Writing Habit FAQ
By Leo Babauta
In this Frequently Asked Questions for the Writing Habit, I answer some great questions submitted by members:
1. How do you deal with the days where just aren’t feeling creative? For example, when I try to write in the morning I am typically kind of sleepy. If I write in the evening after work, I am often tired or not in the right frame of mind. I tend to avoid writing unless I am feeling like I can produce something decent. Do you have any tips to get past this?
Leo: You have to show up and write every day, even if you’re not feeling it. Because otherwise you will allow yourself to avoid the writing when you’re not feeling creative, and then you’ll put it off if you’re feeling a little tired, and then you’re just putting it off all the time.
2. How to navigate multiple projects (e.g. a paper for graduate school, a collection of poems, an essay)?
Leo: Pick one thing to write each day (at least, one thing to start with). Whatever is most important, or whatever motivates you to write the most — either option will do. Then the next day, pick something else.
3. Does writing a daily diary and answering “Power Questions” every morning and evening qualify as writing?
Leo: Any kind of writing qualifies as writing. You’re working on the habit, not trying to accomplish some other writing goal (write a novel, become a top blogger, etc.). Those other goals might happen later, but first you have to establish the habit. So write whatever moves you.
4. About the problem with having ideas for writing – I’ve tried the free-writing technique in the past, which means I would just write whatever came to mind for 5 minutes, without stopping. This made me write, but the results were not something that I felt was what I wanted. It’s as if I was writing a diary or just random babble, and not actually trying to be creative. What do you think about free-writing? Can it be done differently so that it counts more as creative writing?
Leo: I would focus on creating the habit first, and then worry about the results of the writing later. However, free writing is definitely creative writing — it’s just usually not something you’d publish. You might try to do it with an audience or particular reader in mind as you free write, which could help the output.
5. I have usually failed in habits that I keep for evenings/nights, so I understand the importance of forming the writing habit early in the morning, before the day gets busy, but, we already have the meditation and exercise occupying the first slots in the morning and then we need to get on with our ‘jobs’. How does one add on habits if we cannot squeeze the mornings anymore?
Leo: Great question … there’s really only so much you can fit in the morning. If you have some great habits in the morning and can’t fit another 5-10 minutes of writing, then pick another spot, such as lunchtime or right when you get home from work (before you get tired). You can also try waking 10-15 minutes earlier to get a little writing in.
6. I have to admit it is paralyzing fear around putting my voice out for anyone to read that makes me come up with 1000 excuses not to write something publicly. It all boils down to, “”what if they don’t like me?”” or some variant of that. Other show stoppers, “I have nothing valuable to say”, “whatever I have to say has been said before, ad nauseam”.
Leo: This is the fear of all writers. However, if Shakespeare and Fitzgerald let that fear stop them, the world would be a poorer place. Don’t let the fear beat you! Start small, with a tiny audience (1 person you trust, maybe 3-5 people who also have the same fear, your family, etc.) … then let the audience grow as your comfort level grows. You got this.
7. Some of us have online member’s journals in the forum which are pretty personal and tied to habits. I do that, and I also keep a written journal and at night I write about what happened that day; it’s more factual. Any suggestions for what a next step might be to make it more meaningful?
Leo: Those are great starts — it’s more important to create the habit of writing daily, than to worry too much about the content of the writing. However, if you want to make the writing more meaningful, practice writing for an audience — even if it’s for one or two people, like a loved one, your children, someone you know who is in need. You don’t need to ever show it to them, but writing for someone else gives the writing process some meaning.
8. Can you please tell why one should write daily? Isn’t writing weekly good to start with, at least?
Leo: Sure, weekly writing is a good start … however, if it takes a certain number of repetitions before a habit will form (let’s say 40 repetitions, but really it’s variable), it would take 7 times longer for the weekly writing habit to form than the daily writing habit. You’d also get better at writing if you wrote daily, and see a more meaningful amount of output with a daily habit.
9. What habits help you maintain the heavy writing productivity? How do you get so much writing done? How much time do you spend writing?
Leo: The habit of writing every day is my most important habit — I write before I do any other online stuff, and so I seem productive only because I’m not frittering away my time on smaller things or distractions (at least, not first thing in the morning). If you put the writing off, you’ll never get much writing done. The regular writing habit also helps me to be faster and more assured when I write, which helps with produtivity.
10. Do you write a first draft and then edit later or do you write and edit at the same time?
Leo: A bit of both. Mostly I try to write straight through and then publish, and then read it over again and edit if needed. I don’t really like to read my own writing too much (it comes from my head, so I already know what it says) but I find giving it at least one read-over can really help with catching mistakes and finding better ways of phrasing things. But also, I very often edit sentences as I’m writing them.
11. What kinds of penalties do you impose on yourself for not doing a habit?
Leo: None, other than the knowledge that I’ve let someone down. These days, I know that I have a commitment to readers (or members of Sea Change) and if I don’t write, then I’m letting you guys down. (The lateness of this FAQ is a good example of that — I really dislike that I finished this late, but it was unavoidable.) In the old days, before Zen Habits, I always had an editor or a writing buddy who was expecting me to submit writing by a certain deadline, and I don’t like letting them down. Sometimes I would, but it didn’t feel good — so that was the penalty.
12. When writing for an audience I am overwhelmed because I feel I need to have the entire subject or theme laid out to the smallest detail.
Leo: That’s a made-up need (it’s very common, so don’t feel bad). You don’t need to have anything laid out in detail. It’s good to think through your writing before you write — a brief list of points can help, or just think about it on a walk or in the shower. But other than that, just start writing! Don’t let the ideal of perfection (which isn’t attainable) stop you from starting. Instead, consider writing it quickly, then going over it once or twice to see if you missed anything, or if things should be rearranged. Try to read it as a new reader would.
13. How deep do you structure your writing prior to publishing?
Leo: My blog writing has very little structure — I have an intro, where I introduce the problem and solution, and why it’s important. Then a section on how I solved a problem. Then a conclusion that kind of rallies the reader to take action, or drives home the point that it’s important or doable.
My (non-fiction) book writing doesn’t have much more structure than that — each chapter is structured like the blog posts above, and the book is structured into chapters that walk the reader through a larger problem (which is itself a series of smaller problems).
14. I have been writing daily for a few months, but found myself skipping several days in a row when I was on vacation (away from my computer and Ommwriter). How do you maintain this habit while traveling?
Leo: The problem is that when you travel, your routine is disrupted and your trigger is gone. So the best way is to think ahead about what might disrupt your routine (like travel) and make a plan beforehand. This is a key habit skill. A plan might be: have a new trigger (brushing teeth in hotel room) and do the habit right after that trigger. Have an accountability buddy to whom you make a promise to do your habit while traveling, and set a consequence for not doing it.
15. Would you consider editing something like a previously written blog post for example, as writing? Or what about research?
Leo: No, those are editing, and pre-writing. They are good things to do but they’re separate habits. I suggest forming the writing habit first, then working on those, but you can do them in whatever order works for you.
16. How much time do you take to write a Zen Habit post? I’m curious. I usually take too much time writing and reviewing my text.
Leo: I’m a pretty fast writer, so 30-60 minutes. I don’t edit before publishing, but after tweeting it I’ll immediately go back and edit. This reduces friction for writing and focuses me on just getting it out there.
17. I had read one posting from someone who said NOT to let your close friends or family know about your blog because then, writing anonymously, you would write more openly and really express yourself in a way that you might be afraid to do if you knew you those who are close to you might find out. I thought it was a really interesting take, and I wanted to know what you thought about it.
Leo: It would be an interesting short-term experiment, especially if you’re shy about sharing your work and want to write and publish in a way that feels safer. However, I highly recommend publishing as yourself, eventually, because it helps you get out of your comfort zone, and vulnerability is a huge asset to writers. It also helps when a reader knows the writer a bit, so they can feel some trust for the writer.
18. If you’re using a writing program like OmmWriter, isn’t it distracting not to be able to format headlines etc. when you’re writing a blog post? That has kept me using my wordpress text tool, because I find it distracting from the writing process to worry about headlines when I can’t just quickly click a button and be done with it. Thoughts?
Leo: You can use markdown and just format the title like this: #Leo’s Most Awesome Blog Post. The hashtag symbol means it’s a title. Then you can get on with writing without distraction.
19. My question is about sharing writing and copyrights. In case that I want to practice writing for eventually writing a book, what is the best mechanism or environment for sharing writings, and not being afraid that the content will be copied?
Leo: You can never be sure that the writing won’t be copied. That’s a risk that everyone who writes anything must take — no matter where you share your writing, it can be copied. My suggestion is not to worry about this — focus on the writing. The copying doesn’t matter.
20. I am a research scholar and for me,writing is a daily job requirement. However there are days when I cannot write or fail to write a single word simply because my mind puts me off it. any tips on being productive? I recently discovered stay focus chrome and it does help me in removing distractions. But being inspired to write regularly is a different thing.
Leo: What you need to do is create a writing ritual. Go to a different place than where you normally engage in distractions and smaller tasks. Brew a cup of tea to calm you down. Have nothing open but your text editor. Take a minute to breathe, to slow your mind down a bit, to let go of all the other things you have been thinking about, and settle into the loveliness of the writing. Think about what a treat it is to be able to write. Your mind, once it’s in this slower zone, can now focus.
21. I’m having trouble coming with ideas every day. You said to focus on being helpful, but a lot of the ideas I have would not really be helpful for my readers, they are just things that are interesting to me personally. After a while I feel like I’m being self-indulgent and talking for my own sake, but not for the benefit of others. Do you have suggestions for what I can do? At this point in my life, I don’t think I have a lot of wisdom I can share with people that would necessarily be helpful.
Leo: What do you know? What are you good at? What are you curious about? What do you love? Even if you don’t have wisdom, you can share what you’re learning, what drives you, what problems you’ve solved, what mistakes you’ve made and how you’ve overcome them. Even sharing your struggles is helpful to others.
22. Although starting is often difficult, ENDING is also difficult for me. I’m hesitant to put out crappy content, so I end up wanting to put more time into my writing than I may have time to for.
As an example, I’ve set aside 10 minutes each morning to write. That has quickly jumped to at least an hour or more many days because I didn’t feel what I had written was ready to post.
What do you suggest? When do you know you’re ready to post? I suppose it’s a form of perfectionism and it’s about trying to let go, but where does the line cross between being perfectionistic and just trying to be a good writer?
Leo: Let go of being ready to post. It’s not important. Just write, and put it out. Then go back and read it and see if you can improve it, after you’ve published it. This releases you from perfection.
23. I’m writing a book and have been trying to work out the best writing habit for a while now. Recently I committed myself to writing for an hour each day. I can manage it fairly easily but what I’ve found is that my writing has become more superficial as a result – because I don’t have enough time to get into a good flow and really develop the theme I’m writing about.
So I decided that instead I would set aside a day per week for writing. Today’s been the first day of that and it’s been far more successful because I’m properly in the zone and can go much deeper. I’m crafting my sentences better and thinking through my subject more thoroughly.
My full time job is in the creative field (I’m a dancer and choreographer) and I know how hard it is to jump from one creative endeavour to another. I need to give each creative task my full attention and it takes a while to get into the zone.
I take your point about trying to commit to writing each day, but in practice I think I will be a poorer writer for it. If I were a full time writer that would be fine – I would commit to writing several hours a day, but since I’m not, I think I might be better committing to one, long day per week.
What do you think?
Leo: I think you have to find what works for your needs. The daily writing habit is my suggestion, because I believe if you practice something daily you’re going to get much better at it, and for most people, doing something for a few minutes a day is much more doable than taking a full or half day to write. But if that works for you, I say go for it!