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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 36


Getting in the habit

Writing is like dieting: when you fall off the wagon, it's best to get right back on. Just as one little piece of chocolate cake easily turns into a week-long binge, one little "I'll get back to that project tomorrow" easily turns into a month-long break. How, then, to get back in the habit?

While everyone does need a break sometimes (see Instalment 18, Getting back on the horse), making writing part of your daily habit goes a long way towards making you a good writer. As Karen Schneider recently blogged:

"It has taken me a while to admit this – to really feel it in my bones – but what many writers say is true: the longer I do not write, the harder it is to begin writing again, and conversely, the more frequently I write, the faster and better I write, and the less time I spend getting myself into the place where the words start to flow.

Not only does writing every day inherently get more words down on paper or screen, it exercises your writing muscles so that, whenever you do write, you do so faster, better and more easily. Even just spending a few minutes goes a long way towards keeping you in the habit, whether you get up and write longhand for 15 minutes first thing in the morning or devote half an hour to an ongoing project every night".

Judge not...

To get comfortable with writing every day, first get comfortable with the notion that not everything you write needs to be publishable. Your daily writing can serve as the genesis for later articles, can be revised into publishable material or can just keep you in the habit of getting words out on a regular basis. Just as in the "morning pages" practice discussed in April 2005, Instalment 8, Time keeps on ticking... , the very act of writing without editing or worrying about the quality of your work can be the secret to avoiding writer's block.

This can be difficult to do, since we're so used to worrying about how others will view our work. Remember: no one ever has to see this daily writing, therefore, no one will ever judge this daily writing! You can throw it away, you can start over, you can edit the heck out of it, you can do what you need to do to get comfortable with presenting your writing to others. Here, just get the words out – it's much easier later to work with the bones of an idea or to edit your work than to stare at a blank page.

Your daily writing also helps you get out of the librarian-like habit of researching, researching again, then researching "just a little bit more..." before actually sitting down and starting to write. Even if you're engaged in a research-based project, why not write as you go along? This helps prevent you from losing inspiration or forgetting great ideas that come to you along the way, and also helps you see where, and whether, more research might be necessary.

Let's begin

Start by creating a comfortable working environment for yourself. Trying to write in front of the TV with your laptop generally works less well than getting in the habit of writing in a dedicated spot – however small – that you carve out just for working. Keep your notes, your files, your research all easily accessible. Clear your desk of clutter so that you can concentrate on the task at hand.

If the idea of jumping in headfirst seems intimidating, set intermediate goals for yourself. Can you get up early two mornings this week and spend half an hour writing? If you're lucky enough to have an office at work, can you take a lunch break at your desk one day and type away when you're done eating? Tell yourself that you will write two days the first week and three days the next; block out the time on your calendar and commit yourself to doing so.

Planning ahead

If you don't currently have a set project to keep you busy, you can use your daily writing time to work on your idea file, you can get notes and thoughts on paper for potential articles, or you can just start writing and see what ideas appear.

If you do have a set project(s) to work on, start by breaking it into its component parts. How long does it need to be? How much research do you need to do? How much should you get done each day? How much time will you allow for breaks, mishaps, editing? Start now, and you'll have less to write each day than you might expect.

Even if you tend to work well under pressure, or have made a lifelong habit of procrastinating up until deadlines, you can start to view writing as a process in this way. (And, you can start to take some of the pressure off of yourself!)

Back in the habit

If you used to write more often but fell out of the habit, don't despair. We tend to be too hard on ourselves, letting one small writing mishap or hiatus derail us from our goals. They say it takes 30 days to really form a habit: why not commit yourself to 30 days of daily writing – a mere month – and see where that takes you?

Put the fork down, back slowly away from the chocolate cake, and realize that, even if you fell off the wagon, you don't have to stay lying on the ground.