Trying to build a writing habit? Beware these 5 traps

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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.