Trying to build a writing habit? Beware these 5 traps

bad writing habits

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Do you suffer from bad writing habits? Here are some ideas you need to overcome so you can develop the good habit of writing — easily — every day…

I work with dozens of people every year who are trying to build the writing habit. Some succeed quickly. Others take much longer.

When would-be-writers flail and flop I can usually trace the problem back to one of these five mistaken beliefs.

  1. I don’t have enough time to write. There’s a truth universally acknowledged that we can all make time for things that are important to us. Rare is the person who truly has no time to write. (Into that singular category, I put parents of infants and people looking after ill or elderly family members.) Otherwise, you have time. You’re just choosing to spend it in other areas. If you think you’re the exception who proves the rule let me ask you two questions: How much time do you spend watching TV or your computer (Facebook, Twitter, Netflix etc.)? How much time do you think it takes to write? Be aware that it’s perfectly reasonable to establish a 15-minute per day writing habit. And if that daunts you, start with a five-minute one. Seriously. This process is called the Kaizen technique. I worked with a thesis-writer who began her draft with just five minutes per day and it completely changed her attitude towards writing. She’s now on track to submit her thesis in December.
  2. I don’t have enough talent. Yes, some writers have talent. Just as some musicians, athletes and cooks do. But the presence of talent is not needed for victory. (Consider Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I like their music a lot but I also think both their singing voices suck. And yet they’ve both had wildly successful performing careers.) Nor does the absence of talent equate with failure. Writing well is more about determination and hard work than anything else. Researcher Carol Dweck has shown that a “growth mindset” predicts success far more reliably than talent. As well, if you do more of something you’ll inevitably get better at it. I was born with lots of editing talent but little of the writing variety. Still, producing this column every week for the last nine years has boosted my writing chops considerably.
  3. If I “fix” (edit) my work as I go, that will save me time in the end. So many writers make their lives miserable by adopting the slow, infinitely painful process of editing while they write. Stop it! This is not only anxiety-producing, it slows you down immeasurably. You’ll find yourself writing and erasing your first paragraph an infinite number of times. In fact, you’ll probably work for many hours and then have precious few words to show for it. Instead of this thoroughly torturous process, give yourself the goal of producing a crappy first draft.  Know that you can edit it into something much better, later. You can always edit crap. But you can never edit a blank page.
  4. As long as I do it, it doesn’t matter what time that I write. For 45 of my years on this planet, I was a dedicated night owl. Then, with no desire to change and no effort on my part, I turned, overnight, into a morning lark. (Doctors attributed this to my hormones.) Because of my experience as someone who used to have difficulty waking at 8 am, I am infinitely sympathetic to the demands of night owls. That said, I am also convinced it makes more sense to write in the morning than at any other time of day. I have a couple of reasons for this:
    1. We awaken every morning with the most willpower we will have that day.  Imagine your willpower as a tank with a small leak. During the day, every decision you make causes your willpower to leak out. And I don’t mean big, life-changing decisions, such as whether to buy a house or whether to change jobs. I mean small, inconsequential ones like what to eat for breakfast or what route to take to work. If writing is hard for you, it makes sense to write in the morning, when you have the most willpower.
    2. Different parts of our brains are good at different things. There is a linear logical part (I call this the “editing” brain) and a loosey-goosey creative part (I like to call this the “writing” brain.) And here’s the deal: the writing brain wakes up sooner than the editing one. So, if you’re inclined to edit while you write, it makes sense to write before your editing brain can start bothering you.
  5. I can always “catch up” next weekend. No, no and no. The slow and steady accumulation of words is far more important and effective. You’re far better off writing for five minutes a day, five days a week than 50 minutes on the weekend. This is true even though the first unit of time is 25 minutes shorter. First, the 50 minutes will take more organizational effort on your part. Second, it isn’t really a habit; it’s a “catch up.” Third, it requires you to make a decision — i.e. I’m going to write at 11 am on Saturday — when the whole point of habit-making is to avoid decision-making and do it automatically.

If writing is just something you do, for 15 minutes every morning (five days a week) then you have a sustainable habit. Produce 200 words in those 15 minutes five days a week for a year, and you’ll have 52,000 words. And that’s enough for a book….

How have your beliefs about writing affected your output? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.


Posted June 23rd, 2015 in Power Writing

  • One thing that I found really useful in this regard was having a very detailed morning plan. I read it somewhere, don’t remember exactly where. But instead of having “writing” on a schedule, I have a very specific routine planned on a checklist. Get coffee, sit at desk, open this, do that…

    I started this for gym about two years ago and recently started doing the same for writing. Your brain gets really accustomed to this set of habits.

    • Good point, Vernon. I do the same thing. I have a 15-point checklist that starts every morning of mine. It keeps me really focused!

  • atozwriter

    “We awaken every morning with the most willpower we will have that day.”

    I am in deep doo-doo, then. I have NO willpower in the morning. It’s nearly impossible to get out of bed and get myself to work.

    • You may be sleep deprived. Or you may be forcing yourself to wake up too early. (Or, more correctly, society may be forcing you to do this.) Do you have the ability to get up at whatever time suits you best? If so, ensure you’re getting enough sleep. I think you’ll find it much easier to wake up, then. Also, if you have trouble falling asleep, be sure to turn off all monitors (computers, e-readers — except for the Kindle which is ok — iPads and cellphones) for at least an hour before going to bed. This will also improve your sleep.

  • Cathy

    I am not so fond of detailed task lists…I avoid them like the plague. I find I will use them for a week or two then I abandon the whole notion. However, I did stick to the habit forming practice of 5min/day 5 days/wk, working my way up to 50 min/day. For those who doubt this practice…after about 16 months I had 100, 000+ words written. Half of that might be rubbish but at least I have something to edit into a decent piece of work!

    Now that i am in editing mode perhaps I need to revisit the check list and start each editing session with exacting tasks, like Daphne’s pass through method. Might keep me more on point with my work!

    Thanks for your great, concise, and useful posts!

    • Cathy, I am now using an app called Wunderlist for my “to dos.” For some reason I don’t mind how long the lists become when they’re electronic and easy to tick off. You might find the same thing. And, hey, congrats on hitting 100,000 words. You’re a STAR!!!

  • Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

    This is a great post! And I will try writing for 15 minutes a day. I can set up Pomedoro for 15 minutes. But it takes a while in order to bring the mind to start the writing itself. The next day, when I again sit down to write, I need to gather my thoughts again. I am looking for best ways to switch fast between tasks?

    I have more will-power to wake-up when I have few things to do in the day. But if you can program your mind, to wake up at the same time everyday, you neither need will-power nor an alarm. I started this practice during my recent vacation and every week I push the wake up time earlier by 15 minutes. I’ve now made good progress. But remember if you slip from the schedule even once during this practice you will have to go begging the will-power.

    I 200% agree with Venon Swanepoel.

    • Have you tried mindmapping? This is a great way to get into the writing “spirit” really quickly.

  • Olena

    Daphne, thank you for the post. I like that you always assign the length of reading time it takes to read your post. i do not like looooong blog posts. I sometimes “forget” to finish reading them.

    I concur, everybody has plenty of time for things we want to do and no time for things we do not want to do.

    Personally I have plenty of time, though I have noticed I always forget to attribute those 15 minutes in the morning. One day I forgot to get up early, another day I was too hungry to start with writing, other day it was too dark outside to start writing in a bed.

    Hopefully tomorrow will be the best day to start.

    • Olena, I’m going to quote the Nike slogan for you: Just Do It!!

  • maria

    Hello everyone, Daphne, thank you so much for the wonderful tips. I can relate to them. I will create a checklist for myself too.

  • Brad Teare

    I fall into many of these traps. Many thanks for pointing them out. I’m not sure I can do the morning writing thing. I might opt for writing after an afternoon nap. Thanks for the great post.

    • Writing after an afternoon nap might be just the trick for you. Let me know how it goes!

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    I have finally joined the ‘Shitty First Draft’ group, especially because I lack the focus to edit while writing. Losing ONE thought results in the wastage of a whole day…so I just type whatever hits me and then mop up this mess later!

    ENJOYED your insights, Daphne #HUGS

    • Kitto, you seem to be suggesting that you lack the focus that will allow you to edit while writing. Please understand that this is a question of different parts of our brains being good at different tasks. The editing brain is good at editing (and not at writing.) The writing brain is good at writing (and not at editing.) It has nothing to do with focus!!

      • Financial Planner Dude

        I agree, by writing a crappy first draft you can
        empty your whole brain out. This comment started life as a rambling page long
        dissertation yet once I was done I was my point across in 2 sentences and since
        95% of my writing is internet comments brevity matters!

  • Charli Mills

    #5 is the one I have to guard against (I’ll catch up tomorrow). Often it is a sign I just need a break outside or doing something physical. Then I’m refreshed and can push through.

  • Financial Planner Dude

    I like your idea of writing every day, usually there is something that catches my attention, a comment on FB or article I read so I view it as a daily “letter to editor”. I do a crappy first draft and if I feel inspired edit it down to a short paragraph and post it. To keep it simple I re-use the same word doc (my to do list) each day and either post what I wrote or delete it. This allows to me to focus on what matters writing!

    Oh and yeah I always write in word, don’t know how many times I’ve hit the wrong key and deleted my whole thing or posted a half assed poorly edited comment!

    • Your process for comments or FB posts sounds really good. If you were talking about articles or reports, I’d give you a hard time for not editing! (Good thing we’re not talking about that!)

      • Financial Planner Dude

        Thanks, I have a friend who can say in 1-2 sentances what used to take me a page or more to articulate, so my goal is to articulate something in as few words as possible. Secondly as you mention is toedit better, That is my biggest struggle!

        • Many people have difficulty with editing. I think I should start working on a product to help people with that…

          • Financial Planner Dude

            Yes please do, that is my nr 1 issue!!!!

  • Christianna rhymes with banana

    Part of my problem is that I’m great at starting, but terrible with following through. I beat myself up with self talk like “you have no self-discipline,” but the truths are, first, I”m afraid of what I’ll find out, and second, I”m not sure I really want to “be a writer.” I headed down the technical communication road because I wasn’t sure I had anything to say (boy, once I got started in grad school, I found out just how much I do have to say).

    I’ve written poetry in the past, and would like to get back with that; can your strategy be adapted to that genre/approach?

    • Yes, Christianna, my strategies work with every genre. They relate to the process of writing — not the product.

  • Carmen

    Dear Daphne, thank you very much for your posts. They are very inspiring for me and I read them with attention. I admire your assertiveness in writing. Starting to read your posts, I have realized that reading them generates in me a kind of introspection. I am a classical piano player for 21 years and I am very accustomed with the study discipline. I started when I was 7 years old. I would like to start to write lyrics for songs. Never did it in my life, but I would like to give it a try. Can you advice me when to start editing? Every day after I write 15 minutes continuously or when? I will wait patiently for your reply, just if possible. Thank you very much. Whining you tones of inspiration.
    Musical regards, Carmen

    • Hi Carmen, sorry to take so long to reply. I missed seeing your post until now. In terms of editing, I think it’s a good idea to wait about six weeks (if you can) before starting. So, write for 15 minutes/day for about six weeks. Then you can edit what you’ve written.

  • Thanks, Daphne.
    I’m convinced.
    I’m going to sleep early and wake early and write fast and furious before breakfast. We are safer so. 🙂

  • Sanjay

    I got 2 very practical takeaway from your blog “write daily for 5 mins with no excuse” and “write first before edit”. I feel that when I plan about write anything, it is ended up with thinking only.Now I started writing first and while writing I and editing this many time and coming up with many ideas and finally ending it up with writing something,

  • I have an “all-or-nothing” personality, so it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that I can write for just 10-15 minutes a day to build a habit. Somehow I’ve decided that if I can’t sit down for an hour or two at a time, then I can’t write that day. Which, of course, turns into not writing that week or month. I am hereby giving myself permission to write for only 15 minutes each day. (It was painful just typing that.)