When I first set out to start a writing habit, I’d never consciously written on consecutive days, let alone kept a streak alive.
What was The Thing that Finally Motivated me to Write Daily? A strange, delightfully masochistic thing called NaNoWriMo. This, too, was something I’d previously observed from afar. It’s a yearly event, a monthlong writerly self-challenge (every November) the one and only goal of which is 50,000 words towards a novel, in 30 days. It requires rapid accumulation of words — at least 1,666 per day, on average — to meet the goal.
In early fall of 2013, I toyed around with both potential story ideas and the 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.
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 getting off to a good start. 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.
So, 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.
When NaNoWriMo ended, I scaled back my time commitment, but made it a point to continue the 750-words-per-day habit.
I gave myself minimal constraints on what the topic of these writings had to be, 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 enjoyed giving myself the freedom to focus on different things each day while staying within a larger framework of simple constraints.
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 fits 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.
Another thing I found quite 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.
After all this, it may surprise you to hear that I consciously 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. I wasn’t publishing enough.
I wasn’t sharing, shipping, showing, getting my writing 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 stopped the daily writing, and decided to focus more on making and sharing things publicly — writing, but also other creative projects that I thought a lot about over the past year but, when it came to execution, got left on the back burner.
For me, then, 2015 will be a year of publishing and pushing projects into the world, to live, and breathe, and — with any luck — fly.
To start, I’m setting a goal for myself to publish one significant thing — blog post, Medium essay, newsletter, etc. — every week in 2015. Let’s call this the beginning of a new stage: a new habit for the new year.
To Follow Along…
I’ll be publishing more things here, but not only here, so if you want to stay in the loop…hit up those links above ☺
Also — if you’d like to give some input on what I write next, I’d really appreciate it. And it turns out there’s actually an easy way to do so:
Check out my potential topics here on helpmewrite.co, sign in with Twitter, and vote on which you’d like to read about!