How to be a successful writer? Well, first of all, you have to write because this is what writers do.
Just sit down and write. Every day. Not once a month when you feel inspired. Not someday when you’ll create ideal conditions for writing.
In other words: create a writing routine and stick to it.
What is a writing routine?
Essentially, a writing routine is a scheduled, consistent sequence of actions that gets you to write every day (or almost every day, if you take days off from writing). It can be quite elaborate, like Maya Angelou’s routine (she actually went to a hotel every day to write), or it can be as simple as putting on your headphones and starting your favorite word processor.
Why do you need a daily writing routine?
Why have routines if you’re actually trying to do creative work? Don’t routines limit creativity?
Well, having a daily routine actually enhances your well-being and creates ideal conditions for focused work. Better sleep, lower stress levels and healthier eating habits are essential to productivity.
To prevent writer’s block
A writing routine means that you write for a set amount of time or until you reach a certain word count. Are you out of ideas at the moment? Is the perfectionist in you demanding that you churn out page after page of polished prose? Doesn’t matter, just start writing and see what happens.
A routine forces you to sit down and write every day. Don’t worry if words just don’t want to flow smoothly – start writing anything. After 20-30 minutes, your brain will finally spring into writing mode and you’ll be amazed at all the awesome ideas coming out of nowhere.
To reduce decision fatigue
Even the most trivial decisions have the potential to drain your mental and emotional energy. What should you wear today? Should your daughter be allowed to go to daycare wearing a Shrek costume? What should you do right now?
Having to make too many trivial decisions can make your brain feel too tired for deep work, creativity, and strategic thinking. This is why many CEOs and politicians consciously try to reduce the amount of small, irrelevant decisions (e. g. this is why Mark Zuckerberg wears gray T-shirts every day).
Having a daily writing routine takes at least some of the guesswork out of your day. You know that you’ll be writing between 10 pm and midnight – you no longer have to decide what to do before going to sleep.
To help your brain focus
Scientists recommend you go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time of day. When your brain gets used to a specific sleep schedule, it starts producing melatonin (the sleep hormone) before bedtime and wakes you up without having to rely on an alarm.
In the same way, eating your meals at set times helps regulate your hunger and improve digestion.
Now you probably know what comes next: yes, if you write at a specific time of day, your brain will automatically get into “writing mode” when the time approaches. Yes, it really works. Ask Stephen King.
How many hours a day should you write?
Freelance copywriters and full-time fiction authors write for around five to six hours a day. Of course, if you’re only writing full-time, you might only have two or three hours on your hands. That’s OK – just set reasonable goals and use your time wisely.
Since your brain needs about 20 minutes to attain clarity and focus, it’s best to schedule writing sessions that last an hour at least.
Many creative professionals prefer working in 1,5-hour blocks because, according to research, our brains work in 1,5-hour cycles of focus and rest.
How do you create a schedule for writing?
Now that we’ve discussed why you need a writing routine, let’s move on to the how.
Schedule your writing time (and protect it fiercely)
Here’s some homework. Take your calendar (paper-based or digital) and identify blocks of time (ideally, 2-3 hours) that match the following criteria:
- You’re unlikely to be distracted.
- You’re unlikely to be tired.
- You can spend this time at a place that you enjoy.
This is going to be your writing time. Schedule it into your calendar like you would schedule a medical appointment or a flight.
Ideally, strive to write at the same time every day. Many writers prefer to work in the morning, before distractions start piling up. But there are countless writers who write at night. You never know what’s right for you until you try.
If you’re a full-time writer (or have lots of unscheduled time on your hands), you normally have a choice between morning, afternoon, and late-night writing sessions, so you can experiment. If writing is a part-time job (or a hobby), you might have to make do with what your schedule allows you to do.
Your writing time is sacred. Repeat after me: Writing. Time. Is. Sacred. Don’t let anyone (or anything) interrupt you unless it’s an absolute emergency.
Set goals like a pro
What is your goal when you sit down to write? If it’s something like “I don’t know, browse Medium for some inspo and see what happens”, I’ve got bad news for you. Even though writing is highly creative work, it still requires precise goals.
To avoid inventing the wheel, simply borrow a goal-setting technique such as SMART goals. SMART stands for:
- Attainable or Ambitious
For example: “Today, I’ll write 2000 words of blog content for my client X.”
You can use the SMART technique for setting all kinds of goals, from daily to yearly (“By September 1st, I’ll complete the first draft of my novel”).
If you find SMART goals confusing and/or uncomfortable in any way, there are several viable alternatives. Try FAST goals, for instance:
- Frequently discussed
“Frequently discussed” means that the goal is at the front of your mind. When you decide to write a novel, then forget about it and come back to it after six months, this is the opposite of “frequently discussed”.
Use rituals to achieve a deeper state of mind
Don’t be one of those writers who spend hours chasing the elusive flow state. Be one of the few who can experience flow almost at will.
Rituals are an excellent way of telling your brain, “hey, we’re going to write right now – please get in the zone.” They’re predictable, so they add structure to your day and help you switch between tasks.
Every writer has their own rituals before starting work. Personally, I drink a cup of coffee, listen to a specific playlist on Spotify and enjoy something sweet (because no one notices my lockdown weight gain, right?). After that, I can write a few thousand words without even noticing.
It doesn’t matter what your ritual looks like. You don’t need caffeine or sweets – maybe your way of entering the flow state is a short meditation and a cup of herbal tea. The important thing is that you stick to it every time.
Plan for rest and recovery
Try to schedule your writing sessions so that they’re not back to back with mentally and emotionally draining experiences. I used to try writing immediately after the usual bedtime battle with my toddler, but I quickly found out that I was too emotionally exhausted to write. I’d literally stare at my screen and try to remember what I was writing about.
But when I took a 20-minute break between parenting duties and writing, everything changed. I’d take a bath and all of a sudden, words would start flowing freely in my head. All I needed to do was get out, wrap myself in a towel and start writing.
Writing is hard work, so give yourself some well-deserved rest before and after a writing session. “Rest” refers to a relaxing activity that helps your brain switch gears and doesn’t flood you with unnecessary and/or uninspiring information (sorry, Netflix).
Aim to publish regularly
Accountability is a key success factor when it comes to building new habits. Just like it’s harder to miss a workout when your workout buddy expects you to join them, it’s harder to skip a writing session when your readers are already waiting for you.
Freelance copywriters are usually bound by deadlines so they’re forced to produce regular output. But it’s not as straightforward with other kinds of writers.
If you’re a blogger, you’ve probably heard that publishing at regular intervals is the key to success. You don’t have to publish daily – in fact, people who do so probably have a team of writers working for them – but publishing a new post every week or every two weeks is usually pretty doable. The most important thing is sticking to your content calendar. When your audience knows that you usually post new content every Tuesday, they’ll already get excited by Monday evening! Also, publishing regularly is good for SEO.
If you’re working on a novel or a collection of poems, you may consider joining a writing group that meets regularly to discuss the members’ progress. Alternatively, you can start a blog where you’d share updates from your writing journey. This is a good idea for two reasons: you can potentially get hundreds of accountability buddies and you can keep your subscribers excited about your book by sharing content like character sketches.
Last but not least: no matter what your writing project is, publishing regularly means that you have to write A LOT. And, as we’ve already discussed above, writing is what helps you perfect your craft.
Every writing routine is different. Some writers prefer working at dawn while others work after midnight. Some work for many hours on end while others take longer breaks. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” writing routine – essentially, the only advice I can give you is to experiment and see what works best for you.
Olga Ber is a freelance content writer and former journalist. She holds Master’s degrees in Literary Studies and Education. She’s passionate about healthtech, cybersecurity, and the psychology of writing.