What is the difference between an amateur writer and a professional?
No, it’s not money. At least, I wouldn’t say it is (as someone who hasn’t made money from her writing as of this post). An amateur can get lucky with a literary journal or two but a professional builds up a resume and brings in steady work. How? They are disciplined and have made writing a habit.
I’ve been writing since I was little and have struggled to consistently keep writing. Here are some things I’ve learned from working on my own routine and reading about what successful, professional writers did to make their writing a habit.
1) Aim Big But Start Small
What are you shooting for? The moon, or the next planet over? Because the moon has been reached.
My aim is to become a full time writer of novels, screenplays, short stories, blog posts, and articles. I want to live and breathe and eat and sleep and love and be writing all of the time. I want to be anywhere and find inspiration or see a story in the smallest (or largest) experiences. I want to have the freedom to slip in and out of my fictional worlds almost any time I want.
I’m going for the next M Class planet over.
But, I’m pretty happy being a data analyst until that works out. In the meantime, it’s pretty helpful for me to learn to be a disciplined writer while I don’t have the time I want. Hopefully it works out for me in the long run.
Your aim can be anything, but the bar should be high. A goal that is too easy to achieve is boring and uninspiring. Finish your novel. Finish your trilogy. Finish your series. Start a business. Become a professional writer. Write two blog posts a week for an undetermined about of time.
Sometimes you don’t realize how high the bar is.
Then you can take a page out of my book and enjoy the challenge. DO NOT LOWER YOUR BAR just because it’s a little harder than you thought. You wanted that bar, go and reach it.
Instead, start small and take itty bitty baby steps until you reach your goal. It’s okay to take leaping bounds one week and crawl on all fours the following week. It’s okay to take breaks, just never give up on your goal. If you can keep that hunger inside of you, you will always be motivated to make your writing a habit.
Now, if you’ve decided on a goal that is physically impossible, you of course have the right to make it more realistic to preserve your own sanity. But don’t make your goal easier to reach because you can, do it because you can’t reach it where it is.
2) Plan It (and Take Baby Steps)
I’m going to switch metaphors so just bear with me here.
You have a destination (your goal) and now you need a way to get their (a plan). I find that deadlines really drive me but I can’t commit to specific hours of work or I’ll feel pressured and I won’t stick with it. For example, this will be my 11th blog post with The Course of Events and, honestly, I’m finishing it less than 12 hours before it goes live. Why? Because I have a deadline that I kind of forgot about but I’m hell bent on meeting it.
You know, for the one to three people who read it (and then the, presumably, thousands who will read this in the archives at a later date). I love you guys. 🙂
Figure out what drives you. I’ve tried doing a daily wordcount, a regular writing session, dedicated space, dedicated time, planning work by segments (chapters, paragraphs, sentences, etc.) and having no structure. I need structure, but I can’t figure out what kind of structure works for that project without a deadline.
Case in point, I get these blog posts done but the guest blog post for the ListVerse has been sitting in my Google Drive because there’s no real deadline there.
Part of making this a habit is figuring out what works for you. There are a lot of resources online with plans and suggestions to try and you should feel free to give them all a try. I find that drawing things out in a free-form flow chart on canvas-sized paper is my best way to outline a story.
But I still go into Scrivener and make it organized (and more portable than a canvas). If anything, those two ways of exploring my story and world are helpful.
Find what plan works for you (and keep in mind, different projects may have different needs), and go for it!
3) Don’t Stress But Don’t Get Lazy
Everyone has heard Jerry Seinfeld’s advice for success, right? Don’t break the chain. It’s okay to miss a day or a session (if you don’t write daily), but just make sure you don’t miss two in a row. We are trying to build a habit, but building habits is hard so don’t stress if you miss one every now and then.
And I mean this one, guys. Every writer I’ve met punishes him/herself when they somehow fail their craft, their work, or their dreams. We’re masochists and we get enough self-punishment when we’re actually producing material. Save it for the work, not for when you have a human moment.
Check it out here: http://www.writersstore.com/dont-break-the-chain-jerry-seinfeld/
4) Modify Something You Already Do
So you’ve set your bar (just aim for a different M Class planet, mine is taken), you have a plan, and you’ve told yourself you won’t stress it (even though you will until you settle into a rhythm), now what?
Try and fit your writing in with something else you regularly do. I find that I am most likely to stick to my morning writing when I also go running or take my dog out for a walk. I think it’s something about forcing myself to get dressed and move around that convinces my brain we are not, in fact, going back to bed.
Similarly, I am working on developing one of those elusive writing routines and I think I’ve almost got it. The point, though, is that even this routine grew out of something I was already doing.
The hardest part about starting a new habit is if it is all new, so just slightly modify something and you’ll find this whole process much easier.
5) Find (and Utilize) Support
Very few writers can go this whole thing alone. You are living several lives through your characters, with all their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. You’ll need someone who understands, someone who doesn’t take your excuses, and someone who is honest yet kind.
I have my Motivator and The Wandering Penguins as my main support system. They provide perspectives that differ from mine and help me grow as a writer (yes, all of them, even when we disagree, no matter how vehemently).
Find a writing group. Or make one! I wanted writers I trusted looking at my babies so I made my own group and we are fantastic. Here’s a huge shout-out to The Wandering Penguins, who are better than I could have asked for. I mentioned earlier that I’m driven by deadlines and our regular meetings provide plenty of available deadlines when I’m in a slump.
I also utilize the lessons that come to me from authors I meet at Comicon (Phoenix Comicon, the hotter, more cost-efficient version of the San Diego show), (Phoenix) FanFest, and in other groups. Experience and wisdom from panels, 1 on 1 conversations, and group discussions are invaluable to me because these are people who know what’s in the black boxes of writing.
Most importantly, if you can’t find any of these, find someone who believes in you and will always support your writing, even if it gets weird or you write something like an alien with two hearts on his 12th life fighting another alien in the Old West while riding a transgender horse.
I think a Doctor Who reference is a good way to end this. Do you have any other ways you established writing as a habit in your life? Tell us in the comments!