Making Writing a Habit

(Note:  This post is intended to be my version of the FINAL ANSWER; whenever I’m asked this question repeatedly by the same people, I can just point them here.  Also, please understand that while this is what do, it may not work for you.  If not [or you’re just convinced I’m talking out my ass again] feel free to find what works for you.)

Recently I’ve had a few people ask me how I manage to complete a novel, and how I write so quickly. These questions imply I actually know what the heck I’m doing here, but I’ll try to answer anyway.

As others who are much more prolific and talented have said, the key to success is making writing a habit. Well, what the heck does that mean, and how do I do that, you ask?

Unfortunately, the answer is the one most people looking for an excuse to fail don’t want to hear. It means doing it every day. Dorothy Parker said it best:

“Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

You sit yourself down at the typewriter/word processor/computer/notebook/block of stone with a chisel/whatever method you choose, and you put words on the paper. Sometimes you don’t feel well. Sometimes you’d rather go out. Sometimes you can’t keep your head in the game. But you put the words on paper, because that’s the only way it gets done.

That’s how I get done; how I work quickly is even simpler.

I know what I’m going to write when I sit down. I make detailed outlines. I make notes for important scenes. I keep detailed character notes and make profiles for major characters. I’ve even been known to sketch the layout for crucial scenes.  I have a plan, and while plans can always change, they help you know what’s coming next. Less time wondering where you are means more time moving forward.

“That’s great,” I can hear you say. “But what about X, Y, or Z problem I have?” I can’t tell you what to do. I’m not a personal coach, and no one is going to chastise you for not making your word count. That’s YOUR job. And there’s nothing that says any given project that isn’t already sold has to be done on a timeline. If you’re the writer who gets 200 words a session done, fine. If you get 2000 words done, even better. I have a personal word count minimum of 3000, which I usually blow past without noticing. One writer I know (who will, by his request remain nameless) averages a whopping 9000 words a day. Keep in mind he also says that on a good day, at least 2500 of them are actually good enough to survive the first draft cut. But he puts the words on the paper.

That bears repeating; he puts the words on the paper.

“Okay, smartass. Now how can I go about that? What’s the secret?”

There is no secret. But there are some things you can do to help keep it going once you start.

  • Set a goal, and meet it. Word count goals help keep you on track, and in the story. I have a personal minimum daily word count which I only fail to meet for unavoidable circumstances. And yes, they accumulate; if I miss half my goal one day, my next day’s goal is 1.5 times my normal word count.
  • Track your progress. You should keep track of your word count. Use a notebook or your favorite computer program such as a spreadsheet, word processor file, or simple text editor and note the date, title, the location where you were writing, time started, time finished, and total word count for the session. I use a spreadsheet where I track all the above, plus total time and average words/hour. You’ll notice trends; time of day, location, etc., that lead to the most productive sessions.
  • To help  keep track of word count, use what may be the handiest tool on a word processor; the “find” feature.  Simply insert a non-word string of characters (like *** or &&&) where you stop for the night. Come the next session, once you’re ready to pack it in, simply search for that character string, and then highlight everything past that. (You can click and drag to highlight with the mouse, but I’m a nerd who loves keyboard shortcuts. I use CTRL+SHIFT+END, which takes me to the end of the document and highlights at the same time.)  Then simply use the word count tool, which tells you the count of the highlighted session and the whole document.

There’s really no secret; no magic formula. Just make sure that the seat of your choice gets a liberal application of ass daily, and put the words on paper. Don’t worry if they’re good or not; just get them down.  (For more on the shitty first draft and why it doesn’t matter, see my earlier post here.)

Just put the words on the paper, and before you know it, you’ve finished the first draft.

What comes next is a whole different topic 🙂  Worry about that when you get there.


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