How To Build a Sustainable Writing Practice
Are you tired of struggling to sit down and write? You aren’t alone.
This phenomenon is so common that jokes about writing procrastination abound around the internet. But why is it so hard to put pen to paper when you desperately long to write? The answer to this is deceptively simple: because writing isn’t easy — and neither is drumming up the motivation to complete difficult creative work.
Sure, it’s easy to throw yourself onto the blank page when you’re running on the high of inspiration, when you’ve dreamed up an exciting new scene or a story idea you can’t wait to explore. But inspiration doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the muse departs and you’re left with an unfinished manuscript you’re struggling to find the motivation to finish.
This reality doesn’t mean you’ve lost passion for your project. Writing simply isn’t all sunshine and rainbows at all times, and that’s okay. There’s a reason so many writers profess to love having written more than the act of writing itself. If your story idea still energizes and excites you, it’s worth finding a way to complete the difficult creative work to finish it.
And when inspiration wanes, that way can be found in habit.
With a well-established writing practice, there’s no need to chase the muse or strive to drum up a measure of motivation. You sit down and do the work because it’s your habit to do so. Because you’ve created a simple system that allows you to make slow but steady progress toward your goals and dreams regardless of the difficult work involved. That is the power of habit.
But what if you’ve failed to maintain a writing practice in the past?
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that you’ve previously tried to build a writing practice (and that it didn’t go well). Though habits are easy to maintain, they’re not always easy to establish — especially when you take the wrong approach to do so. If you’ve failed to build a sustainable writing practice in the past, here are two possible reasons why:
1) You misunderstood the purpose of habit.
Many writers believe that a writing practice will help them become more productive writers, but habits aren’t about productivity. They’re about purpose. They exist to help you fulfill a long-term mission.
You brush your teeth every day because it’s your mission to maintain health and hygiene; you go to work because it’s your mission to meet your needs and secure financial stability; and you walk the dog because it’s your mission to give your pet a happy, healthy life.
If you want to build a writing life you love, establishing a writing practice can help you fulfill that mission, but only if you focus on purpose over productivity. Instead of striving to do more, strive to go farther. To build a writing practice that focuses on small consistent gains rather than huge writing stats.
2) You built a writing practice that wasn’t right for you.
Every writer’s practice is highly personal. Sustainable practices align with a writer’s creative process, priorities and schedule, and personal definition of writing success. If you’ve failed to maintain a writing practice in the past, there’s a good chance you didn’t take each of these factors into account…
Defining your sustainable writing practice…
Habits shape you into the person you long to be: a healthy person, a happy person, a good parent, a loving spouse, a successful writer… But habits can only help you bridge the gap between where you are and where you’d like to be if you create a habit you can sustain for life (or at least until the next big shift in your life, when you can refine your habits for ongoing success).
To build a sustainable writing practice requires that you address the three key factors mentioned above: 1) your creative process, 2) your schedule and priorities, and 3) your personal definition of writing success. Let’s take a look at these aims together:
1) Your Creative Process
Every writer’s process is unique, from the tools and techniques they use to bring their stories to life to the creative energy they possess and how they complete their best work. It’s this latter factor that’s especially important to consider when building a sustainable writing practice.
Some writers can easily work in the margins of their lives, scribbling snippets here and there throughout their days. Other writers need larger blocks of time in which to complete focused creative work. Some need silence. Some like the bustle of a library or coffee shop. Some need to wake up before the rest of the world to write. Some prefer to stay up late. Which elements define your own creative process?
(Psst! For more on these elements, see the section on consistency below.)
You may also find it helpful to define whether you are a Moderator or an Abstainer when it comes to building new habits and holding yourself accountable to maintaining them.
Understanding your creative process and how you operate best when completing creative work can help you define whether daily writing is right for you, as well as which days or times of day would be best for you to commit to your new writing practice.
2) Your schedule and priorities
Unless you’re writing full-time, writing is unlikely to be your top priority. This means you’ll need to build a writing practice that works around the priorities that take precedence in your life.
As you build your writing practice, get clear about your priorities and how much time they truly fill in your schedule. When you do, you may discover that you’ve been filling your time in ways that undermine your creative goals. Set boundaries around how you engage in these activities. For example, I don’t allow myself to read fiction before I’ve finished my writing to-do list. If I get started, I just won’t stop.
Examining your schedule may also reveal ways you can streamline your to-do list and chip away at activities that aren’t truly priorities in your life, all to make more time to write. Of course, you may not need to carve out time for creative work. You may discover that you’ve had it all along!
When deciding how your new writing practice will fit into your schedule, consider your creative process. If you’re a writer who can work whenever and wherever, building a daily writing habit is likely the right choice for you. But if you’re a writer who needs larger blocks of time to complete any meaningful creative work, a habit that sees you writing a few times a week is the more sustainable choice.
3) Your Personal Definition of Writing Success
There is no “right” way to be a writer. Though the traditional writing dream may be to build a career as a bestselling author, your own definition of writing success may look much different. Maybe you want to publish popular online fan-fiction, create a series of stories for your grandchildren, or travel the world collecting and publishing ghost stories. These are all valid definitions of writing success.
Building a truly sustainable writing practice requires that you define your own version of success. If you want to build a career as a high-volume indie author, you’ll need to forge a habit that allows you to write and publish two or more novels a year. But if your dream is to write a memoir to pass down to your children, your writing practice is bound to look much different.
Take time now to consider what you truly want from your writing life. Not what other authors are doing or what a family member considers a successful writer to be. What you want. Then, define how this will affect the writing practice you’re working to build.
Strengthening habits with consistency…
Now that you’ve defined your creative process, schedule and priorities, and personal definition of writing success, you should have a rough idea of what your consistent and sustainable writing practice will look like: which days you’ll write, what everyday writing goal you’ll aim to achieve, and so on. But the more consistency you can build into your writing practice, the better.
Take time now to refine your habit by considering a few additional ways you can lend consistency to your practice:
1) Time of Day
Some writers enjoy tapping out words first thing in the morning. Others can only carve out time to write during their lunch breaks or after dinner, while others love writing at night when their creative energies are running high. Consider your own schedule and creative energy levels. Can you make a habit out of writing at a certain time of day?
Many writers complete their best work in a specific setting. Do you do your own at the kitchen table, at a coffee shop, in the library, at the park, in your at-home office, or snuggled up in bed? Consider what surrounds you as you write. Do you love having certain baubles at hand? A nice cup of tea? A table-top laid with only your binder of color-coded story notes?
As an extension of your workspace, consider the atmosphere in which you complete your best work. Is there music playing? Do you prefer silence or white noise? Are the lights turned down low, or is the sun shining bright? Is there a candle burning? Or an open window to let in the breeze?
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear explains that completing a new habit immediately before or after a well-established one can cut down on the willpower required to build your new habit. Clear calls this process habit-stacking, and it works by building additional consistency into your new practice.
Consider how you can stack your new writing habit on top of an existing habit in your life. Can you pick up the pen after you pour your morning cup of coffee or put the kids to bed? Before eating breakfast or taking the dog for a walk?
Finally, can you reinforce your writing habit by consistently tracking your progress? Some writers hold themselves accountable to their practice by marking their calendars each day they write. Others maintain a regular email chain with their critique partner, share their progress on social media, create a habit-tracking spreadsheet, or keep a personal writing journal.
When considering the ways you can build additional consistency into your writing life, do what you can. If you can’t nail down a time of day to write but you always make sure to make writing happen, that’s fine. If you can’t write at the same place but you can write at the same time, go forth and conquer. Consistent progress trumps consistent technique any day.
How can you establish the sustainable writing practice you’ve defined?
If you’ve long struggled to sit down and write, don’t expect to rock your ideal writing practice from day one. Instead, start small and anticipate growing pains. Instead of aiming to write for one hour every day, try writing for just five minutes. Sit down and put in your best effort no matter how difficult writing feels, knowing you can step away in just a few moments.
Only put thirty words on the page? No matter. Maintain your habit of writing for just five minutes each session. As you combat resistance and continue to do the difficult creative work, your words will begin to flow more freely. Soon, you’ll find yourself itching to write for longer periods. When you do, increase the length of your practice slowly.
When you pace yourself, you build writing endurance, helping you avoid the productivity trap that leads to writing burnout and broken habits. Instead, you’ll embrace the power of a sustainable writing practice.
Writing isn’t always easy, but it is possible regardless of the muse and motivation. When you make a habit out of writing, you recognize that long-term success is the culmination of consistent effort. You place progress over productivity and perfection in the full knowledge that your best efforts are given over time — and that you are becoming the writer you long to be.