There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ― Ernest Hemingway
Most of us have read or heard this Hemingway quote before, in which the famous author eloquently distills the difficulty of writing well. But there’s a key part of this quote that we tend to overlook: “All you do is sit down ….” the fact that in order to write, one must actually apply oneself to the task.
Consider the words of author Neil Gaiman:
This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.
Again, there’s this crazy idea that you must actually bring yourself, by sitting down, to the act of writing. (I’m being facetious.)
We all know that to be successful as writers — and by successful, I mean that we accomplish writing — we must practice it often and regularly. Many authors besides Hemingway and Gaiman have attributed much of their success to making writing a habit; yet I don’t think any have said it quite as forcefully (or humorously) as Lili St. Crow, author of young adult books:
To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that bitch.
So how do you make the practice of writing into a habit? And what does that even mean? According to my dictionary, a habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice.” In other words, it’s something you do regularly and almost without thinking about it, like brushing teeth or washing your face in the morning. Making writing a habit does not mean writing itself becomes easy, but the act of sitting yourself in a chair and putting words to paper becomes routine.
I am currently reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg and, though I’m only 50 pages in, I’ve already learned a lot about habits and how we form them.
All habits are part of a cycle that includes a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, a habit of eating in front of the TV goes something like this: sitting down in your favorite chair in front of the TV is the cue, eating is the routine, and the pleasure of taste and the full feeling that follows are the rewards.
But this is where it gets interesting. According to Duhigg, research shows that a behavior isn’t a true habit until the anticipation of the reward creates a craving for the reward. Using the example above, eating in front of the TV becomes habitual when the anticipation of the reward (the pleasant taste) causes you to crave eating as soon as the cue occurs. The only way to satisfy the craving is to eat, and even when you know that eating chips in front of the TV every night isn’t healthy, you still do it.
Another example of how this craving works: people who have a habit of exercising anticipate the good feeling that comes from the release of endorphins after exercising. That anticipation becomes such a craving, they do not feel complete or satisfied unless they exercise.
The good news is that once you understand the mechanics of how habits are formed, it’s easier to purposefully establish new ones. If you want to make writing a habit:
- Establish a cue. For example, if you want to establish the habit of writing at a particular time of day, put it on your calendar and set an alert or an alarm for that time of day. Or create an activity cue: washing the breakfast dishes can become your cue to go to your desk and sit down to write.
- Write, if even for a few minutes, after you’ve received the cue.
- Feel the reward. Do you feel good about the accomplishment of having put 500 words on paper? Maybe it feels good to just sit down and get your thoughts on paper.
You’ll know you’ve successfully created a habit of writing when just thinking about it creates an anticipation of accomplishment (reward) and when you don’t write you feel unsatisfied and restless.
Do you have a writing habit? What’s your cue to begin?