While some writers can finish a book in a fast sprint, for most of us it’s more of a marathon. A writing project can take months or even years to complete, requiring commitment, freedom from distraction, and, hopefully, a writing routine. It also helps if you can build up confidence and self-belief, not to mention setting reasonable goals. Self-sabotage is all too easy.

First and foremost, before we even look at writing standards or quality, it’s necessary to talk about establishing a regular writing routine. Because this is how you build up writing stamina. Without that, finishing any longer work is going to be difficult. Certainly in the shorter term.

Establishing a writing routine

When you first start writing, it’s a bit like taking up exercise or learning to play a musical instrument. You need to keep at it. You need to establish a routine. And the reason is somewhat more complex than it first appears.

First and foremost, there’s a neurological reason why you need to practice. It’s to do with neural pathways. Firing cells become more and more efficient over time. And it’s the reason why you have to concentrate more while learning a new skill – but at a later point, you can do it almost without thinking. In fact, once you have mastered a skill, the parts of the brain associated with daydreaming and mind-wandering take over. This is the point where you are ‘in the zone’. Musicians, athletes, and others experience this.

So, if you want to establish a writing routine, you need to work at it. But research also shows that building up a skill slowly works best. The ability to correct yourself when making a mistake, thereby refining your skills, is better achieved that way.

Additionally, sleep plays an important part in strengthening the new pathways, with reverse firing or signaling during sleep. It’s therefore important to get a good sleep when you’re learning a new skill.

Setting goals and boundaries

Establishing a regular writing routine means a number of things. Firstly, you have to find time in your day and set aside all other tasks. Even the tasks other people think are more important. This could be housework, working in the garden, cooking, DIY, or just generally being at the beck and call of others.

You have to make it clear that your writing time is yours. It’s quite possible, even likely, that you won’t have a lot of support for this. And if you are apologetic about wanting writing time, other people are less likely to take you seriously. You need to be clear about how important writing is to you. Then try negotiating time in a way that also supports the interests of those around you. Aim for some give and take.

Start low. Aim high

There’s no point telling yourself you’re going to write 1000 words a day from the start, or even 500 words a day. In fact, it’s not unusual for people to write higher word counts early on when they’re still in the honeymoon period of writing on a regular basis. You’re fired up, eager, and you might write more than you expect.

The trouble, though, is this period is unlikely to last.

One technique for establishing a very long-term writing habit that worked for me came from two pages in a large ring-binder diary. These two pages had a calendar for the entire year. Six months on one page, six on the other. Three months on the top half of the page, three on the bottom. With the days of each month listed by name and date, and a brief line space next to each.

So, I tried an experiment. Towards the end of that January, which is when I happened to start the trial, I recorded daily word counts in these short line spaces. I also noted editing, rewrite word counts, and general note-taking word counts.

Then, I counted up the total word count for each month, each quarter, each half-year, and finally the entire year. The overall trajectory was upwards.

I started in the honeymoon period, felt like I was getting the habit of daily writing. Then, at some point, it became a nuisance. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do that day. Maybe I didn’t have the time, etc, etc.

But I knew I had to push through this phase. It was an interesting experience. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t something I did when I was in the mood. I was forcing myself to do it.

This could mean writing less some days, but since I included small word counts as being just as legitimate, I didn’t become demoralised. In fact, I came to understand that the amount of time spent telling myself I didn’t have the time, was potential writing time! Maybe 30-100 words or more of writing time.

And writing time included rewriting and making notes. Which also made things easier, not to mention more realistic. Because this is where most writing work takes place – the planning stage, the research, the editing and rewriting.

Eventually, I broke through that “this is just annoying now” phase of having to write daily. On the other side lay the absolute need to write daily. I was no longer pushing myself. It came naturally. The day was incomplete without some writing.

By the end of the first year, I had written around 120,000 in just over eleven months. In another couple of years, it was beyond 250,000 and continued to rise. Larger word counts came more easily as time went on. I think that makes sense. The process becomes more efficient.

I also think aiming too high too early is a form of self-sabotage. If you don’t reach your goal, you feel like a failure, and you quit.

But you’re not a failure. You just needed to set more reasonable goals.

Go easy on light writing days. And when you have an established writing routine, it’s easier to skip a day or two without losing your momentum. It’s much easier to lose your momentum early on.

To reiterate:

  • Establishing a writing routine is the number one priority
  • That means it doesn’t matter how much you write in any one day
  • This is because establishing a habit is harder than knocking off 1000 words every now and then
  • Establishing a habit means not slacking off on busy days – 30 words will do
  • Accepting that 30 words or 100 words is “good enough” takes away unreasonable expectations
  • Counting up the total word count at the end of each month allows you to see the bigger picture
  • Counting up the quarters, the half-year and the total annual count also means those smaller word counts contribute to the bigger picture
  • It’s also important to note down editing, rewriting or research activities

Avoiding online distractions

The next issue is how to find time when there are so many distractions around and the modern attention span is not what it used to be.

I totally recommend either switching the internet off or using social media blockers. I’ve written about this in an earlier post. But to summarise, you need to identify the sites that are your biggest time wasters and block them. Or block the entire internet if necessary.

Try something like Cold Turkey. You can set a timer. You might find yourself trying to check something online on instinct – remember those established neural pathways? It’s a difficult habit to break. So give yourself a hand with a social media blocker. Twitter or whatever will still be there when the time is up, but you’ll have some writing to show for your time offline.

Also, don’t compete with other people when it comes to writing. Compete with yourself. That’s why the weekly/monthly/quarterly/half year/annual wordcounts are so useful. It doesn’t matter what other people in the Twitter writing community are doing. It only matters what you’re doing.

Useful reading:

Learning rewires the brain: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/learning-rewires-brain

Also recommended – Myelin Facilitation of Whole Brain Neuroplasticity: http://jonlieffmd.com/blog/myelin-facilitation-of-whole-brain-neuroplasticity