Build Yourself a Writing Habit: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Do you ever set aside an entire afternoon for writing? Or, better yet, what about a whole weekend? You get someone else to do the chores, make the meals, and then you crawl into your little hidey-hole and write like a demon. Surely you can produce 3,000 or maybe even 5,000 words if you approach writing that way…

Well, maybe you can, but it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA.

I know a lot of writers who want to do this. They range from PR professionals who hope to finish a big report for a client, to struggling students who are desperate to wrap up a 60,000-word thesis, to aspiring novelists who want to break the back of their first book of fiction.

STOP! I say to everyone who has harboured this illusion, because an illusion it is. Here’s why:

1) If you try to write too much at once you’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. Imagine how terrible you’ll feel if you commit to an entire weekend of writing and produce only 350 words. “What a waste of time,” you’ll say to yourself. “But, I guess, I’m not meant to be a writer,” you may conclude. This is damaging for your morale and does not teach you how to build a writing practice that’s sustainable.

2) Writing for an entire afternoon, or even a weekend, is no way to build a habit. Writing should be something you do daily. It may be more like eating fruits and vegetables rather than gorging on chocolate cake, but it should be satisfying and fulfilling. And the only way to develop a habit is to do it regularly. Approach it in the same way a runner works up to a marathon: Start with shorter distances first. I suggest beginning with five minutes. Seriously. I know that’s barely enough time to turn on your computer and open a file, but this fits with the Kaizen method of small victories.

Once you’ve started writing for five minutes a day (and this may take as much as a month), then double it to 10 minutes. (Are you getting the idea that it will take a long while to work up to six hours? Good!) The only exception to this rule is if you have a looming deadline and don’t have the time to work up from five minutes a day. My advice? Just get the piece written as best you can and resolve to establish the habit in time for your next deadline.

3) By writing intensely, you run the risk of burning yourself out. Even if dire prediction number 1 above fails to occur and you do manage to produce 5,000 words, I can predict what will happen next. You won’t write for the next two or so weeks. This will happen, in part, because you’ll want to celebrate your tremendous “accomplishment” (our mind is very good at playing this kind of game). As well, you’ll likely be exhausted and you’ll need to recover.

Incidentally, this is the same reason I discourage writers who experience one of those infrequent but delicious white-hot writing phases—where whole sentences spring to mind faster than they can type—from continuing to write until the phase ends. This state, which happens rarely, even to professional writers, is so intoxicating that writers find it hard to stop. But it’s better to walk away from your “inspiration” and return at the same time the next day and maintain your writing habit.

Writing is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. And if you want to succeed you need to learn the lesson of the hyperactive hare: slow and steady wins the race. ∞

About Author

Daphne Gray-Grant

Daphne Gray-Grant, principal of The Publication Coach, gives communications advice to corporations and provides support, advice and training to writers around the world. She is author of two bestselling books: 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better and Your Happy First Draft. Neither is available in bookstores or on Amazon. If you’re interested in buying go to her website.