Sometimes I feel a prisoner to my desk. Thus, the life of a writer. You have to ask yourself, what do I really want? Because writing, although it may seem easy from a nonwriter’s perspective, is not.
There are more challenging jobs in the world, yes, but writing is something that requires love.
You can’t do it for the money, you won’t last.
There is too much pain that comes with it, too much sacrifice. Too much of being stuck inside your head, sitting at a desk, walking back and forth, burning a hole into the floor from footsteps processing thoughts to turn into words on a page that readers want to read. You have to really want it.
Stephen King said it best in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well.”
It is time-consuming, painful, and challenging. You can always get better at writing. It is inconsistent. Some days are a piece of cake, you sit down, and the words fly from your fingertips, you can’t keep up with your thoughts; you think every word is brilliant.
But most days you wring words from your brain, like pulling teeth, you think you suck, you think, why bother?
Those are the days when sticking to your habit will produce more growth than on the days when you feel like Hemingway (only in my head do I sound like a good writer. When I read what I’ve written, it is usually a rude awakening, writing begging for five edits and rewrites).
Why does our writing sound so brilliant in our heads? Especially at night.
Desire to write
Many people say they want to be a writer, yet don’t have a daily writing habit.
Successful writers have and stick to a daily writing habit.
It does sound glamourous to say, “I’m a writer.” And while it is true that if you write, you are a writer, whether you are composing the next Great American Novel or an enticing marketing newsletter to send your subscribers for your business, it will be anything but glamourous.
It is work, like anything else that leads to great success or better writing, it takes practice.
But let’s be clear, if you say you want to be a writer, you have no excuse for not writing. “I don’t have time” won’t cut it.
If you don’t have time, you aren’t making time.
You have to decide what is important to you. If you want to write, make it happen.
If you have a household of kids who need attention, take 20 minutes in the bathroom, sit on the floor, and write. I get my best writing done in the bathroom. Everyone knows not to disturb me in that one room. It is where I can write a solid 1,500-word post in 45 minutes.
If you have a full-time job, write on your lunch break, go to your car, sit there, and write.
My car is another place I read and write well. I’m confined, and it’s so darn quiet in the car.
If you don’t want it enough, then you won’t make it happen. How strong is your desire? If your desire is burning, you will follow through and establish a daily writing habit.
Alexander Hamilton came up with our entire system of Government — the judiciary, the executive and the legislative branches — written in the pages of a book titled The Federalist Papers.
Hamilton wrote systems into existence on his lunch break at his law practice.
According to Ron Chernow, who wrote the book, Alexander Hamilton, of which the Broadway musical, Hamilton, is based, The Federalist has been extolled as both a literary and political masterpiece.
Theodore Roosevelt commented, “It is, on the whole, the greatest book,” dealing with practical politics.
For Hamilton, it was a period of madcap activity. He was stuck with his law practice and had to squeeze the essays into breaks in his schedule as if they were a minor sideline.
This is a writer’s life.
By the year 2000, Hamilton’s work “had been quoted no fewer than 291 times in Supreme Court opinions, with the frequency of citations rising with the years.”
How to set up a writing habit
- Have a dedicated writing time each day, and don’t skip it. The most optimal time to write varies for each writer. I write best in the morning and have a hard time writing at night. When you establish a dedicated time, you don’t have to think, “when should I write today?” If you know the time beforehand, you will be more likely to adhere to it.
- Don’t start with a blank page. When you end a writing session, set up a prompt — a paragraph, a note, a reminder — to start the next day. Leave something you’re working on open on your desktop, so you don’t have to think about what to write.
- Writing is more than writing. If you want to blog and need fresh content every day, start a running list of things to write about and add to it when new ideas, thoughts, or great headlines come to you during your non-writing hours.
- Set a timer to get up from your desk and move. Movement stimulates new ideas. Every hour I get up, move around, do jumping jacks, or push-ups to stimulate my nervous system. Tim Ferriss, from The Tim Ferriss Show, wanted to get directly to writing one day, so instead of his morning exercise routine, he swung a kettlebell 30 times. He commented on his podcast #390 he did this exercise “to change my hormonal state to activate my entire nervous system which changes the lens through which I look at any problem that might pop up during the day.” Exercise makes me a better writer and human. I form sentences in my head as I walk around my house with a pen and paper. I was delighted to read in Chernow’s book, “Hamilton developed ingenious ways to wring words from himself. One method was to walk the floor as he formed sentences in his head.”
- Time writing sessions. Instead of setting a word count goal set a constraint. Decide on what you want to write. This can be a scene, a blog post, or a freewriting page that will help stimulate an idea. Set a timer for 35 minutes and write until the timer goes off. Take a five-minute break and repeat. Stick to the timer. Put it out of sight, and let the ringer be your guide.
- Start each day with the Morning Pages exercise. The Morning Pages exercise — in which you write three pages every morning, by hand — is particularly useful for developing a solid writing habit. Joshua Millburn from The Minimalist blog calls it jam-session writing. No one will read it, and it doesn’t have to be good or beautiful. You just sit there and write what comes to mind. By giving yourself something to write every day that won’t be shared, you warm up those creative muscles and clear space for better writing.
- Note-taking and organization. Writing is not just sitting at your desk, it requires thinking and planning. It can be talking into a recorder, creating lists of bullet points, keeping a list of great headlines, writing notes on scraps of paper, the back of receipts, in your notes app, reading. It is all of these things.
The writer sits and writes. Or stands and writes.
It is annoying to hear this advice and again and again. It’s repetitive because it is true.
If you want to make a living from writing, you must write.
Chernow on Hamilton,
One who knew his habits of study said of him that when he had a serious object to accomplish, his practice was to reflect on it previously. And when he had gone through this labor, he retired to sleep, without regard to the hour of the night, and, having slept six or seven hours, he rose and having taken strong coffee, seated himself at his table, where he would remain six, seven, or eight hours. And the product of his rabid pen required little correction for the press.
Another scene Chernow describes in his book is Hamilton in a boat rowed by Eliza, his wife, on the Hudson, rowing past The Palisades as Hamilton scribbles the workings of our Government into a notebook. I find this romantic; he was a man born entirely for his time.
If he can write systems into existence in his spare time, on his lunch break, in a small rowboat, what is stopping you from developing a writing habit?