Writing Practice | Your Number One Goal

by Marylee MacDonald in General

A daily writing practice can turn the dream of becoming a published author into a reality. As author Jean Hegland says, “If you can brush your teeth, you can write a book.”
In this post, I’m going to show you how to set up a writing practice.

writing practice like tooth brushing

“If you can brush your teeth, you can write a book.”–Jean Hegland, author of INTO THE FOREST

A Writing Practice Is Like Any Other Habit

We all have habits. Habits are actions we don’t think about.

  • We participate in our marriage (rather than rethinking it every hour of every day).
  • We wake up at the same time.
  • We brush our teeth.
  • We eat breakfast.
  • We practice an instrument.
  • We may or may not make our bed.
  • We go to work.
  • We hang our shirts by color (or by some other way).
  • We go to church or synagogue.

A writing practice works the same way. Setting up a writing practice means you will consciously establish new habits. These habits will help you achieve your long-term goal.

Why You Don’t Want to Have to Decide to Write Every Day

“Why would I want to set up new habits?” I can just hear some of you saying.  Possibly you’re also thinking, “Habits are boring.” I once thought the same thing. But, the goal of setting up a writing practice isn’t to have you write in a white-hot heat every single time you sit down at your desk. The goal is to help you reduce the number of decisions you have to make. This is what I call “habit behavior.”

The person I know who has most successfully marshaled “habit behavior” to support his career is my husband. Except for Sundays, this is his daily routine.  A 9 pm every night he picks out the clothes he will wear to work. He hangs his shirt and slacks on a clotheshorse and tucks socks into his shoes. His gym bag gets a fresh set of workout clothes. In the kitchen he finds a box of cereal and puts it on the counter. He lays out his vitamins. Then he puts a filter and water in the coffeemaker. In the morning he shaves, dresses, grinds coffee, eats his cereal, and reads the paper. Then, he grabs his gym bag and, at 6:30 am, bikes to work. At 5:30 pm, he stops work and goes to the gym. No excuses.

For years I watched him live his life this way. He was an engineer, I thought, whereas, I was a creative type.

Avoid Decision Fatigue

I didn’t understand his system. Then, one day I asked how could he stand for his life to be so routine.

“It’s so I don’t have to make decisions,” he said.

My husband. a scientist, pointed me to research on “decision fatigue.” Decision fatigue has to do with “executive function.” If you have a child with ADD or a parent with Alzheimer’s, then you know that if executive function becomes impaired, people have a hard time staying organized and on task. For most of us, if we have to make too many decisions, our brains’ executive function capability goes into overload. Countless small decisions take a toll.

Making the decision to write or not to write takes effort. You’re examining the trade-offs, asking yourself if you truly have time today, or if you should wait till the weekend when you’re not under so much time pressure.

Two things go on. First, you look at the trade-offs and decide which choice to make. Then, you commit to doing your writing (or not). If you decide to write, the decision itself has already siphoned off some of your energy. You arrive at your desk depleted.

When our brains are depleted, instead of doing the tasks we’ve set for ourselves, we seek distracting, leisure-producing activities. We stare at the computer for five minutes and decide to play Solitaire. This looks a lot like procrastination. It’s not, exactly. It’s our brain’s way of recharging.

Use Rituals to Clear Creative Space

You say you’re not a “routines” person? You can only write when you feel inspired? How is that going to help you crank out a whole novel’s worth of words?

In the long run, you’ll be better off setting up rituals. Rituals signal your brain that it’s time to get going.

Remember Aesop’s fable: “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

Writing practice is like the Tortoise and hare rackham.jpg

When it comes to your writing practice, you want to be the tortoise, not the hare.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

A freelance writer friend of mine dresses in work attire and puts on makeup. Then she sits down at her desk and begins to work. I’ve heard E.L. Doctorow say that he ties his ankle to a chair with the belt of his bathrobe.

When John Grisham first started writing, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important.”

“The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week.” (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 5, 2008)

Think about this. Writing in bursts is physically exhausting. By the time you get up from your chair, you feel drained. You’re very unlikely to make another big push the following day.

Start With Pre-writing and Mind-Clearing

Many writers start with morning pages. These are three pages of mind dump, with the objective of clearing your mind of clutter. Write as fast as you can and don’t edit. For more on this, read Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.

Writing prompts are another good way to get started, especially if you’re still casting about for characters or plot. Try Brian Kiteley’s The 3 AM Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction or try What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pam Painter.

Use relaxation techniques to free your mind. Yoga, walking, meditation, or listening to music are great ways to connect down to the core of your being. If you’re going to write, then you’ll want to routinely tap down into your most authentic and deepest feelings.

To the above you might think about adding a smell trigger. Light a candle or stir a potpourri. Use essential oils.

Have rituals around what you drink or eat at your desk. I make a healthy, breakfast muffin and bring a cup of coffee to my desk. For others, a trip to a coffee shop triggers the impulse to write. The buzz of activity helps some people focus. Some folks write with background music. For others, music serves as a block.

Maybe a visual prompt will help you when you’re sitting at your writing desk. Amy Tan surrounds herself with her journals and pictures of her family. I open the curtain and look out at my garden. A glass of iced tea means I don’t need to leave the desk if I get thirsty.

Set Writing Goals

In addition to the above “writing readiness” elements of a writing practice, you’ll want to establish some measurable goals.

Set a word or page count. If you want to write a novel, you’ll need 90,000 words, give or take.

Figure out how long you want to spend on the rough draft. You could spend 90 days/3 months on a rough draft. In that case you’d set your goal at 1,000 words per day.

Can you handle 1000 words per day? Give it a shot. My guess is that most folks would find that tiring. If you’re new to writing and just feeling your way, don’t enter the writing marathon. Set your time horizon for a first draft to six months. That lowers your daily goal to 500 words.

And if you find you’re not meeting that target, then lower the goal still more. Make your goal 50 or 100 words. Take the decision out of it. The point is to make it so easy that your brain has no choice but to say yes. And, when you’ve written your daily quota, feel good. You’re succeeding with your Number 1 goal—establishing a writing practice.

Chart Your Progress

Now for the positive reinforcement. Congratulate yourself for showing up to do the work. Brava!

Print out a calendar and mark each day you meet your goal with a yellow highlighter. Buy a box of gold stars.

Simple visual clues help your brain know it’s on the right track. Make the rewards small and immediate. Like Pavlov’s dog, you’ll begin salivating in expectation of receiving a treat.

The benefits to writing every day are many. You will have fun when you’re in contact with your characters. They’ll be alive for you, and at night, your subconscious will be working away, solving the problems you couldn’t figure out during the day.

The more progress you make, the more writing becomes fun and not a chore. Approach all of this with a sense of playfulness and the expectation of success, and one day, you will have jumped the first hurdle–writing a book all the way from beginning to end.


4 Responses to “Writing Practice | Your Number One Goal”

  1. Hi Mary, this was very helpful. Thank you. I look forward to your blog posts

  2. Gregory Williams says:

    I like all of your warm-up ideas. Another one that helps me ease into my own daily writing, is to begin by typing or writing out a page from a novel or short-story that inspires me. I’ll choose something that has a voice, style, tone, etc similar to what I’m trying to achieve with my writing. It’s also a good way to examine a favorite writer’s sentence structure and syntax and diction choices.

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