I listen regularly to a half-dozen podcasts. One of them recently talked about how valuable “systems” are in making life run more smoothly. The podcast host said that making something a habit is the simplest but also one of the most effective “systems” a person can install in his or her life, because it eliminates the need for decision-making. For example, he said, did you decide to brush your teeth this morning? Most people would answer, No. Why? Because there’s no deciding involved; it is a habit, so we just do it. Thus, the more constructive behaviors we can turn into habits, the fewer decisions we have to make as we go about our daily lives, and the simpler (and better, perhaps) daily life becomes.
I thought that was a brilliant and helpful insight, and I think it applies to writing. That’s why I suggest, if you aspire to write well and to be published often, you should write like you brush your teeth: every day. Maybe twice a day. Maybe after every meal. But no less than daily.
I know, I know. You’re a busy person. You have a job, and a family. There are bills to be paid, dishes to be washed, lawns to be mowed. How in the world are you supposed to write like you brush your teeth?
I don’t know. I can’t answer that for you. But I can say this: If writing becomes a habit, you will never again have to decide whether to write or not. It will become as natural as brushing your teeth. And, eventually, it will feel strange if you go a day without writing. And you’ll get better at it. And better.
Ray Bradbury, in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, said:
You have been working, haven’t you?
Or do you plan some sort of schedule for yourself starting as soon as you put down this article?
What kind of schedule?
Something like this. One-thousand or two-thousand words every day for the next twenty years. At the start, you might shoot for one short story a week, fifty-two stories a year, for five years. You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done.
For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality… Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.
Can you imagine? If you had started a habit like that five years ago, you would have written 260 stories by now! And some of those would probably have been pretty good, right? Maybe even great.
I don’t think it matters much what you write, at least to start. You may begin a journal (I journal every evening before going to bed). You may launch a blog (I blog daily prayers at oneprayeraday.com, and weekly posts on this site, Guideposts.com, and BardandBible.com). You may do as Bradbury suggests and write a short story every week. You may start a memoir or novel. It’s up to you. The world is your oyster!
But stop deciding whether or not you will write on any given day. Make writing a habit, as natural and regular as brushing your teeth. You might as well start now and let habit—and quantity—combine to produce quality.
You got me this morning. I haven’t brushed my teeth or written yet, unless you count the scrap of paper with some scattered thoughts, but then it’s 7:45 a.m., and we have had breakfast and….
Sharon, I’m happy to encourage both good writing AND good personal hygiene…
Damon J. Gray
I have to treat it like my second job. I pull an early shift – well, I set my own hours, but I’m usually at the office between 4:30 and 5:00, so that lets me shut down around 2:00 which leaves a chunk of time in the afternoon. My wife and I even refer to it as “my other job.” If I don’t genuinely view it and treat it as such, it is too easy to blow it off.
Great word, Damon. Thank you.
You speak the truth, Bob. Even though I have no plans to write for publication, I’ve found that writing my reflections on the Moravian Daily Text six days a week produced two disciplines for the price of one: Writing 1200 to 1500 words a day and reading through the entire Bible in two years (and the Psalms twice). Daily routine except Sunday: get up, brush teeth, shower, reflections and writing, then breakfast. Writing to a blog that about 10 of my friends subscribe to helps reinforce that discipline.
Craig, what a great spiritual exercise that must be. I encountered the Moravian Daily Text in researching (and mentioned it in) my historical novels, Northkill and The Return. So rich.
Great analogy! Now every time I brush my teeth this post will come to mind.
Thank you. And I recommend Crest. 🙂
My writing has improved since I started a blog and forced myself to post regularly.
Exactly. ANY muscle we exercise daily will get stronger. Including the writing muscle.
Great advice, Bob. Six months before I retired from my day job, I started writing my first novel between 7 pm and 12:30 am every day. It truly was my second job. Now I write full time (> 8 hours a day), but I wouldn’t call it work. It’s too much fun to use that word.
My first novel was written from 6-8 pm in the evenings, Monday through Friday, for fourteen weeks. And I promised myself if that week’s chapter was finished by Saturday’s bedtime, I’d stay at it until it was. Pulled one or two all-nighters, but got that first draft done.
Rebekah Love Dorris
That one comment is dynamite. My ideal writing time is 6-8 am, and you’ve just convinced me that finishing my book is possible. If only I can get the baby bottle articles done during naptime. 😀
Great advice. I took some time off while I had family in town after months of writing every day. It broke my routine. When they left, I struggled to get back into it–and finally did–but it taught me that I should still make it part of my day to write at least a little.
Thanks for the comment, CJ. I feel discombobulated if I don’t write in a given day.
I actually created a spreadsheet to track my progress and stay organized with a goal of at least 500 words a day for my rough draft. I didn’t have a set time to do it; I squeezed in the time when I could. This month I’m doing developmental edits and studying the art of novel writing, which is really helping me since I’ve never really studied it before. Progress is key. It’s important to keep plugging away to reach the next goal. Whether it’s to complete a scene, chapter, rough draft or to edit and study the art, you need to cherish the small victories and prepare for the next slice of the adventure.
Yes! “Progress is key.” That’s exactly right.
Consistency and discipline inform other areas of life as well.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in “The Gulag Archipelago”, writes of a cellmate who had been an army officer. This individual kept to a routine of exercise and personal hygiene which took him to the limits of what could be done in his circumstances.
He was also consistently cheerful and calm, always helping others and making efforts to improve their morale.
He was the one man in the cell who had a death sentence.
It’s impossible to say whether this man’s character allowed him to rise so magnificently to the occasion, or whether his choice to maintain internal discipline allowed him to transcend his dire situation; probably a bit of both.
What he did, though (and this officer is the most vividly drawn person in any of Solzhenitsyn’s work, fiction or nonfiction), was to maintain a connexion, a bridge, between his past and a future he would never see…but a future to which the gifts of strength and hope he imparted might carry others.
Our writing is not our own; our definition of ourselves as writer has to place us in a broader context, one in which we can affect others for the better, and in which the mere act of writing, setting aside the finished product, is in itself the Lord’s Work.
As iron sharpens iron, the craft practiced hones our hearts.
Thanks so much, Rebekah!
I agree with Rebekah.
Rebekah Love Dorris
Thank you for saying it doesn’t matter what we write. That helps to hear.
I’ve got a novel languishing that tugs at my guilt chain, but I must get paying projects completed first, even when they leave me uninspired. Like the one this morning about how often to replace baby bottle nipples.
Those boring articles have honed my skills, no doubt, but they’re nothing I can pass on to my children to remember me by one day. I hope at some point I can write what matters. Until then, I trust the regular pounding out word counts redeems the time.
Great article. I just sent all my kids to brush their teeth. 😀
But that is something worth passing on, Rebekah. They need to know when to replace those nipples. So will your grandchildren. (What’s the answer to how often?)
Rebekah Love Dorris
Haha, Carol! What was so funny was the article was supposed to be between 400 and 1100 words, but the answer was as short as “replace when it leaks.” 😀
It’s a great client, and he let me experiment with an advice column format, so it worked out pretty fun after all. Praise the Lord for understanding clients!
So funny, Rebekah!
Excellent advice. I just read a study from the University College London that it takes an average of 66 days to become a habit. I had a teacher who once told us that after he woke up—he went downstairs, put on his athletic shoes, and jogged around his neighborhood. He explained that the first few weeks were difficult, but then it had become a routine. Same here. Pushing beyond the excuses, the social media pull, and other distractions, we can make writing a habit. Thanks for the post. 🙂
Yes, Rachel, though I’m not convinced it takes as many as 66 days. I think it depends on whether the activity produces dopamine or some other variable. I think it can become ingrained much sooner than that.
Great idea! Write like I brush my teeth. Twice daily. 🙂
Whether they need it or not, right, Melissa? 🙂
Spot on, Bob. I’m 81 and I made writing a habit about 10 years ago, and my writing is so much more productive since then. The only things to break into that habit are travel and family. On those days I sometimes feel lost because I’m leaving something out of my schedule. 🙂
Yes, travel and family are my main disruptors, too. But they also often supply the inspiration for the writing task too.
Best thing I’ve read on writing instruction! Got to go brush… umm write!
Thank you, Ethel. Brush on!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, I agree that it simply must be done, if we are going to do it. People are busy, like you said, but I actually set an oven timer for my writing. It’s a daily goal to write for two hours, though I do it in 45-minute intervals. My goal is not always achieved but I have to deal with my own scheduling pad at the end of the day. I hold myself accountable and writing is as much a part of my daily plans as working out (I run 8 miles a day, Monday through Friday) and, as in your example, brushing my teeth at least twice a day.
Sheri, that’s a great comment.
Kathy Sheldon Davis
Thank you, Bob. Thanks for reminding me of the intense power I have to make remarkable changes in small increments. I blog twice a month and I do get better each time. It’s hard not to go back and edit last year’s posts, though.
I checked out your oneprayeraday.com blog and loved today’s post of a prayer from a 1945 Ravensbruck inmate who wrote “do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us.”
Both of these posts have changed my day.
Thanks for the comment, Kathy. And yes, isn’t that a powerful prayer? Wow. It slays me.
Hmm…At first glance, the advice was something to latch on to, but it occurred to me that writing takes more of my time than a two minute brush twice a day. But I love the “habit” concept. I will try to focus on that aspect rather than the time factor.
Yes, great point! The time spent is not analogous, but the regularity and automaticness (I just made that up) of the habit that sharpens the writer.
Great encouragement as always Bob. Some evenings, after a meal laden with garlic, I may well have to brush harder. But those around me will be glad I did. Some days the writing will come easier than others nevertheless we must keep writing. Perhaps there is someone who will benefit because we did. Thank you!
Thanks, I needed that in other areas of my life too!!!
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