Beginning a year’s worth of writing 750+ words every single day…it wasn’t easy. In fact when I started, I had no idea I’d keep the streak going for so long!
When I first set out to start a writing habit, I’d never been too conscious about writing on consecutive days, let alone actively keeping a streak alive.
In the post below, I share my story of a full year’s worth of daily writing, as well as several of the most important lessons I learned from the experience. I made a nice clean PDF isolating just the most important stuff — these lessons, including a few more I couldn’t fit in below (11 in total!) You can download that for free by signing up here:[convertkit form=4861194]
My catalyst — The Thing that Finally Motivated me to Write Daily — was a strange and delightfully masochistic thing called NaNoWriMo. It’s an annual month-long writerly self-challenge (every November) the sole goal of which is to write 50,000 novel-oriented words in 30 days. It requires rapid verbal accumulation — to the tune of at least 1,666 per day, on average — to meet the goal.
I’d observed the fray from afar the previous few years, and in early fall 2013, I toyed around with both potential story concepts and the nerve-wracking idea of submitting myself to the challenge. I’d always loved writing, but aside from a few short film scripts hadn’t much practiced my hand at fiction, and I thought it would be fun to try.
I knew that writing daily would be essential to hitting the 50,000+ word total. So I decided that I’d spend the few weeks leading up to November as a practice run. I’d try to write at least 750 words a day (using 750words.com — a nice, minimalist site with useful statistics and a cool creative philosophy) to track that goal. I started with an odd day or two, then put together a streak that gained momentum, turning into an uninterrupted 17 days of writing leading into November.
LESSON: Give Yourself a Ramp-Up Period to Build Momentum
Starting before the pressure officially began was super helpful, and let me ease into the process without feeling like a missed day would count against me. Come NaNoWriMo itself I already had some semblance of routine, along with a few loose story ideas, so I was able to just jump in. Keeping it up was difficult, and bore fruits far from anything approaching novelistic coherence — but it showed me, hey, at least this daily writing thing is possible. And most importantly, it built momentum for a longer term writing habit, setting the course for daily writing success!
I’m not one to break a streak if I can help it; I’m drawn to the challenge and the sense of accomplishment that comes with keeping it alive. I tried to start strong and dedicate as much time as I could to setting myself up for success by surpassing my daily goal for a few days early on.
I had a few story ideas in mind, but I didn’t spend much time plotting it out ahead of time. I frequently jumped around, changing direction as I went, testing out subplots and meta-referential digressions and other things anathema to any kind of final draft.
But luckily, my goal wasn’t a final draft — it was simply to write every day and end the month with 50,000 words. Those words had to somehow relate to my novel idea (Tangleverse — about extraterrestrial contact and a family of scientists and quantum entangled communication and other weird things I still haven’t fully hashed out yet) but there were no rules to dictate each day’s writing.
Within the constraints of word count and consistency, I gave myself a flexible framework within which to focus my daily energy.
Sometimes I’d write barely more than 750 words; other days I’d get on a roll and write 2,000 or even 3,000 words — I knew it had to average out to at least 1,666 per day, and I tried to stay ahead early on, but I knew some variance was okay. I dedicated around an hour per day to writing, which actually proved quite manageable! It was a considerable change from not-writing — a major new habit — but it wasn’t burdensome. And I tried to make it fun by choosing an interesting topic and being comfortable with digressions and playfulness in my writing.
LESSON: Balance Consistency with Randomness
I found it helpful to keep things fairly loose and unstructured, particularly early on. In NaNoWriMo lingo, people tend to fall in one of two camps: planners, who outline their whole story out ahead of time; and pantsers, who hew more to the the “seat of pants” school of thought. Firmly in the latter camp, I treated each day’s writing session as a chance to brainstorm possible scenes and story ideas, and explore weird thoughts that may or may not have clear narrative relevance. Of course, I still had the One True Law of Word Count to abide by; that kept me honest as far as the “daily habit” part was concerned. But when it came to the “what” of the writing, I was happy to take whatever seemed to come out of my head. I humbly suggest that you should be, too!
When NaNoWriMo ended, I scaled back my time commitment, but made it a point to continue the 750-words-per-day habit.
I’ve read a lot about how habit formation takes daily effort on the order of 21–30 days to solidify and internalize. It so happens that NaNoWriMo fit this length just about perfectly. I wasn’t fully aware of that when I started, but it turned out to be a great forcing mechanism, giving me both the impetus to start the habit and the momentum to sustain it.
As I continued for dozens, then hundreds of days, it become simply another part of my daily routine, something that I felt compelled to do — and do every day, even if tired or feeling rather blah. Early on, I sometimes had to force myself, but it gradually became second-nature. I think it helped to begin with a greater, even exaggerated conscientiousness, and I think that a short- to medium-term project with well-defined goals, like NaNoWriMo provided, can be very useful for establishing this.
LESSON: Habits Become Easier The More You Keep Them Alive
Kind of a “duh” point here but bears repeating…the first few weeks are by far the hardest! Now, full disclosure: my NaNoWriMo words are still gathering digital dust in a Scrivener folder somewhere; I haven’t yet steeled myself to revisit the resultant half-baked draft and see if I can shape it into something worth taking further. But I’m super glad I did NaNoWriMo because otherwise I might not have given this habit enough fuel to make it stick at all. After these first 30 days, there was no overnight shift, but it did gradually get easier the more routine it became. And 50 or 100 days in, it felt like it would be weird for me NOT to get the day’s words in!
I gave myself minimal constraints on what topics I chose to write about, so they varied greatly: from journal entries, to blog posts, to short stories or prose poetry, to automatic writing, to business ideas and listmaking and miscellaneous creative exercises, to side-project excursions. (I’ll elaborate on these in much more detail in a future post!)
I enjoyed giving myself the freedom to focus on different things each day while staying within a larger framework of simple rules.
To this end, one thing I found particularly useful was to keep a “spark list”. This is basically just a scratchpad in the form of a text document on my computer where I collect brief and random ideas — jotted down in my phone, thought of in the shower, noted while reading, etc. — and consolidate them in one place.
This spark list forms a kind of on-deck circle for ideas, always ready to be used to kindle a writing session when the need arises.
Sometimes I’d start my daily writing with a topic in mind, or an idea I wanted to work on for a preexisting project — but other times, when I felt stuck or uninspired, I’d turn to my sparks, grab an idea (or three), and riff until either I started to get in the zone, or I exhausted the topic and shifted focus to something else. Either way, it made it much easier to hit the 750 word mark. I usually met the day’s goal within 20–30 minutes.
LESSON: Keep A Ready Supply of Sparks On Hand!
Mix it up — keep things fun and fresh with a ready supply of new topics — and be sure to jot down new ideas for this whenever the faintest bit of lightening strikes. One of the biggest challenges with writing every day is that pretty often the inspiration just isn’t there. And on day’s where that’s the case, it makes a big difference if you give yourself an easy way to get started. I found taking a freewheeling and expansive approach useful because it gave me room to explore not only a huge array of random ideas that had been bouncing around in the back of my mind, but also a lot of different types of writing styles and formats. Which brings me to: have fun with this! Don’t take it too seriously — try weird shit, screw around, and experiment whenever you feel like it. As long as you’re writing something!
Ultimately I was more or less all over the place with this crazy year of writing. I enjoyed the variety — I didn’t end the year with some singular magnum opus, but I did come away with an awful lot of ideas worth pursuing further.
After all this, you may be wondering why I brought my streak to an end after exactly 365 days of daily writing. I’ll admit the timing, if symbolic, was arbitrary — but the decision wasn’t.
I found that though this practice was a great exercise in developing a habit and improving my writing, there was one side effect I wasn’t happy with. I was writing constantly, accumulating tons of content (over 400,000 words!), but these words were simply piling up. My writing work was becoming unbalanced; I wasn’t taking these countless drafts forward through the stages of revision and publishing that I knew I ultimately wanted to.
I wasn’t sharing, shipping, getting my work into the wild where it could both improve (based on feedback) and actually have an impact.
I was also feeling a bit exhausted, and I wanted to reevaluate my priorities. So, I silently ceased the daily flow of words, and going forward, resolved to focus more on making and sharing things publicly — writing, but also other creative projects that I’d thought a lot about over the past year but, when it came to execution, got left on the back burner.
LESSON: Evolve, Adapt, Evaluate
It’s a good idea to take a step back every so often and evaluate your progress. Think about how the experience is going, and consider if there’s anything you’d change. I didn’t do this much along the way — not til near the end when I decided to stop and refocus — but part of me wishes I had. Maybe if I’d changed my goal to 100 words a day, I would have felt more comfortable keeping it going. At any rate, if you’re finding your initial goal untenable, I’d suggest figuring out some way to alter it to work better for you. There’s no reason your benchmark has to be 750 words — even if you choose to write just 250 words per day, after a year that’s > 91,000 words! Even if half or more of them are, to put it gently, total garbage…that’s still a novella, or many dozen blog posts, or a hundred poems, or…you get the idea, it adds up! No need to even define your writing habit by word count at all — you could aim for “one song verse a day”, or any of a number of other possibilities. When you align your daily habit with what works best for your personality, your long term goals, and your life’s rhythms, you’ll be happier…and more likely to succeed, on your own terms.
When it comes to me new goal — broadly speaking, “share and publish more” — I’ve made some progress. But I know I still have a ways to go! For example: I’d set myself a goal to publish something every week in 2015…but actually ended up being more like once a month.
These days, I’m still trying to prioritize that outward focus, but I’m trying to avoid an overly-ambitious goal. I want to make 2016 a year of pushing more projects out into the world, but I’ve realized for some things a looser structure can work better.
And this year, I’ve also started a new writing habit! I’m writing a short hip-hop verse each day…on average. I’m being less of a stickler with the “daily” part, for better or for worse. Stay tuned; I’ll write more about how that’s going soon!
Download the Guide: 11 Lessons Learned from Starting a Daily Writing Habit
You’ll see I’ve sprinkled five lessons above, which I hope have distilled some of my experience into practical advice you might find useful in starting your own daily writing habit.
I’ve also got six more of these “Lessons Learned” that didn’t really fit clearly into the above narrative. But I wanted to share them with you anyway, because I think they’ll be helpful! So I’ve compiled all of them (the ones above, and these additional lessons) into a nice handy PDF you can download.
Just drop your name + email below and I’ll send that your way! I’ll also keep you posted as I come up with more good stuff to share re: writing, self-directed learning, creative habits and similar such things.[convertkit form=4861194]
Enjoy this article? I’d love if you could share with one friend who you think might find it useful. I’d also love to hear any questions or feedback you have — shoot me a note any time!