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"It was my practice to be at my table every day at 05:30 a.m.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy."
- Anthony Trollop
Anthony Trollope is considered the most prolific writer of the Victorian era, having written 47 novels over a period of 35 years. During this time he wrote for three hours each day, requiring 250 words every 15 minutes. Upon finishing one project it is said that he would take a fresh page and immediately begin the next until his three hours were up.
He considered the task of writing to be "as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary."
What's your excuse?
The way of the writer is to write. It is as simple as that. Write, publish, repeat.
But how does one develop the habit of writing, and how to make it stick?
Having published for magazines, weekly newsletters for years, and a book I can offer some insight on how to get started, staying consistent, and publishing when done.
"If it is important, do it every day. Or else not at all."
Make no bones about it; writing can be a lonely, thankless job. You publish your articles online to receive only a handful of likes. Rejection slips come in faster than your work goes out. Subscriptions to your newsletter hover at just under 100 for over a year (true story!)
It can also be incredibly rewarding, especially when something you write really resonates with people. Or a single sentence comes out so perfectly that you aren’t sure where exactly it came from.
Because of this it is important to first ask Why.
Why do I write? What do I hope to receive in return for my efforts? Personally, I write because I have a powerful need to create things. I enjoy building things with my hands, and do so whenever I can.
I also travel a lot. Hobbies that require tools or equipment can never be done consistently enough for me to get really good at them.
But my laptop never leaves my side.
So writing became my craft; it is the creative outlet I can return to each day without fail. And I resolved to do so without any expectation of praise or glory. I write for myself first and foremost.
Start by considering the Why of things. Any reason is good enough, or even no reason at all. Don’t make it into a big deal; nothing wrong with trying something new on for size.
But a strong Why – that is what will carry you through the dark days of the dip and help you come out on the other side with a finished piece of work in your hands.
A Time and Place For Everything
Consistency is everything. Results come when you work at your craft every day.
I wake up, turn on the coffee, sit down, and begin.
Because of its portability I can do this anywhere; at home or away. Typically I write for 30 to 45 minutes and produce anywhere from 300 to 700 words. Nothing crazy. Small actions lead to big results.
My morning writing time is set in stone, only missed if I have an early flight to catch or jobsite to attend. And then I try to make it up later.
I strongly feel that your writing should be first each day, for the following reasons:
You are more creative upon waking, and your mind is less distracted by external input.
By doing it first, you ensure it gets done.
It is important to return to the desk again and again. The only way I know to guarantee you won’t get bogged down with something else is to do so first thing.
Set your alarm thirty minutes earlier, get to sleep on time, wake up and write.
As for the place? Choose a spot and keep it consistent.
When home I write in my office. When traveling I write at the desk in my room or on the tray table of an airplane.
Stephen King says it best in his memoir, On Writing:
"It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."
Too Small to Fail
You have a time to write and a place to do so. Now what?
If you’ve spent more time reading about writing than actually writing (guilty!) then you have already soaked up a load of advice on outlining novels in detail, hitting a daily word count, starting with freeform pages, and more.
None of this advice is for you.
You will learn those same lessons through direct experience. And your experience will be similar to that of others. But in the beginning there is only one thing that matters:
Getting words onto the page every day.
Set your goals small; too small to fail.
In the beginning one sentence a day was all that I required of myself in order to tick “writing” off my list for the day. As I kept coming back to the desk that one sentence turned into two, then into paragraphs and pages. Having written consistently for years now I can look back and see the progress, but because my capacity has increased so slowly, today it is just my new normal.
With writing, as with any new skill, you must take the long view. Focus not on the end result, but on the process. On the daily practice.
Every word counts.
What To Write?
Write whatever you want.
If you have the desire to write, and you either have it or you don’t, then you already know deep down what you want to create. You don’t need permission from anyone so just go for it.
But consider this.
Of the many skills that writing involves - narration, dialogue, tension, grammar – there is one skill that must be considered above all others:
The Skill of Finishing
Finishing your work is vitally important. Unfinished work is never read.
Finishing your work and letting it loose into the world for praise, criticism, or indifference is the final step. Otherwise you are just journaling.
And finishing things is hard, especially in the beginning. But if you never finish anything you will never find your voice. It is a process that takes time, and it takes new efforts, with the last effort brought full circle.
Ray Bradbury famously advises writers to start by writing a short story each week for exactly this reason. It gets you into the habit of finishing things. And because nobody can write fifty-two bad short stories in a row.
Writers are readers, and the beginning writer is unconsciously regurgitating what they have previously read, either in style or in content. There is a lot of that stuff buried inside that needs to be expunged before your authentic voice shines through.
The only way to do so is to write every day, and finish what you start on a regular basis.
Writing is a unique pursuit. Jotting words on a page could not be simpler, and the tools required to do so can be had for pennies. Yet at the same time it can feel like the most difficult thing imaginable.
Resistance and fear sit on the corner of every writer’s desk. Fear of failure, of judgement.
Fear of success.
It is for this reason that it is so important to publish your work. If writing is a process then releasing your words to the world is the final step. Without it you will never benefit from feedback; be it good, bad, or indifferent.
Sometimes the words come perfectly, sometimes they do not. The only thing that matters is to keep them coming.
Nobody will like everything you write, just like everybody isn’t going to be your best friend. If you are pissing off an equal amount of people as you please, I’d say you are doing a good job.
The cure for self-doubt is to write fast, never looking back.
And the only way to get over the fear of not being loved is to remember who you are doing this for. Write for yourself, keep coming to the table every day, and keep publishing every week.
We only have a right to our labors, not the fruit that it bears. Forget the fruit and go back to the work each day because it gives you something, makes you greater than the day before. Embrace the process and return to it each morning.
Great things are built one word at a time.
When you are ready, here are a few ways I can help:
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