Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

For the past month, I have lived by a grid telling me what to do each day. For Type B people, this may seem ludicrous. But since graduating from college, I’ve been winging it and have almost nothing to show except one long suffering manuscript and no progress on other endeavors. I wasted two years that I could have been building my film portfolio. Two years I could have been freelancing my graphics skills. Two years I could have been writing and publishing short fiction.

I’m not wasting time anymore.

But a schedule means nothing without discipline, and that discipline is something I have to grow. I don’t meet all my goals every week. I barely meet my goals every month. But I do reach 70-80% of them, and it gets easier every day. By the end of 2015, I hope these goals will instead be habits. And since the point of this blog is to share both my progress and philosophies so that they may help other writers, here are a few tips to transform ideals into real habits:

Multiple projects. I wasn’t always a supporter of this, mostly because one project tends to overwhelm my brain at a time, leaving no inspiration for other things. In some ways, this remains true – I still can’t write two novels at once. But a novel and a short story? That’s okay. A short story and a website? That’s cool too. Spreading your projects across different mediums is a great brain hack, because I think we all have a set of muses instead of just one. You can fire all of them up at the same time and work steadily on everything, rather than burning out “the novel muse” before you’re even done with it.

Meditation. You know how the best ideas come to you in the shower, or on the ride to work, or as you’re about to fall asleep? There’s a reason – those moments are when your mind is most relaxed (assuming you’re not driving in D.C. traffic every day!) Stepping back and letting your mind wander is like instant inspiration. I swear, half the plot twists for Paradisa were born in the bathroom. You could try setting aside 15-30 minutes every day to physically meditate, but I personally haven’t made time for that yet. Instead, I harness my brain’s natural meditation cycles by keeping a small memo pad close by, and by using my smartphone’s voice recorder app. Like dreams, a lot of ideas and writing envisioned during this period can be fleeting, and I don’t want to forget them!

Schedules. Again, some more. Sorry, but they’re essential for me. I have road marks for all of my mediums going all the way through 2020! But some things, like my ambitious feature-length mocap project, actually take that much preparation. When you’re trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for something, you need the luxury of time and a multi-year game plan. And for anyone trying to be an indie anything, you need time to build a platform before you can expect to be successful.

Another thing about schedules – they ensure all months have a fairly even workload. I have allowed myself a hiatus on most things during months where I’ll draft a new novel. Similarly, during months where my novel is in beta, I focus more on non-novel things. I don’t want to reach March and realize all my deadlines have converged at once and I’ve given myself an impossible workload (only to be followed by a month where everything is slow and I’m basically wasting time).

Know your limits. In my prime, I could write 2000 words/hour. That seems like a fantasy now, because I no longer live alone and I have a much earlier bedtime. In fact, I didn’t really have a bedtime two years ago and constantly showed up to work bedraggled. In exchange for getting 8 hours of sleep every day, barely drinking caffeine, and being a decent live-in girlfriend, my maximum daily word count is about 1000 words.

When setting goals, don’t pretend you’re someone you’re not. Remember that sometimes you have sinus headaches, sometimes you want a nap, sometimes you have to work late, sometimes you want to marathon Lost on Netflix. If you schedule yourself like some kind of creative workhorse, you’ll burn yourself out if you meet your goals or you’ll be disappointed if you fail them. Or, like me, you’ll end up at the chiropractor for six months because being hunched over a laptop like a machine crippled your back. >.> Books like “How I Write 10,000 Words A Day” are tempting to emulate, but remember that those people are usually professional writers whose sole job 8 hours a day is to write fiction. For the rest of us working stiffs, especially those of us who want some semblance of a social life even if it’s just with our partner, that’s simply not realistic.

And even with a mere 800 words a day, I’m still writing more than I would have otherwise. It looks like I will complete Paradisa Draft 6 in two months, when it took me 7 months to do the same amount of work on Draft 5.

Priorities. Sleep is now a priority for me. Giving my partner attention is a priority. On the other end of the spectrum, I try to prioritize my art over playing video games and watching TV (which is a shame, because I love Fallout 3 and wish I had time to play it!) But now I’m talking about prioritizing your actual projects. Right now, Paradisa Draft 6 comes before anything else. It’s what I spend the top chunk of my energy on because if everything else fails, I still want a completed manuscript of this book to show for it.

Then there are bonus goals that do not have immediacy behind them, and do not have any particular external deadline (like an anthology reading period) or self-set deadline to meet. I work on these second.

Taking A Day Off. Unfortunately, I did not design a day off into my schedule, which has so far been a terrible idea (as a side point, I’d like to stress that schedules and goals are organic things. Too many people see organization as a prison. It’s not. It’s entirely in your control, and you can make the variables be whatever suits you). When I get the chance to reorient things, I am definitely leaving Saturdays free of responsibility. I never accomplish anything on Saturdays as it is, and I need a day to recharge from the combination of my full time job and the creative work. It’s tempting to shove all your creative projects onto the weekends, but personally, I get a surprising amount done on weeknights. Which leads me to…

Treat writing like it’s your job. Ideally, I will treat Sundays as if I’m a work-from-home writer. Austin works on Sundays, so I have the whole house to myself. I rarely have responsibilities on Sunday aside from household chores and making dinner. So that leaves me 7-8 hours to sit in my office and, for one day every week, pretend like this is my job. I’ve yet to do such a thing – probably because I haven’t given myself Saturdays off yet ;) This is my ultimate goal by the end of the year though, because imagine how productive one could be if they devoted a whole day to writing and creating?

Hope this helps some of you who struggle to find the time or motivation to complete your projects. One of the most admirable methods of creativity that we don’t utilize enough in America is focusing on what you can do with the resources you have rather than aspiring towards goals that are beyond your scale. Time is a resource. Energy is a resource. Find out how much you have of both and work within those limits rather than pretending you have more of either. If you simply commit to working on something – anything – it’s pretty amazing what you can build.

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9 thoughts on “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

  1. I’m big on schedules too. It’s not that I map out every hour of the day–too many unexpected things occur, and I would drive myself mad at the interruptions if I had everything planned out. But I have timelines and goals of what I’d like to have done by a certain time. Most of the time I stick to it; sometimes I just can’t. But I always try to maintain forward momentum (in terms of my writing).

    I’m the same as you in terms of meditation. I don’t devote time each day to it (though I should probably give it a try), but many ideas come in the shower or while I’m exercising, so I too try to keep notebooks nearby or jot down the ideas in my phone.

    • Right now, I’m in the habit of writing 800 words a day, period. It could be before work, it could be at 10:30 pm, so long as it gets done. Then, I’m experimenting with devoting certain days to certain things, lile Monday is film editing, Tuesday is 3D animation, and Friday is when I outline stuff. Some things have worked, others aren’t really sticking with me. I’m still moving stuff around and trying to do what comes naturally (for instance, I probably shouldn’t put outlining, which is one of the most important things to do, on Friday. I usually get side tracked on Friday, so maybe that would be a good day to focus on bonus goals).

      And yeah, the best way to be organized is to keep a fluidity to it. I think I’ve failed at schedules in the past because they were too rigid and unrealistic. Like you, I’m mostly just concerned with momentum. I shoot for the moon with the hope of at least ending up among the stars :P

      • Sounds like a great plan. Sometimes working on our manuscript late at night stinks when we’d rather watch TV to wind down, but if I don’t get it in earlier, there’s where I find myself. Even if I just put in an hour, that’s an hour forward.

  2. Very good points here and definitely tips to live by and adopt. I fail miserably at this too and I always feel I need to manage the distractions better. But you’re right, you have to treat it as a job or you will go nowhere.
    I meant to ask, what sort of short stories are you writing now?

    • Ah, distractions. Don’t feel too bad – I could theoretically lock myself in the office for five hours a day and be crazy productive but then everything else would suffer. An abundance of distractions is bad, but this *is* about incorporating writing into a life you actually like living. And entertainment is totally part of that!

      The current WIP is a dark fantasy adaptation of my fanfic Oedipus….although the story kind of falls apart without the incest so I’m taking a different angle with it. :P

      I’ve got a couple literary stories to do next month – one is based on some workplace sexual harassment I delt with, the other based on two old people who have an immortality pact because of their father’s eccentric will. Then a scifi story about nanobots in October and some magical realism about a guy who can talk to paintings in November. Casting the net wide, so I have an eclectic trunk to pull from. Tbh, so far my short story writing has been the least successful of anything because I still haven’t even finished one. Mostly because I haven’t figured them out well enough ahead of time. Gonna try to write the Oedipus reboot this week though, so here’s hoping.

  3. I have been plotting out a post very similar to this. I’m struggling to find balance with everything I need and want to do and it seems nothing is really getting accomplished in the end. I’ve set a goal of 500 words a day and I’ve stuck to that pretty well so far. Some days I even managed to squeeze in almost 1000. Exercise has always been sort of a way to meditate and let my mind just be free and I haven’t done that at all in the last year. I’m trying to squeeze that in as well. Like you, I think my problem is that I haven’t stuck to a schedule and just winged it. I’d come in from work, maybe write a few minutes, jump up do laundry, throw something fast together for dinner or play outside with the boys. Then back inside to sit down and write a few minutes, get up take care of bath/bed time, sit down, etc. It’s not working out. For the past couple of weeks, I don’t open my laptop until the kids are in bed and household stuff taken care of. Not only am I more focused, everything is getting tended to. I’ve also taken a couple of afternoons off of work and devoted that to just writing. I’m lucky in being able to do that and I hope to continue it. I think once we get into the habit, it will all come more easier. At least that’s the hope :) Great post!

    • I am still getting used to the schedule, and there are still days where I don’t write at all and vow to double my word count the next day, or I just feel like watching TV/hanging out. Luckily, having a task list still gives me guidance, and it means that the potential to work on something creative is always in the back of my mind. Taking a day off becomes the exception instead of the rule.

      Cheers to you for making time to exercise too, because I have never made that a part of my daily routine pretty much ever. And I ought to, because I’ve been feeling bloody awful about my weight lately. But I hate it so much and I always feel like “this is time I could be doing something productive.” Even if exercise IS productive, it just FEELS like a waste of time because I have nothing to show for it except a really sore body at the end.

  4. Pingback: Stuff To Be Proud Of: Looking Back on August | Aether House

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