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…
- Mailing List!
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!
Also posted on Medium.