You’ll need it to handle more challenging assignments and more complex works.
This is a post I wrote in March 2014 on my personal blog. Republishing here because it’s a question I hear often. Enjoy!
I wrote 65,000 words in February and so far, I’ve written 9,500 words in March. This is because I have a daily deadline that I have to meet no matter what, and all the excuses in the world won’t save me from the repercussions of failing to deliver.
So I deliver.
Writers know that when there’s an axe to our heads (also politely called a “deadline”), we perform. We write. 1k, 5k, 10k, it all comes pouring out three hours before the assignment is due. In February, I had a real deadline. I was writing a course and lessons needed to go out daily. I had to write and I had to write fast. This month, I’m working on a self-imposed one.
Creating a solid work ethic is important if you want to be a career writer because unless you have words on the page, you have nothing. This is especially true if you’re an author or aspiring to be one, but also if you’re a freelancer. After all, how are you going to get those assignments if you’re not in the habit of pitching, and how are you going to put together those pitches if you’re not in the habit of writing?
I do believe that the 1,000-words-a-day recommendation for writers is harsh and much too stringent, and doesn’t always work, but I’ve found that as long as I can stay consistent with some writing each day—be that 20 words or 2,000—I feel happier and more fulfilled.
Work ethic becomes increasingly important as you grow in your career and start getting ready to handle more challenging assignments and more complex works.
Here are some ways to create that work ethic.
1. Have a dedicated space
This is the obvious, let’s-get-it-out-the-way point, so let’s. If you want to have periods of intense focus, you need a dedicated space in which to do it. This could be an office, a desk in the corner of the living room, or even your bed. As long as it’s yours and as long as that’s your space every single day, that’s fine. But make it yours.
2. Have a dedicated time
You don’t have to keep office hours, but you do need to dedicate time to your writing. Before I got married and had a child, I wrote pretty much all the time, but my writing time was unstructured. I wrote when I felt like it—which was, admittedly, most of the time—but I also didn’t write when I didn’t. This meant that I wrote for days and weeks, but then I took long periods off.
This is not always good for your health or your work ethic. These days, I have a more structured schedule. I work two to three hours each morning when my kid is at school, and then I work a couple of hours at night when everyone’s gone to bed.
Five hours a day, 25 hours a week. That’s all that’s required to make an excellent living, but it requires that I be extremely focused. That’s what routine does. It gives you a fixed number of hours and you have to fit your work within them, come hell or high water.
You know what? Somehow, you do.
3. Create daily targets
Having a to-do list is one thing, but if you want to create a daily writing practice, a work ethic for putting words on the page, you need to have goals and targets. Some people feel comfortable with the 1,000-words-a-day goal, but there are others who want to do a lot more or a lot less, especially when they’re in first draft mode. It doesn’t matter. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you know how many words you can realistically write in an hour, so just multiply that number with the number of hours you’ve dedicated to writing and bingo. You have the magic number.
Personally, I prefer to write in sprints. Instead of a fixed word count or a fixed time period, I focus on consistency. As long as I show up to the page every day, I’m doing okay. Some days, this results in 100 words. On others, 10,000.
(P.S. In my book Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page I explain exactly how to create a schedule and a life that allows you to hit your writing targets routinely.)
4. Finish things
This is the trouble most writers have and because I’ve suffered from the hundred-unfinished-projects-on-my-desktop syndrome, I feel qualified to tell you to cut it out!
I mean, seriously, think about it. Wouldn’t an average, but finished, book be better than a dozen incredible but unfinished ones? When you have a completed manuscript, you have the opportunity to fix it. You can send it out, get feedback, learn from your mistakes, and improve. What are those unfinished manuscript pages doing? Nothing. I realized last year that if I wanted my projects to go out into the light of the world, I needed to get serious about finishing them. One at a time. Finish one, then move on to the next.
This, for someone like me, is challenging. I like to have a million things on the go at once, but this also means that I spread myself too thin and end up achieving not much because none of my very many projects ever get beyond 90%.
This year, I’ve been grabbing hold of my projects by the tail, one by one, and vowing to finish them. I can’t move on to the next project until I’ve either finished the current one on my plate or abandoned it.
This is not a bad way for a writer to think and work.
5. Be answerable to someone
It’s easy to tell yourself three days in a row that you just didn’t feel like writing. But it’s harder to say it to a neighbor or a friend or a mother. I like reward systems for achieving targets, but you know what I like even better? Consequences for not meeting them.
If you’re truly committed to your goal and don’t have any reasonable excuses for not meeting your targets, I suggest you make yourself uncomfortable every time you don’t put in the effort. For instance, on the days that you haven’t written your 1,000 words, you could take over the 7 a.m. dog-walking duty or skip an episode of your favorite TV show or ban yourself from Facebook for 24 hours.
When the discomfort of not performing is higher than the discomfort of performance, guess where your brain will naturally lead you?
6. When you’re doing something, do it
When you’re writing your novel, are you actually writing your novel? Or are are you asking for advice on Facebook, posting your word count on Twitter, and starting up a Skype chat with your writing group? Writing is writing. So make sure that’s what you’re doing in the time you’ve allotted for yourself.
7. Practice timed writing
When I find myself drifting during days when the muse is hungover and passed out in the corner of my office (or being spiteful by going to some other writer’s office), I set myself 15-minute intervals. Write for 15 minutes, then see if you want to continue. If yes, write for 15 minutes more. Do you want to continue? Yes? Write for another 15 minutes. Do you want to write some more? No. Go play. You’ve earned it.
Building your writer’s work ethic will not happen over a single day, a single week, or even a month. It’s a consistent process, one that grows and changes with you. But as long as you stay consistent with showing up on the page, you’ll not only create the work ethic, but the results that come from finishing your projects and putting them out into the world.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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