When You Can’t Form a Writing Habit

Success AheadDear Writer,

You’ve heard it all before: the tricks for forming a habit, the suggestions of ideal places and times to write, and the admonition to just start writing. You’ve also tried it all. You’ve written in the morning, and you’ve written at night. You’ve used a computer, a typewriter, and a good old pen and paper. You’ve hung out at the local coffee shop, and you’ve barricaded yourself in your study. Sometimes, for a few minutes, you feel like you’ve got this—you can write. Maybe you write every day for five days. Maybe you even make it a whole month before you miss a day.

It still isn’t enough. In the end, you always quit writing again. You’re busy, distracted, and more than a little directionless. You feel like you’re not really a writer—how can you be when you don’t actually write?

I get it.

In fact, I’m there right now. I want to be a writer, but where am I supposed to find the time when I’m so busy replying to emails, grading research papers, and editing other author’s manuscripts? There are only so many hours in my day, and none of them are clearly labeled “for writing.” I’m four days behind in Camp NaNoWriMo even though I’ve only been trying to write 500 words each day. I’m in the same boat as you are, and I can feel it sinking.

Do you know what, though? We don’t have to go down with the ship. In fact, you can hold your head high and continue calling yourself a writer—I’ve learned three simple secrets to hanging on.

First, today is always a great day to start over.

When I try to start a habit and fail, I get discouraged. The more days I miss, the less I feel like trying again. Don’t let those missed days become a burden! Forget all about them. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday or whether or not you think you’re going to make it tomorrow; today is the day that you can choose to write. Did you write yesterday? Great! Write again today. Did you just go three months without adding a single word to your manuscript? That’s okay! You can make progress today. If you fall down, get back up and start over. Pretty soon, you’ll notice that you’re not starting over from the start line anymore—you’re inching closer and closer to your goal.

Second, it doesn’t matter how much you get done.

It’s true that you need to meet a certain number of words each day to meet goals and deadlines, but that’s a separate issue. If you want to be a writer and keep writing, then every bit of effort you add to your manuscript counts as progress. You might feel a burst of inspiration and add five thousand words, or you might simply write one more sentence and add a few thoughts to your character notes. Even if all you do is the latter, that’s one more sentence than you had yesterday and one more day that you succeeded at writing. Give yourself permission to celebrate even the tiniest victories.

Third, it doesn’t matter what you write.

There are days when the words just won’t come. I know what it’s like to have multiple writing projects in progress and not have the heart or focus to add a single thought to any of them. Writer’s block is nasty, and you don’t want to feel like it’s destroying your story. Sometimes, though, it’s okay to add those terrible, out-of-character paragraphs to your story just so you can get past a certain chapter. You can always edit them out later. Other times, when you don’t even want to face your story, it’s okay to write something different. Write a blog post, a poem, a song, or a new story. Write a letter to a friend or journal for a while. It may not be the writing that you think you’re “supposed to” be doing, but it’s still writing. Every word that you commit to paper or file is giving you legitimate practice as a writer.

It’s okay to not find the perfect time, place, or word count for your daily writing. While it’s definitely worth checking out other writers’ tips on how they formed their writing habit, there’s no guarantee that what worked for any of them will work for you. Don’t get caught up in the details of your writing life; just give yourself permission to start over today and write a few words, no matter what they are or how many of them there are. When you fall down, get back up. You don’t have to “have this” yesterday or even tomorrow. There’s just today and the words.

I’m learning to believe in myself, and I believe in you, too. It doesn’t matter how busy you are; busyness can be overcome. Go write a few sentences, and then come back and tell me about your victory. I want to celebrate each baby step with you!

Remember, you’ve got this, and you are enough.

With love,

Elizabeth—your editor and fellow writer.

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