I will save my suggestions for making outlines for another day because, well, I need to make an outline for the post. Instead, I want to tell you one of the most important things I have learned about making writing a habit.
Writing Tip 5: Write at the same moment, every day.
Dorothea Brande makes this point in her wonderful 1934 Becoming a Writer; Paul J. Silvia does same in his helpful How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing.
My “same moment” is early. I work on the book—“my one goal to rule them all”—first thing every day, right after I wake up.
I used to think the hour of the clock mattered a lot. Writing Tip 5 initially read, “Write at the same time, every day.” I used to try to wake up an hour earlier than normal to write at the ‘correct’ time. If I woke up at 7 o’clock, I would set the alarm for 6 o’clock. If I woke up at 6 o’clock, I would plan to wake up at 5 o’clock. I learned quickly that if I woke up too soon too many days in a row, by the end of the week I had to sleep in, feel guilty, and then miss my writing. In aggregate, I never got ahead. But, in January, I realized the time is not as important as the moment.
My moment is ‘first thing’: Whenever I wake up, I put on coffee, and I sit down to the day’s one writing task. Today, I revised a section. I was done writing the book before 8 o’clock. I’ll be done this blog post in time for breakfast. A few hours of work a day is all it takes.
Some people write well after a slow breakfast and little Facebook; my wife works between 9 o’clock and midnight when the world is asleep—when I try that, I get frustrated; some people write well after a run; and some settle into a coffee shop to work after a day in the office. Observe what works for you, and make that your sacred writing moment.
Write everyday at that time.
Another way of thinking about it is to do what Dorothea Brande and Wendy Belcher recommend: Schedule your writing time—and come hell or high water stick to the schedule. Just as you would never miss the start time for a lecture or a job interview, never miss your scheduled time to write. Don’t schedule meetings, don’t get sidetracked, don’t let people interrupt, and do unplug the Internet. Most of all, write when you say you will.
Wendy Belcher recommends a weekly writing plan. I tried it, but it was overkill: I ‘schedule’ my writing first thing. The hour might change—I can always get up earlier if I have a busy day, or I can sleep in on weekends if I’m tired—but the moment is right after I wake up.
This week, I broke the rule, twice. On Sunday, I had childcare from 6 o’clock, and on Tuesday, I had an urgent job application. I never got to my desk to write the book on either day. I was grumpy. Worse, what I did write on Sunday—this blog post on outlines—was like pulling teeth. The bad writing days reminded me of Dorothea Brande’s point: Figure out what works for you, and do it every day. Or, at least, almost every day. From now on, if I can’t write first thing, I’m taking a day off.
If you don’t know when is a good time to write, keep a writing log for a week or two. Note when you worked well, and note when you didn’t. Make a note of what you did the day before. Dorothea Brande says, if you write well in the morning after a late night party, then go to late night parties every day. Conversely, if you’re like me and a terrible writer after a late night, then avoid them.