I first met novelist Rosie Garland ten years after she’d started writing fiction. With four and a half completed novels – none of which had had been published – she was on the verge of giving up. Then she entered the Mslexia novel competition and won. The prize-winning book The Palace of Curiosities triggered a bidding war and resulted a six-figure two-book deal with Harper Collins.
Rosie was one of hundreds of writers I met when I managed Arvon’s writing centre Lumb Bank. One thing I learnt from all successful writers is that there are no shortcuts – it takes time and practice to develop. Rosie believes if success had come earlier she might not be where she is now. She told me:
“The amount of time I have had to work to become a novelist has paid off. I have learnt my craft, I have done my apprenticeship.”
The benefits of regular writing
Research has shown it takes at least ten years to build up the necessary 10,000 hours of practice to reach a level of expertise – in anything. It’s also been found that having a regular writing habit increases writing productivity, generates more ideas, improves chances of success, and even has benefits for mental health. However, developing a writing practice is one of the hardest things for writers to do.
My research with over 500 writers found that nearly 90% of writers want to write more frequently, ideally every day. When asked what they find most difficult ‘developing a regular writing practice’ came top. Fortunately, there are tried and tested ways to help you start writing regularly, build your practice, and finish what you start.
Start small to build a habit
Habits are things that are done automatically without thinking. Over time, repetition hardwires them into our brains and bodies. That’s why old habits are so hard to break and new ones take time to form.
The psychology of behaviour change provides tactics to form new habits. For example five minutes might not seem very long but it’s all you need to start building a habit. Stanford University’s behaviour change expert BJ Fogg believes that starting small is essential; attempting to achieve something large makes you more likely talk yourself out of doing it. The first step is to set a tiny goal that takes only a few minutes each day.
Piggyback your habit
Another barrier to building habits is that making decisions and doing something new depletes your willpower. An obvious suggestion is to do the habit first thing in the morning when your reserves are topped up after a good night’s sleep. Indeed, in her 1930s classic Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brand started her no-nonsense guide towards effortless writing with the advice to write immediately on waking.
But this isn’t such great advice for writers who have other demands first thing, for whom getting up earlier isn’t an option, and for those who are night owls. Another way to look at Brand’s recipe for writing success is to not see it as a command to get up earlier but a way of attaching writing to waking up – a behaviour that you do anyway.
BJ Fogg has researched this and found that we can use activities in our established routines to trigger a new habit. Making writing the first thing you do after waking up will fix the habit in your day. Alternatively you could decide to write after eating lunch, on returning home from work, or after doing the dishes (my preference would be to write rather than do the washing up). The key is to identify something you do already and piggyback onto it.
Schedule time to write
If you’re serious about writing then you have to make it a priority so be ruthless in evaluating its importance against other commitments in your life. Management guru Stephen Covey once said “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
A tip I learnt from my first writing tutor is to draw up a weekly schedule – seven days divided into hourly slots from when you get up to when you go to bed. Next, cross off all the time you’re engaged in other activities. Whatever time is available can be claimed it for writing.
If you find you’re booked solid from dawn to dusk, you have a few options – you can reschedule some of your previous engagements or jiggle things around to increase the spaces between activities. Another option is to stop doing things. Remember: schedule your priorities.
Once you’ve finalised your schedule, pin it above your desk, note your writing appointments in your diary and commit to them. That way you’ll find it easier to turn down activities and invites that clash.
Develop your skills
Writing is just like practising the piano. The time spent rewriting and editing all contribute to developing your skills even if you don’t have much to show at the end of it. Dramatist and novelist Nell Leyshon believes that if you focus on the practice then nothing is wasted. She said: “You need to learn your craft, you need to study other writers, you need to write. You need to re-write. But most of all, just do it. Don’t talk about it. Do it.”
So grab five minutes today, and another five minutes tomorrow, and day by day, you’ll start to build a regular practice.
Bec Evans is co-founder of Write Track, a free goal-setting community for writers. She’s also a frustrated short story writer and former centre director of Arvon’s Ted Hughes Centre for Creative Writing.