This article was originally published in The Writing Cooperative, a Medium.com publication.
The overwhelmingly vast majority of fiction writers I’ve met don’t actually do much writing. They think about writing, they talk about writing, they read about writing, but they rarely sit down and put pen to paper. This is a hard struggle to overcome, I get it. I’m writing this guide to help, not to criticize.
I own three businesses, and believe it or not, a normal work week for me is 40 hours or fewer, including writing time. How do I do it? It’s all about deciding what’s most important and saying “no” to everything else. (I highly recommend Greg McKeown’s books Essentialism and Effortless.) In this guide, I’ve put together eight tips for fiction writers who have trouble, you know… writing.
Note: I wrote this guide primarily for fiction writers, but much of it applies to nonfiction as well.
Tip #1: There’s No Such Thing as “Finding” Time to Write
You have to make time, full stop. Very rarely (if ever) will you wake up one day and realize that external circumstances have conveniently freed up some time in your schedule.
For most of us, making time to write requires cutting other stuff from the calendar, often painfully. The fact that it’s painful doesn’t change the fact that it must be done. Nowadays, I usually have three full days every week devoted to writing, but that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, I was working a regular full-time job and taking a full load of college classes. (Never, ever do that.) For a while, in order to write, I had to get up at 4 in the morning. It sucked. But writing was so important to me that I wasn’t willing to stop doing it altogether.
If you’re serious about writing, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions about your other commitments, no two ways about it.
Tip #2: Learn What Makes Good Writing Good (and Why)
I hold some beliefs about writing that cost me a lot of clients, and this is one of them: There are objective, fact-based standards of writing. In other words, I reject the common belief that nothing more than one’s opinion is needed to classify a story as good or bad.
I’m certainly not claiming to know everything about writing or that I never err in my own judgments, but I am saying that I regularly encounter a mindset that is absolutely poisonous to growth. That is the mindset of “my writing is good because I say it is, and anyone who disagrees is wrong.” Some of my clients only ever have a single coaching session with me, and this is the most common reason why: They never wanted to become better writers, they wanted to pay someone to tell them that their bad writing is good.
Obviously, it’s important to learn what makes good writing good, but what does it have to do with establishing consistent writing habits? There are several connections here, but the biggest and most important one is that understanding why good writing is good gives you an ever-expanding list of specific strategies and techniques to practice. This helps you improve faster, which makes your writing sessions more enjoyable, which, in turn, creates an ever-growing incentive to keep practicing.
If you haven’t already spent a lot of time studying great writers, I strongly encourage you to do so throughout your own writing journey. Whether you read books, watch videos, or listen to podcasts, expose yourself to other writers’ thoughts regularly and evaluate everything you hear critically. There’s so much writing advice out there. Some of it is good, much of it is bad, but ultimately, your own mind is the only tool you have to judge what’s true, and only by writing regularly can you discover what works and what doesn’t. If something you hear or read doesn’t make sense, and if it still doesn’t make sense after further investigation, don’t accept it. Similarly, if you learn something that contradicts something else you know, one (or both) of those things must be wrong; it may take some hard thinking to figure out what’s correct, and why.
I’m currently working on an article about the evidence-based elements of good storytelling. For now, I’ll leave you with my top three recommendations:
- The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand
- Neil Gaiman’s Storytelling Masterclass
- The Critical Drinker’s YouTube channel (adult content warning)
Tip #3: Discipline, Not Motivation
One of the questions I hear most often is, “How do I find motivation to write?”
The answer is as simple as it is painful to hear: You don’t.
If you don’t start writing until you feel motivated, the rest of your life will zip by and you’ll die with few or no finished stories to your name. In 99% of cases, discipline—not motivation—is what gets hard things done. When it’s time to write, you need to just sit down and write, whether you feel like it or not. Once you’ve been writing for fifteen or thirty minutes, you’ll settle into a rhythm and motivation will no longer be an issue. Over time, as you build discipline, that reluctance to get started will decrease.
It is true that you can’t force creativity in the sense that you can’t force ideas to come out of your head, but when necessary, you must force the conditions required for creativity. If you’ve designated 9:00 AM as your writing time, then you need to be in your chair by then, with all distracting apps and websites closed, with your phone turned off, and with someone else watching the kids. It will take some time and consistency to browbeat your brain into accepting the hard truth that this is writing time and no other tomfoolery will be tolerated, but it is doable, and it’s the best way to start building a sustainable habit.
Tip #4: No Zero Days
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the writing plan you made for today just doesn’t pan out. That’s okay. Nobody is capable of 100% consistency, so don’t try to hold yourself to that impossible standard.
The only day on which you’ve failed is a day on which you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing. Even a tiny amount of progress is still progress. If you only have ten minutes of writing time today, find something useful to do for those ten minutes—read a chapter of a book about writing or write one paragraph of character notes. Small, consistent investments of energy add up to big things over time, but if you do nothing at all, you’ll find that that inevitably becomes your daily habit.
To approach the same concept from a different angle, try something I call “REGs,” which stands for “Ridiculously Easy Goals.” Big, ambitious goals such as “write 5,000 words every day” can be problematic for a number of reasons. For one thing, they’re easy to fail, and if you fail one day, it can make the next day seem even harder. This can quickly turn into an uncontrolled spiral of getting nothing done.
Ridiculously easy goals, on the other hand, are boxes you can check with so little effort that you would feel downright silly for missing them. In the context of writing, this could be something like “write 50 words a day” or “work on a story outline for 5 minutes.” Such goals are useful primarily as jumpstarts that turn into longer, more productive tasks. No matter how busy you are, you can make time for 50 words, and once you do, you’ll usually find that that’s enough to get you over that initial reluctance to get started, and you’ll keep going for thirty minutes, an hour, or longer.
If you’re skeptical about this tactic, you should know that I used it to write this guide. My previous Medium piece was published over a month ago. The Medium train was slowing down too much, so I promised myself that I would at least start this guide today and work on it for ten minutes. Once I got going, those ten minutes turned into four hours, and then I was done.
Tip #5: Learn the Dang Process
Most people—even many aspiring writers—seem to think that writing is essentially magic: You open a new document, you start pressing keys, and somehow, a good story will eventually come out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writing—especially fiction writing—is a long, difficult series of evidence-based steps. Rarely, writers produce decent writing by simply putting words on the page without following an effective process, but that’s mostly luck when it happens; it’s not possible to consistently craft good stories that way.
Trying to write without following the right process is no different from trying to do anything else without the required knowledge and tools. If you don’t know how to build a wall, stacking bricks by guesswork won’t get you very far. If you don’t know how to cook, tossing random ingredients and spices into a pan won’t create a tasty dish. Trying to do anything the wrong way produces bad results and frustration, neither of which is a strong incentive to keep practicing.
The exact steps of the writing process vary somewhat depending on what kind of writing you’re doing, but in fiction, the basic structure of the process is always the same. For more details, check out my 7-Step Guide to the Novel-Writing Process.
Tip #6: Embrace the Suck
A question I ask all of my clients and other writers is, “What’s stopping you from writing more?” One of the most common answers is, “I feel like my writing isn’t good enough, so I’m reluctant to practice.”
It should be obvious how this can be a vicious catch-22. You can’t get better if you don’t practice. On some level, we all know this, but there’s another, less obvious point to consider.
All fiction writers produce bad writing most of the time.
Many fiction writers seem to think they’re the only ones who can’t stand the majority of their own work. It’s not just you, I promise. At least 70% of the fiction I write sucks and nobody but me ever sees it. Another 20% isn’t quite bad, but it’s not particularly good, either. I only share the top 10% of my work. That does not mean that writing the other 90% was a waste of my time.
Every bad word you write is a learning opportunity. If you get halfway through a short story and you don’t want to finish it because it sucks—finish it anyway. It doesn’t matter how. Just put words on the page and crank out something resembling an ending. Then, instead of burying it in a folder you’ll never open again, re-read it after a few days. Ask yourself questions like:
- Why is this sentence bad?
- Why do I hate this character?
- What about this choice of words is bothering me?
- Why does this subplot feel unsatisfying?
- Why does the whole middle part of the story bore me?
Study your own work like a paleontologist trying to pry answers from old fossils. Figure out what you did wrong and think about why you wrote it that way. This is one of the best ways to learn how to do better next time.
Tip #7: Stop Thinking about Your Audience
Fiction writers often lose sleep over what readers will think of their work. To an extent, this is an important consideration, especially if you’re trying to make a living as a writer, but many writers worry about it far more than they should.
You are your own most important reader. Write stories that you enjoy writing and that you want to read. Liking your own work doesn’t guarantee that others will, but if you don’t like your own work, nobody else will. When writers try to deceive themselves, readers can tell.
Write for yourself and then share your best work with others. Don’t write for others and then try to convince yourself to like it. This may sound like a semantic distinction, but I assure you it’s not. Writing primarily for other people is a quick and sure path to burnout, resentment, and failure.
Tip #8: Find a Partner
Do your best to find a writing partner, someone who will stick to a regular schedule with you, someone who also enjoys writing and with whom you can build a relationship centered on mutual feedback and encouragement. Finding such a person can be really hard—I have a writing partner now, but I’ve spent most of my adult life without one.
In this context, dedication and discipline trump skill and experience. A novice writer who puts in hours of hard work, shows up to every meeting, and always has thoughtful feedback to share is worth infinitely more than a veteran author who always finds excuses to reschedule or who can’t be bothered to do a deep dive into your rough draft. An inexperienced writer who tries hard and practices regularly will improve over time; an expert who knows a lot but doesn’t do much is worth very little.
If you can’t find someone who also likes to write, an accountability partner is the next best thing. Try to find someone who is willing to make certain commitments to keep you in the habit of practicing regularly, such as holding you to deadlines, reading everything you give them, and offering at least basic feedback. A true writing partner is ideal, but an accountability partner is better than nothing.
Countless prolific authors will tell you that, even after decades of practice, the hardest part of any new story is getting started. You’re not alone if you regularly struggle to sit down and start writing. These eight time-tested tips should help you get over that hurdle.