How I Write: My 6 Best Tools For Habitualizing Writing

Posted by   Annette on    November 17, 2013

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The truest words ever said about writing were from the famously irascible Bukowski in his excellent poem on the subject: "if it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it." In other words, if you don't have to write, don't write. If you're a writer in your soul, sitting at the desk to write is no chore -- it's a profound expression of your own singularity, no matter what the assigned subject.

That said, it's not so simple for pens-for-hire. Is it?

When writing is a profession as well as an avocation, however, one must create the habit of writing, making writing a core part of the practicum of the day and tending the plot of words that one uses for the work.

I'm lucky in that my writerly dance card is burstingly full. I'm a staff writer for the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Magazine and a staff copywriter for a couple of boutique marketing firms, as well as a very regular contributor to Parachutist Magazine and Dropzone.com. I write the Extreme Sports site at About.com, for USA Today's Travel Tips, LiveStrong, Arizona Central Getaways, GlobalPost and eHow, for two yoga magazines and develop content for product/lifestyle partnerships. Aside from that, I constantly write entirely personal works, sheerly for the pleasure of it. Here's how I tackle the workload.

1. I ritualize.

When I sit down to write, I use a short ritual to create an intentional space to do so. Because I move around so constantly, it's necessary for me to create simple, mobile ritual actions: I pour a big mug of the world's very best and burliest breakfast tea with milk, snuggle on a pair of boss-level noise-cancelling headphones, then start an online Pomodoro timer to keep me on task. With these triggers in this sequence, I've taught my brain and body to click into "writing mode" until I feel the session is complete. 

2. I segment the process.

When writing requires factual research, I don't do the research in the same sitting that I do the writing. I dedicate a day to research, then the next to the actual writing, and so on. In the same way, I separate the work period in which I complete the first draft from that in which I edit my work, separating the two sessions with some physical pursuit -- yoga, slacklining or even a simple walk. Usually, this results in cleaner, better-considered prose.

3. I schedule.

I realized long ago that my writing suffers dreadfully when I procrastinate. I developed a system to keep track of deadlines -- and to block time into my week for pieces of writing that are due on a regular, permanent basis so I don't fall behind. I use this system religiously, crossing it over with other task managers (including my beloved Habitica) as needed.

4. I give myself space.

Along those lines, it's important to allow certain kinds of writing to happen organically. Charged, personal subjects take extra time; their gestational period is necessarily long. If I take one on, I think about the project every day, not allowing myself to forget or to shelve it, knowing that if I pushed it to unfold it would lose its honesty.

5. I read. Constantly.

Stephen King said it best: “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” 

I pick up my reader every day, even if I just have time to sip a handful of pages. I try to alternate between genres, fiction and non-fiction. I log my reading to Goodreads to keep myself moving forward, often using the Goodreads smartphone app to scan ISBNs of books that catch my eye when I'm out and about. A steady diet of others' words helps to cross-pollinate the garden of my own. 

6. I practice.

I write at least one piece of rhymed poetry every month, just to flex the specific muscles that choose and arrange patterns of words. I read only on my beloved reader apps, obsessively mining each book's new vocabulary using the built-in dictionary. I study other languages, albeit rudimentarily, to keep those other corners of my mind flexible and open. I take on assignments that only glancingly approach my core competencies, using the challenge to learn new vernacular and pry myself out of habitual rhythmic patterns.

Practice, here will never make perfect. Practice will make more and different and wider and deeper--will send our words out farther, in a stronger, clearer voice--and that's as close to perfect as we ever need to get.

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