Stop me if this sounds familiar. You wake up one day and realize that, although you still think of yourself as a writer, you aren’t actually doing much writing to speak of.
Sure, you might get in a groove for a few days or even weeks. But ultimately, life gets in the way and you lose it again. That half-finished manuscript just sits there in a rarely-opened file on your laptop, the “last edited” date making a mockery of your self-discipline.
Maybe I’m just projecting here because this was most definitely the kind of “writer” I was for many years. The kind with a full-time office job utterly unrelated to writing and who hardly ever wrote a word.
When I set out to kick off the Zero to Indie Author series strong by writing for 31 days without fail (every day in July), I quickly realized that old habits die hard.
We all know that perfectionism and procrastination are the enemies of creativity. But even with a public declaration to keep me accountable, I struggled to show up every day. As it turns out, writing really is hard—at least, when you’re trying to finish something.
But with a bit of help from the experts on the Draft2Digital blog, I got into a good rhythm. I finished the month with 27 writing days and 15,000 words under my belt. A pretty good start for someone who hasn’t finished so much as a short story in years.
Here’s how I went from zero to a (nearly) daily writing habit, and from a dedicated pantser to a plotter-in-training.
How to create a daily writing habit from thin air
I won’t bury the lead on this one. The secret to creating a daily writing habit is this: you start writing daily.
I joke, but only a little. There are some helpful pointers that I’ll dig into below, but the key takeaway is just that. Turns out, no one is going to show up and give you permission, force you to sit down and write, or offer you a lucrative contract if you’ll only write that novel you’ve been dreaming up.
At a certain point, there’s nothing for it but to start writing every day and see what happens.
For me, the process of establishing a daily writing habit looked a lot like establishing any other new habit. I start strong, excited for the first handful of days and bolstered by the feeling that I’m really doing it. I get overly cocky about small early successes, like surpassing a target word count. Then I crash and burn with zeroes on a couple of days, and spend the rest of the month berating myself for not doing better.
My writing pattern looked something like this for the first couple of weeks:
Monday: 500 words—”I’m so excited to be doing this!”
Tuesday: 500 words—”Nailing it.”
Wednesday: 1,200 words—”I’m on fire! Every day will be like this!”
Thursday: 750 words—”I can’t imagine ever getting tired, I’m on such a roll.”
Friday: 200 words—”I’m tired today. I’ll make up my word count tomorrow.”
Saturday: 0 words—Because life.
Sunday: 0 words—”Why even bother anymore?”
I needed some help establishing a healthy routine, so I scoured the D2D blog for expert advice. I didn’t have to look far—Kevin Tumlinson shares some fantastic tips in his post on how to finish writing your book. (Of course, I needed help just starting mine, but they worked all the same.)
Here are the tips I found most helpful:
- Pick a specific time to write each day: I’ll find any excuse to avoid a big project if I wait until after about 9 a.m. So I started getting up 30 minutes earlier each day. With a mug of steaming coffee in my hand, I’d sit down to write. After a week or so, the routine of getting up, making coffee, and writing before I did anything else became a consistent habit, almost like a reflex.
- Write for blocks of time, not word counts: Initially, I aimed for a specific daily word count, but Kevin’s suggestion to work from blocks of time at first was a huge help. On days when the writing is going along well, you’ll probably exceed a target word count. On days when you just want to sit and stare at the screen or type streams of nonsense, you’re still building the muscle of showing up every day to write. Eventually, your brain is “trained.” You know that you’re writing for an hour no matter what, so you’d better just do it.
- Embrace simple math: Yes, I just suggested using time blocks instead of word counts. But if you want to write a 50,000+-word book in 4 months—and I do—you’ve got to keep an eye on how much you’re writing. Fortunately for those of us who are inclined toward the humanities, the math is easy. Take the number of words you want to write, divide it by the number of writing days, and voila! You’ve got a target word count. Even when using time blocks to track progress, it’s helpful to know how you’re tracking toward finishing your manuscript.
- Looping/cycling: The credit for this idea goes to Dean Wesley Smith in Writing Into the Dark. The basic idea is that you don’t go back and re-read (or edit) anything until you’ve written a certain word count. That could be 500 words or 5,000—whatever works best for you. Only then do you go back and make even minor edits, like cleaning up typos or making sure you’re using consistent character names.
Reading back through my work made one thing clear: I wrote a lot of garbage this month. But I also wrote a lot. And ultimately, isn’t getting the thing down the whole point?
A pantser’s guide to outlining
I’m a pantser by nature, and it’s not because I’m just so creative that my characters need to speak for themselves. I wish that were true.
It’s because I have a hard time deciding what a story should be about until I’ve started walking through it. When I try to craft the high points of a story first and then fill in the blanks, it feels forced. So I’ve always been against outlining, as a rule.
Then I listened to Joanna Penn’s interview with K.M. Weiland. Weiland talked about outlining in a way that made me sit up and pay attention.
The way she describes it, outlines aren’t restrictive at all—quite the opposite. They’re a playground, a place to let your imagination run wild without worrying over dialogue or word choice.
The outline will very likely change as I go, but I had a heck of a lot of fun sitting down with different colored pens and sketching out the highlights of my book.
A word on craft
A wise teacher once told me that reading, studying craft, and writing are the only three ways to improve as a writer. Since I’m already reading and writing, here’s where I’m getting my daily dose of craft this month:
- Writing Into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith
- Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
There are also fantastic pieces on craft in the Draft2Digital blog, including a recent four-post series on characterization. Best-selling authors are sharing their wisdom for free here, so don’t miss it!
Whether you’re starting from true zero or already have published work with your name on the cover, there’s always something to learn. Post on social media using #ZerotoIndieAuthor or comment below and tell us about your outlining and writing habits.