4 Ways to Create (And Maintain) a Writing Habit

When I wrote my first book in 2013, I was newly married and working a full-time job. While writing, that dream of every writer’s heart whispered to me every morning: What if this is what you could do to make a living?

As I’d done for decades, I silenced that voice of hope with a quick and definitive, “Yeah, right. Nobody’s even going to read this thing.”

However, I’d just read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Spurred to fight Resistance, I wrote my 50,000-word book in six months by waking at 5 a.m. every weekday and writing for an hour — whether or not I felt like I had anything worthwhile to say.

I accomplished that by changing my mind-set. What I had once approached as a pastime turned into an obligation. Where once I’d wait (far too long) for inspiration to strike, I found W. Somerset Maugham’s words to be true: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

When I experienced the truth that a writing life is built upon writing—a novel concept, I know — everything changed.

When my hobby became my habit, my identity changed to match my expectations.

I no longer said, “I want to write.” I said, with confidence, “I am a writer.”

It wouldn’t be until years later — after I’d become a full-time freelance editor, author, and ghostwriter — that I’d learn the four-step habit-building process I’d unintentionally worked through.

And that education, ironically enough, would come through a book project I had the glad opportunity to assist with early on in its development.

Atomic Habits (for writers)

The subtitle for James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a New York Times bestseller, is An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Its tagline is “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” Through many well-researched examples, Clear presents reason after reason why a 1 percent change for the better every day is more beneficial than striving for one defining moment, or, worse, stagnating.

He also offers clear steps on the process of building better habits. Essentially, you need to discover your cue, craving, response, and reward. (Atomic Habits goes in-depth on each of these steps, and I recommend picking up the book for a fuller understanding.)

How to create and maintain a writing habit

To transpose his ideas to the writing world, let’s consider how each step could look in your writing life. Each quote below is from “How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick,” an excerpt of Atomic Habits.

1. “The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior.”

Your cue could be the place you write, the music you listen to, or the tools you use.

My cue was just getting myself from my bed to my office chair in less than ten minutes every morning. If I could get myself in front of a keyboard before conscious thought (a.k.a. Resistance) entered my brain, I could convince myself, Well, I’m already here. Might as well write.

Author and podcaster Sean McCabe automates lights in his office to change to a certain color when he’s scheduled time for himself to write.

I highly recommend using one or all of these cues: writing in the same place, at the same time every day, while listening to the same kind of music. As you establish your writing habit through repetition, your body and mind start to correlate that place, that time, and that music with, Well, it must be time to write.

Now, pause here to consider what your cue could be.

2. “Cravings…are the motivational force behind every habit.”

Clear notes, “What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.”

In other words, I didn’t crave getting up at 5 a.m., at least not initially. I craved the sense of accomplishment from being a writer working toward a long-sought-after goal. To be honest, I also craved the moment I’d be able to tell friends and family, “I wrote a book.”

Your craving may be the same, but it could also be to make money or a living through your words, or to earn respect for your opinions or skill.

Now, ask yourself, “What change of state am I seeking as a result of my writing?”

3. “The response is the actual habit you perform.”

Writers ought to have only one response to their cues and cravings: writing!

Of course, being a writer today requires far too many extracurricular activities, like promoting your list or pitching agents, but the habit you must perform without fail to become a writer and stay a writer is to write.

Yet, I’m willing to bet, most of us struggle to do that consistently for a host of reasons.

That’s why following Clear’s four stages of habit-making — which loop back upon themselves — is so helpful.

4. “Rewards are the end goal of every habit.”

Once your cue has led to your craving, your craving has led to your response, your response leads to your reward. You finally get to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

These rewards can take a few forms.

Maybe it’s the endorphin kick when you finally figure out your plot or when one of your characters surprises you on the page.

Maybe it’s the realization that you’re doing what you’ve always said you’d do.

Maybe it’s being able to talk about your work-in-progress because you finally have a work-in-progress.

For me, my reward was Pavlovian. I used Scrivener’s word count goal feature to meet my daily word count goals. Every time I’d cross that number, Scrivener would give me a pleasant ding and a pop-up of congratulations.

Eventually, I craved hearing that noise.

For all of those early mornings, my habit loop wasn’t about writing a book and whatever rewards could come from publication. Rather, my habit loop was much simpler: I just wanted to hear that chime, signifying that I’d met my goal.

And, by just getting 1 percent better every day, I eventually wrote a book, published it, and then turned that work into a career in writing.

That whisper of fear I once had has been replaced with a daily shout of joy: This is what I get to do for a living. (And I have incredible clients to thank for that.)

If you’re ready to transform your writing hobby into a writing habit, I hope you’ll experience the same kind of identity shift.

You’re not going to write.

You are a writer.

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Why You Need to Join a Writing Group (And How to Find One)

If you’re fearfully approaching your writing life this year, one decision could change your life and your writing.

While this decision should be cautiously made, and you may experience some trial and error in the process, I strongly advise you to consider my suggestion: join a writers group this year.

Years ago, I joined an in-person, flesh-and-blood writers group through a local arts program known as Art House Dallas. We met for two years. We studied inspiring passages about writing. We contributed chapters to a collaborative project that was outside most of our comfort zones. We listened to each other’s stories of failure and success. Multiple members finished their book-length projects at the time.

Most of all, we encouraged one another to keep pursuing the calling of writing that is both so challenging yet so rewarding.

That group made me believe I was a writer.

You need other writers

Since then, I’ve become a writing instructor with Writing Workshops Dallas and a public speaker for writers groups and writing retreats.

In the summer of 2018, I attended the God’s Whisper Farm Writers Retreat. I led a breakout session, but the most memorable moment reminded me of our deep need for writing community.

During a time where small groups of five writers shared pieces of their work for immediate feedback, Maria shared her poetry, humbly telling us in so many words, “I’ve rarely shared this with anyone.”

Her hands may have trembled as she handed each of us a printout of one of her poems.

We all read in silence. Then we all looked at her, then at each other.

I don’t recall who spoke first, but our feedback was unanimous: “Maria, this is excellent work. I don’t see how any of us could improve upon it.”

After discussing her poem, background, and motivation, we all sat in awed reflection. Then I may have been the one to ask the question that nearly brought tears to her face: “Have you considered pitching this to a publisher?”

Her facial response seemed to say, “That’s ridiculous. Who would be interested in poetry from some no-name woman in rural Virginia?”

Then she spoke with grace and humility, downplaying her significant way with words. After begrudgingly accepting our accolades, she spoke similar words to what I’d said myself before joining my first writers group: “I just never knew there were other people like me out there.”

Really, that’s the only reason you need to join a writers group: to know you’re not alone on this insane calling.

But, if you need more motivation to leave your desk, read on.

6 reasons to join a writers group

1. Joining a writers group will help you escape hibernation

If your writing life has been dormant for months (or even years), the right writers group will spring you into action — if not just to prove to your group members that you are, in fact, a writer.

2. A writers group will provide you with accountability

Some people can self-motivate, but even the most productive writers need goading from time to time. Procrastinating writers definitely need prodding. Untold thousands of people want to write a book every year; only a small percentage will ever meet their goal. What kind of writer do you want to be?

3. A writers group will motivate you to become a better writer

For instance, the Inklings was a famous writers group from 1933–1949 comprised of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and many other English writers. “Many passages of The Lord of the Rings found in the Inklings their first—and unfailingly appreciative—audience, much to the delight of their author.” The friendly but competitive spirit of the group spurred Tolkien to write a masterpiece.

4. A writers group provides inspiration

Hearing another author’s work-in-progress, celebrating their successes alongside them, or seeing how they overcome the inevitable frustrations of the writing life will all inspire you to keep at it. And knowing that you will have a group of people who will likewise celebrate alongside your successes is a great inspiration to do your best work.

5. Worthwhile writers groups ought also to educate you

While not every writers group is solely educational, education still happens, whether through hearing others’ feedback, learning how someone marketed their book or discovering a new tool or resource that’s just what you needed at the precise moment you needed it.

6. Finally, a writers group ought to be fun

Of course, it won’t always be fun, but if you’re going to get the most from your group, your group needs to be relationally healthy. And a sure sign of relational health is the group’s ability to have fun without losing sight of the reason for the group’s existence.

If your writers group is far too serious all the time, you might need to search for a new group. The writing life is hard enough without your dour writers group making it more so.

Now, since I’m sure you’re motivated to join a writers group this year, let’s get practical.

What kind of writers group should I join?

Not all writers groups are created equally. Not all are sanctioned by an organization. Not all are free to attend.

In other words, before you choose a writers group, do your homework.

Research the group online. Send an email or two to the group’s coordinator. Connect with current members of the group. Figure out if what the group offers and the kinds of people who attend are what you could commit to.

Unless the group quickly fails to meet your expectations, commit to the group for at least a year. You need that long to build the kinds of trusting relationships that the best writers groups need, especially for critique groups. (Wouldn’t you rather know the person pretty well who’s nicely ripping apart your work?)

Here are a few different types of writers groups:

  • Critique groups tend to be the most common type of writing groups. In these groups, you’ll often bring multiple printouts of a sample of your work-in-progress for other attendees to read and critique. This feedback often happens out loud. If that’s your nightmare scenario, don’t join a critique group—yet. Then again, it’s better to receive in-person feedback from a few people you know than from the reading public on your launch day.
  • Program-based writers groups, like the Nonfiction Authors Association, often bring in a guest speaker to discuss some specific aspect of the writing life. These are mainly educational meetings, but some will mix in critiques too. Again: do your homework.
  • Discussion-based writing groups are informal meetings, sometimes without a set agenda, where writers can talk about anything they may be struggling with. They are essentially writing mastermind groups.
  • Writing classes are not writing groups in the strict sense of the phrase, but they can be depending on how the organization or teacher leads the class. Some writing classes offer group help after the class, whether online or in person.
  • Genre-based writing groups only accept authors who write for a specific genre, like romance or sci-fi. Their meetings focus on topics germane to their genres.

Finally, some writers groups may encompass two or more of these categories. That’s why you must research a group before attending so that your expectations are properly set.

Now, as to what kind of group you need to join, ask yourself, “What does my writing need right now?”

If your craft is lacking, join a critique group, an educational group, or attend a writing class.

If your motivation has dried up, join a programmatic writers group or a discussion-based group. If you’re serious about getting better within your particular genre, find a group centered on your genre.

If you have no idea what to choose, join the closest writers group to you that seems like a good fit and that you can commit to for at least a year.

That writers group just may change your writing life.

How to find a writers group

Lastly, how can you find a writers group?

Begin your search by locating in-person groups. Give yourself a reason to get away from your desk at least once a month.

Search “writers group” at Meetup.com. The results will show you writers groups within your preferred radius of your chosen city.

If you don’t find a compelling group at Meetup, search “[your city name] writers group” on Google. Click on the first group that seems interesting, then read as much as you can about them. For any lingering questions, email the coordinator. Put their next meeting on your calendar and force yourself to attend.

Lastly, for IRL writers groups, see if your city, area or state has an organization that aggregates writing groups. For instance, the North Texas area is spoiled by W.O.R.D., Writers Organizations ‘Round Dallas, a website that has compiled multiple writing groups in the area and sends out a monthly email newsletter listing every group’s events.

If you’re unable to find a worthwhile writers group within a drivable distance, or other issues may prevent you from venturing out of your house, online writers groups are a serviceable substitute. They can provide each of the same helpful attributes that real-life groups offer.

To that end, The Write Life offers these two excellent resource-filled articles for finding an online writing group:

The right writers group can launch your writing life into its next — and possibly its best — phase yet.

May you find your writing tribe soon!

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