“If you’ve already decided that writing is important to you,– Jason P. Reed
then everything else is just about actually doing the writing.”
Hi everyone! I’m going to speak to members of a local YA Book Club later this week, and so in preparation for that talk, I wrote up these 10 “rules and habits”. I’m sure all of these tactics, techniques, and strategies have appeared in other weekly blogs, but here they are in one place . . .
In the course of writing my first two novels, as well as a weekly blog, I’ve developed, by necessity, a few writing rules and habits to keep my work moving forward. Most of what’s below will be familiar to any writer who has thought or read about the mechanics of putting words on the page. The key here is that I’ve taken the published advice of writers I admire, best practices gleaned from articles and videos online, and synthesized it all into a framework that works for me. As a developing writer (and, aren’t we all?) I suggest you do the same. Figure out what works for you, write it down, try it out, then make adjustments as you go.
Writing Habits – these are behaviors that, if I do them, generally keep me “healthy” as a writer. By healthy I mean, in a condition to repeat the practices over and over again (consistency being the mark of a professional).
- Write every day, before noon if at all possible. This first one is fairly obvious, but it’s worth starting with because the definition of a writer is a person who writes everyday (some people might quibble with “everyday”, but that’s my definition). Getting your work done before noon helps mitigate procrastination. If you think of the noon clock like the stroke of midnight, you’ll be more motivated to get your work done (so you don’t turn into a pumpkin at lunchtime). In all seriousness, productivity aficionados will all tell you to get your most important task for the day done before noon.
- Have a specific daily or weekly target. It is very difficult to keep up the work if you don’t have a specific end goal in mind and you don’t have a gauge to help determine if you are on track on a daily/weekly basis. And so, you need a way to stay on track. I like to start with the macro level end goal (to complete the first draft of a 90-120K novel by a certain date, for example) and then use that overarching goal to subdivide incremental targets. There are different ways to break down the work. If it’s a novel, you can create chapter/episode goals, or you can use a daily or weekly word count. If you’re not working on a big project, but rather writing just to, say, keep your chops sharp, you might have daily time goals. Which, speaking of . . .
- Always write with a timer going. I’ve found that if I don’t have a minimum, specific amount of time to keep my butt in the seat, I will find an excuse to get up early. Just trust me on this. Try it. I like to use the timer setting on the clock app on my laptop because it allows me to create as many different timers as I want, to cover all kinds of scenarios. I have a “20 minute blog” timer, a 30 minute “short session” timer, and even some three and five minute ones. My standard writing session timer is 45 minutes. For sessions when you’re in the groove, you’ll find you don’t need the timer. It’ll go off and you’ll just keep on writing. It really comes in handy during sessions when you’re struggling. When you feel like stopping and see that your timer says you have ten or twenty minutes left, you will gut it out because, really, you’re too good to give up with only ten minutes left. Right?
- Use music and a big calendar to stay on track and motivated. I have two good speakers set up in a stereo pair in my home office, where I write. But I’ve found that, generally (unlike Stephen King, who says he writes while listening to loud rock) I can’t really concentrate on my writing when there’s music with words playing. So I try to use “concentration” music or brown noise loops when I’m writing for real. But sometimes, if I have a really bad case of the don’t-wants, I make a deal with myself: you can listen to your favorite music, as long as you stop whining and do your work. Or maybe just use the music to get through those last ten or twenty minutes. Whatever is necessary to keep you in the chair with your fingers moving across the keyboard. In a similar fashion, I keep a big calendar on the outside of my office door, and every day that I reach my writing goals, I put a big check mark on that day. It feels good to put that check mark there, and once you get a streak going, you won’t want to mess it up, so it’ll be that much easier to sit down and do your work. Also, your family will see the calendar, and they can help you stay on track too. The threat of ridicule and shame are actually great motivators!
- Take at least 60 seconds to meditate before you write. You don’t have to be all zen to do this behavior and get a lot out of it. In fact, it’s not really mediation at all. The reason to do this is to get into either the headspace of the character you’re writing about, or if it’s not a character-driven thing, then simply to think about what you are about to do. Trust me, it works. Since I write fiction, I like to use the time to get into character. I imagine myself as the character I’m about to write, then I ask myself questions. What am I worried about? What do I want to have happen? How do I feel right now? I just freewheel the questions, asking myself whatever comes to mind. If it’s a different type of writing, the question method still applies. Ask questions like: What am I trying to say? What’s the single most important thing I want anyone who reads this to understand?
One theme with all these behaviors is talking to and bargaining with yourself. I don’t know if other people do this, but I do it all the time, and I’ve found a lot of value in it. If you’ve already decided that writing is important to you, then everything else is just about actually doing the writing. That is it. Every “rule” or habit you establish is simply to help you continue to do the thing you already decided was important. In my view, any practice or behavior that helps me do my work, every day, is worth trying.
Writing Rules – These are specific tactics that will help you write highly readable prose.
- Read your final draft out loud. This is far and away the most important piece of advice I could offer any writer. It’s one of those things that almost sounds too simple to be effective. But it works. [This is the part where I refrain from saying “trust me”.] When you read something out loud, all the imperfections will be naturally exposed, whether it’s a comma in the wrong place, poor word choice, or a sentence that’s too long. If you really want to get the most of this absolutely killer quality control measure, record yourself reading it. Seriously, give it a try.
- Write one-breath sentences. This is obviously related to reading your work out loud. If you can’t comfortably read a sentence in one breadth, it’s too long (unless you’re trying to bore or frustrate your readers).
- Double check the metaphors and similes. I’ve found that a lot of times, I don’t get the comparison right the first time. Which is fine, but sometimes you tend to go with the original analogy, just out of a sense of inertia. Every word should be deliberate, so you don’t want to carry a weak comparison forward simply because you failed to consider it carefully. Two simple questions can help determine if you have the right words: Is this a cliche? Is there a cooler way to say this? Bonus question: What’s the difference between a metaphor and a simile? Answer: Who cares? The grammar rules are there to support your writing, not the other way around.
- Don’t use the same word twice in the same sentence. I’m talking about important words here. Take rule three, above. I could have said “but sometimes you tend to go with the original comparison,” but I had already used that word in the previous sentence, so I went with analogy. But, okay . . . that’s not within the same sentence, so let’s use the next one. Deliberate basically means consider it carefully, but it would have sounded bad if I’d repeated the word deliberate, so I mixed it up. That’s really all I’m saying . . . mix it up.
- Make the pronouns clear. This is not an issue I ever really thought about until I started writing novels. Especially when describing action and using dialogue, it’s easy for readers to get confused about who the he’s and the she’s are. The way to guard against this is to ask yourself, every time you encounter a pronoun, if it’s absolutely clear who it refers to. Especially with fiction, the cardinal sin is confusing the reader about who’s doing what. Do whatever you can to avoid confusing your reader.