If you struggle to establish a writing practice, don’t despair. While writing will never be a completely painless process, there are ways to make it easier on yourself (not to mention more fun).
First, though, some real talk: Most people who want to write never do. Or, at least, they never make writing enough of a habit to finish any of the big projects they have in mind, be it a novel, a memoir, or a chapbook of poems.
Say you have a great idea but you don’t know where to start. Or you get started with your project but then lose the thread, or get distracted, and never wind up finishing it. In either case, the following tips can help you get started, get back on track if you’ve stalled out—and, ultimately, get to the finish line with your project.
Terrified of the blank white page? You’re not alone. There’s something about beginnings that’s deeply intimidating—especially when it’s the beginning of something big.
The thing is, the beginnings are all about brainstorming and daydreaming—and as it turns out, staring at a blinking cursor on a blank white page is really not the best way to do either of these things.
Neuroscience suggests that this sort of big-picture creative thinking—about what you envision for your project, its concerns, its scope, even the voice you hear for it—is best accomplished while walking, or in the back of your mind as you’re going about other tasks, or as you’re falling asleep at night. In this way, you’ll be partnering with your subconscious mind, opening the door to associative connections that simply won’t arise if you try to push.
What are the questions driving your project? What do you know about it, and what don’t you know? In the earliest stages of your writing process, as far as I’m concerned, you shouldn’t be writing at all—you should be thinking about your project in a way that clues you into what it is you really want to do, and how you really want to do it.
Once you’ve answered these sorts of questions, it’s time to set aside a few hours to envision where you’re going. Take yourself out for coffee on a Sunday morning, or set aside those precious hours after the kids go to bed. This is your time to flesh out and solidify your ideas.
What will the plot of your novel be? What topics will your essays cover? What are the concerns of your poetry, the forms that inspire you, the specific themes you’d like to write toward?
This is the time to take all those big-picture ideas you’ve had floating around in your head and solidify them into a real plan. Be as specific as you can—this plan will be the roadmap for your project.
Only have a half hour a day to write? Or even fifteen minutes? No problem. When you have a detailed plan for your project, it’s not hard to make use of small chunks of time to execute it.
You may do nothing more than write a few sentences, or a paragraph, or a few lines of poetry. But if you write each day—preferably at the same time, but not necessarily—you will progress in your project.
If you can find more time to devote to your writing practice on a daily basis, great—but remember, it can be hard to continue a practice that’s based on finding big chunks of time. If you can learn to write in smaller increments, you’ll wind up writing more often (which tends to be the key to finishing).
And if you lose the thread, remember, you have a blueprint you can return to (and amend, if necessary). It’s not necessary to keep the big picture of your project in your head at all times—all that’s necessary is that you keep inching forward, whether it’s a little or a lot at a time.
One of the best ways to ensure that you stick to your writing practice over the long term is to find a group of people who will keep you accountable for creating new work.
This group might be a traditional writers’ critique group, or it might be a generative group like Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write. If you live in a place where writers are scarce, even a Patreon campaign that makes you accountable to your sponsors for new work every month will do the trick.
Of course, it’s possible to establish a writing practice in isolation—but over the long haul, it’s hugely helpful to know that there is someone on the other end, waiting to read what you’ve written.
Finally, if you find your writing process losing steam, stop and ask yourself why. Is it because you’ve become too critical of your own work? Because you haven’t gotten the validation and direction that comes through feedback? Or because you’re pursuing the wrong project, one that your heart isn’t really in?
In the end, you may find it something more like the fact that your writing desk is uncomfortable, or that you don’t like working where it’s too noisy (or too quiet). Maybe you need to draft in longhand, or outdoors, or next to a window. Maybe you need to write with a cup of coffee in hand, or after you’ve had a glass of wine, or after you’ve read a poem by your all-time favorite poet.
Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself to find out, and experiment until you find the tools, setting, and context that sends a clear signal to your mind: writing is fun, and this is a great time to make it happen.
Now it’s your turn. What do you struggle with in your writing practice? And what has proven most helpful to you in staying on track?
An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) The Writer’s Chronicle, The Utne Reader, Story, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions), which won the 2017 Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.
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