a hat or tie to write, or keeping a specific chair they only use to write. Anne Carson has two desks, one for her day job and scholarship and one for her creative writing.
Once my coffee is in hand, I shift my phone to “do not disturb” mode — I have it set so that only calls or texts from my wife and daughter come through. Then I move into Scrivener and shift to full-screen mode. Then I start playing Agalloch — and write.
The problem always is distracting myself. Writing on a computer is a bad idea, really, because computers have evolved into distraction-machines. But I’m not willing to go back to writing by hand, so I just have to be disciplined about this. If you find the computer is killing your will to work and leading you astray, then start writing by hand.
Other people use programs to block themselves from the Internet and so on. I try to cultivate discipline, which requires me to have temptation handy, but I might try one of those programs someday. At minimum, turn off or strip down your various automated alerts and notifications.
Hemingway used to stop writing when he knew he could continue, when he still had the next thing clear in his head (sometimes mid-sentence). I prefer to just spend a few minutes planning, but it amounts to the same thing: developing a clear sense of what you will do before you begin work, rather than flailing.
Sometimes this is just me sipping coffee and thinking, but other times I jot down a few notes by hand on a notebook I keep near the laptop. (I use the same notebook to keep from distracting myself — if I have a random thought like “I gotta email that dude!” or “driveway needs a shovelling” or “You know what would be cool? A rap song about Dostoevsky” then I just jot it down and get back on task.)
When I’m writing fiction or a film script, I spend more time planning. I review my outlines and I sketch out the scene I plan to write next — just hand-write a few story beats with some action or dialogue or random ideas in point form. Planning for a few minutes like this can save you a lot of time in the actual writing session, and boost the amount of writing you are able to get done each time you sit down.
At minimum, you want to decide what to write and maybe how much to write. Perhaps your goal is to write 300 words of your novel. Perhaps you want to edit a poem. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you actually have a plan, rather than just staring at a blank page or screen and freaking out.
I actually plan my writing month in advance, so that when I sit down to write I open up my agenda and see what I’m supposed to be writing. I trust past-me to make the decisions for present-me, because past-me was thinking about the big picture and planning ahead. Present-me gets distracted by pretty lights.
Actually write something. Crazy, right?
The key here is to focus on this part of the routine even if you can’t do anything else. Right now, I’m on the bus — not at home in my office, not drinking coffee, not listening to Agalloch. I was doing all of that stuff, but then I had to go catch a bus. But I didn’t get as many words as I wanted down — I had planned to write 2000 words on this project before I left the house.
Now, I’m on the bus. Still trying to hit those 2000 words. Sometimes, I wake up late, and I don’t even get to start the routine. But I try to focus on doing the work regardless of whether or not I can do the routine.
It helps to trigger the session’s end by cleaning up. Your physical space and your mental space both benefit from organization. Sometimes I set a timer, if I have to be somewhere else or do something else after my allotted writing time. Other times I just quit when I hit whatever target I had planned to hit.
Once I quit, I clear off the space where I was writing. I clean up so that it’s ready for the next day. The last thing you need is to sit down during your writing time and find your desk cluttered with junk.
Then, suddenly, cleaning off the desk is a more attractive priority than writing. I have a second, smaller desk (more like a big stand) where I keep my printer and a pile of junk that would otherwise be sitting on my desk. When I’m rushed, at the end of my writing session I just throw all my junk off the desk and onto the printer stand.
The exception is anything you will need at your next writing session, which you want to keep at hand. When I’m working on editing proofs, for example, I keep them on my desk so they don’t get lost in my stacks.
Like your schedule, your routine is an ideal. Focus on actually writing even if all else fails.
A minimal routine is best. Actually writing (the work) is the core element.
You may need to experiment and add or subtract things as time goes on. See what works best for you. Be willing to discard elements. I can’t let “no coffee” be my reason to skip a writing session. Neither should you.
If you craft a smart routine, it will serve you well. Ritualize your writing sessions, and even on the bad days your body and mind will drag your flagging spirit through.
Don’t forget your free eBook!
The rest of 5 Steps to Create and Maintain Your Writing Schedule, is available for free if you sign up for my newsletter.