However ambitious your literary dreams, achieving them relies on an essential step, one that is solely within your control. You must write. You must do so consistently. Establishing a disciplined writing practice is the most important thing you can do and this post will help you do just that.
Landing on a bestseller list, earning rave reviews and big-name awards, landing a contract that will give you some form of financial freedom (that you will use—of course—to continue to write), or simply finishing an original manuscript will not happen unless you put pen to paper.
This does not necessarily mean you must write every single day. It does, however, require the sort of discipline that will keep you writing on bad days, when your fickle-minded muse is off rolling around in someone else’s hayloft.
First, A Caveat
I get it, fellow DIY writer on a budget. Piecing together your own education and skillset feels like building the boat while sailing. Ahead of you is a vast, seemingly unfathomable sea of writing resources and advice to navigate.
This column is not intended to hand down immutable rules or proscriptions. Instead, I want to empower you to continue building your own boat. Of what follows, incorporate the suggestions and strategies that work for you. Let go of what doesn’t. You may find, after some trial and error, that the blueprints for our ships look very different from one another.
Agreed? Then, read on to learn how to establish a disciplined writing practice.
Align Your Behavior with Your Priorities
Over the next two weeks, track how you spend your time. Use a basic spreadsheet or annotate your planner by hand. Be accurate and honest. Record any significant emotions or fluctuations in your energy and productivity levels.
At the end of two weeks, reflect. Do your day-to-day actions align closely with your priorities? What are some potential pockets of time you can reserve for writing? Your findings might surprise you.
From there, build a strategic writing schedule that you can adhere to.
Protect your creative time by blocking it out, like any other important appointment, in your agenda. It is perfectly acceptable to start small. Completing ten minutes of writing on your lunch breaks, every other day, will move you closer to a manuscript draft than idealizing four-hour weekend sessions that never happen.
Also, look for ways to tweak hard-to-break habits. Could you, for example, place a notebook by the couch where you will reach for it rather than the TV remote in the evenings?
Set Clear, Attainable, Measurable Goals
Nowadays, I write regularly out of force of habit, with far less of the pre-session hand-wringing and ritual I once had. When writing time is on my schedule, nestled (sometimes squished) between a part-time, in-person job and a second, at-home creative gig, I sit down and get to work.
The more you write on both good and bad days, whether constructing prose feels near-effortless or like drawing blood from a stone, the easier and more unselfconscious it will become.
If you are struggling with consistency, clear, attainable, and measurable goals can give your writing practice structure, purpose, and direction until it becomes second nature to sit at your desk day in and day out.
Whether you want to write 100 words or 1000, for an uninterrupted stretch of thirty minutes or five, your goals should be concrete and challenging, but manageable enough so you can reasonably accomplish them given the current demands of your life.
Track Your Progress
Writing is work. Immediate results are not guaranteed.
The granular, day-to-day developments in your writing practice and craft can often be difficult to see. To stay motivated, keep track of objective data like word count, the number of first drafts you have completed, or writing session length over both the short and long-term for a full picture of your progress.
Seeing the broad strides you make over longer periods of time can be a powerful reminder that your daily efforts really do make a difference. At the end of the quarter or calendar year, you can also use this information to set increasingly challenging goals for yourself and continue refining your writing schedule.
I happen to use Christie Yant’s Tools for Writers. Her templates are a user-friendly and inspiring addition to any writer’s toolkit. You can set up a profile on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) website and use their project goal and word count statistics tools throughout the year.
Even the most austere of spreadsheets can work wonders. Oh, the beauty of a set of blank cells! How heady the sense of possibility, as they call out to be populated with your data!
Have Back-Up Prompts Ready
So, you have blocked out time in your calendar. You have your progress tracker ready. You are alone at last with a blank page. And then, nothing. You have no idea what to write about. Your inner critic cackles in delight. Now what?
Sometimes you need a backup plan when you are trying to work under less-than-ideal conditions. Writing prompts are wonderful tools, especially on days you need outside help to stay anchored to your writing practice. A quick Google search can get you started in seconds, or you can check out Reedsy prompts, Writer’s Digest, or our very own DIY MFA Writer Igniter.
Days when you have no idea what to write or where to take your story are also great opportunities to focus on technical aspects of your craft. Why not use that session to write (or rewrite) scenes that explore and play with specific craft elements like dialogue, narrative voice, or point of view?
Use Positive Peer Pressure
While the writing life requires a certain degree of solitude, it does not have to be lonely. Today it is easier than ever to connect with local writing groups, professional associations, and the greater literary community. Other writers are invaluable sources of both professional guidance as well as encouragement. Don’t overlook them!
Many writing groups and organizations host in-person write-ins or run virtual writing sprints. Others may offer co-working sessions that you can join at various times during the week.
Take advantage of the positive, productive energy fostered in these group settings to fill out your writing practice once in a while. It is a lot harder to blow off writing time in your calendar when you know other people are expecting you to show up (and looking forward to seeing you!)
When all else fails, resort to bribery.
A little extrinsic motivation can go a long way. If your favorite, luxurious hot beverage from a corner coffee shop, one of the books on your wishlist, or an extra hour of reading time on Sunday morning is the extra push that effectively gets you in your writing chair, that is okay.
And be sure to treat yourself for meeting your goals throughout your writing journey. What we do is challenging work, and exercising the kind of self-discipline, reflection, and stamina to create objects that move people with little more than markings on a page is certainly worth celebrating.
It’s Your Turn
Ready to set pen to paper? Here is a prompt to kickstart your week with a disciplined writing practice.
Write a scene where one or more obstacles keep thwarting your main character’s attempts to create something new.
If you are a newbie, set a timer for five minutes and write. When the timer goes off, stop. Pause no more than two minutes to collect your thoughts and look over what you have written. Then, set the timer for ten minutes, and continue writing your scene in sprints between 5 to 15 minutes until you get to at least 400 words.
Tell us in the comments below: How did it go? What did you learn and apply from this article? What other strategies work for you in creating a disciplined writing practice?
The elder daughter of Korean-Canadian and Austrian immigrants, F.E. Choe currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina. When she is not at her desk trying to craft true and beautiful sentences or piecing together her latest short story, you will find her feeding the dog scraps under the table, reading, or training her backyard flock of hens to walk backwards. Follow her on Instagram @f.e.choe.