As I mentioned a while back, one of the things I am looking to do going forward is to make more posts on this site about writing and some of the techniques that I have found beneficial over the years.
A friend asked me today if I had any advice on how to start writing. The best advice I can give is to commit some time to it every day, like, say, ten minutes. One of the myths that people believe about writers is that we are just inspired to write all the time and let that inspiration motivate us. That might be true for a few rare talents, but not for the rest of us.
I wrote semi-compulsively all through elementary school and high school. I started two novels and finished a draft of one of them while I was still in college. But you know what got me to the point of actually publishing a novel? It wasn’t inspiration or compulsion. It was sitting down and writing for at least ten minutes a day, whether I felt like it or not. Inspiration is a trap, and waiting for it is a pretty reliable recipe for writer’s block.
When you do your daily writing, you don’t need to work on a particular project. You can spend that time writing anything. Poems, scenes, bits of dialogue – it’s all writing, and it all counts. It’s not unlikely that at some point you will settle on a project, but you should let that happen organically. The important thing is just to get your time in, writing something – writing anything.
Of course, you don’t need to limit yourself to ten minutes. If you find yourself on a roll, by all means keep going. Just make sure that you spend that ten minutes every day. Don’t tell yourself, “I did 30 minutes yesterday, so I can take a break for a couple days.” The regularity of it, not necessarily the time spent, is what’s most important. In that way it’s just like magical practice.
The key is that you need to build up habit energy. Some studies have suggested it takes something like sixty repetitions to ingrain a habit, so that suggests when starting out you should try to do your ten minutes of writing every day without fail for the first two months. After that, you can skip a day every so often. But you want to maintain a routine that helps you sit down and do the work.
That’s about where I’m at these days. I write most days, and when I do it I spend longer than ten minutes at it. Blogging is a big help in that department, especially when you have an audience who expects posting at a certain frequency. I try to put up a new post every other day or so on Augoeides, so I post fifteen or sixteen articles during a usual month. I’m adding posting here, so that will be at least a few more depending on how it goes and what I decide to do.
The key skill is in developing the ability to write when you don’t feel like it. On a longer project like a novel or non-fiction reference book, there are always going to be some parts that you find boring, but which are necessary to get to the next plot point or more interesting patch of exposition. That’s where writers get stuck a lot of the time. “I want to work on my novel, but where I’m at in it is really dull.”
Push through it and get it done. I’ve experimented with trying to jump around and start by writing the fun parts, but that leaves a bunch of boring stuff to do at the end and it starts to feel overwhelming. The only novels that I’ve finished were written from start to finish for the most part. It helps you keep the plot points straight, and it means that you don’t reach a point where there’s nothing left but scenes you will never get around to writing.
Now this article does offer a counterpoint. I do think that relying on word quotas is a problem – some days you’ll write more, some days you’ll write less – and I also agree that trying to set up an excessive routine is likely to fail. But ten minutes? Without a hard quota? I think just about anybody can stick to that. And that really is all it takes.
So those are few suggestions that I hope aspiring writers will find useful. If you give the ten minute practice a try, I think you will be surprised at how powerful the technique really is.