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Writing rituals: 8 good habits of serious writers

Writing rituals and good habits in writing are hard to develop, but once you’ve got them you might just have a great writing process for life.

Writing rituals are the repeated actions you take to ensure you show up for what you love and keep doing it. Read insights from the good writing habits of famous authors, ways to train yourself into beneficial habits, and more:

8 good writing habits to cultivate:

  1. Invest in self-discovery
  2. Stack writing with existing rituals
  3. Create doable weekly writing goals
  4. Work on writing technique often
  5. Write extra and embrace revision
  6. Observe and listen at every opportunity
  7. Start a new draft if near the end
  8. Find the times that serve you best

Let’s look at skilled writers’ words on writing rituals and expand these ideas further:

Invest in self-discovery

When we talk about writing rituals, it’s easy to confine our ideas to what goes on at the writing desk (or wherever you prefer to write).

Yet even before writing begins, there are processes afoot. ‘Pre-writing’, as it’s typically called.

Pre-writing may include:

  • Brainstorming ideas
  • Reading relevant research (no rabbit holes or wiki-spirals)
  • Profiling or interviewing your characters to learn more
  • Journaling thoughts, ideas and connections

This last idea of pre-writing – journaling – is, apart from a way to explore your ideas, a wonderful way to have a ‘deliberate, thoughtful conversation with yourself’, as Canadian self-help/leadership writer Robin S. Sharma puts it.

James Baldwin describes how learning more about himself, and ‘shedding a dying skin’ (the weight of identity – ‘what he’d been told he was’ – that held him back) allowed writing regularly to become a ritual:

I had to go through a time of isolation in order to come to terms with who and what I was, as distinguished from all the things I’d been told I was. Right around 1950 I remember feeling that I’d come through something, shed a dying skin and was naked again. I wasn’t, perhaps, but I certainly felt more at ease with myself. And then I was able to write.

James Baldwin, interviewed by Jordan Elgrably, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 78’, The Paris Review.
James Baldwin quote - writing rituals and isolation

Stack writing with existing rituals

Writing rituals may seem extremely hard to build into a busy, demanding schedule. Or you may have the time, but not (yet) the discipline.

We’ve written before about the power of ‘habit stacking’, a concept popularized by BJ Fogg. You essentialy attach the things you want to do to the things you do by default.

Examples of stacking writing rituals with your current habits:

  • ‘Before I open up Netflix, I will write a page’
  • ‘Before I go to bed, I’ll set my alarm for half an hour earlier than usual to use 20 minutes of the morning to write’

This is an intelligent way to weave habits you haven’t yet cultivated into what you do on auto-pilot.

Create doable weekly writing goals

What’s the secret to building writing rituals and not getting discouraged?

Easy wins, a ‘rinse and repeat’ schedule built around bite-sized tasks.

If you sat down every writing session to write an entire chapter, you would naturally be frustrated by a single page’s process.

Author of The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead shared, according to Monica Clark over at The Write Practice, that his plan after having children was to write a modest but doable 8 pages per week.

Small, replicable weekly tasks work.

For example, members of Now Novel’s Group Coaching program have shared that they have finished drafts in as few as two months by showing up to daily writing sprints that begin every hour for a set range of hours each day.

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Work on writing technique often

Good writing rituals aren’t just about making short-term progress.

Over time, when you build good writing habits, you build up a sustainable practice (and praxis) necessary for a writing career.

The great Gabriel Garcia Marquez spoke in an interview in 1985 for The New York Times about the difference between being a younger and older author, process-wise.

Marquez describes how building a sound technique, understanding his craft, helped him write when the fire and passion of youth grew dimmer:

When you are older, when the inspiration diminishes, you depend more on technique. If you don’t have that everything collapses. There is no question that you write much more slowly, with much more care, and perhaps with less inspiration. This is the great problem of the professional author.

When I was 20, I wrote a daily story for a newspaper and at times even some editorials on the same day. Then at night when everyone had left the newsroom, I would stay to write a short story or work on a novel.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, interviewed by Marlise Simons, The New York Times, April 7 1985.

Write extra and embrace revision

When we talk about ‘writing rituals’, you might be thinking about first drafts, the giddy first run of a shiny new project.

Revision, however, is worth building into a prized writing ritual of its own.

Barbara Kingsolver shares wise words about the joy of revision, and how she thinks about all the pages that don’t make it into the next draft as ‘negative numbers’, pages before the story begins proper:

Revision is my favorite work, the part of the process when art really happens. Once you know where you’re going, you can back up and tilt every scene in just the right direction. You can replace every serviceable sentence with one that glows with its own original light.

This of course requires an eagerness to throw away a lot of serviceable sentences. Lean on the delete key. It’s frustrating to write a hundred pages you know will not survive, but this is the dirt you have to excavate to get to the vein of gold. These are pages of your novel too, just the unseen ones—let’s call them pages negative-100 to zero—and you can’t skip them.

Barbara Kingsolver, in ‘5 Writing Tips: Barbara Kingsolver’, Publishers Weekly, October 12 2018.
Writing rituals and revision - Barbara Kingsolver quote

Observe and listen at every opportunity

Intent listening and observation are writing-adjacent good habits worth cultivating.

Many authors have spoken about the inspiration to be found in eavesdropping, watching passersby at cafes (like Guy de Maupassant and his writing mentor Flaubert, who made an exercise of it).

An essay about Agatha Christie on the official website for Christie’s estate makes the author’s passion for observation and finding usable details for stories clear:

The most everyday events and casual observations could trigger the idea for a new plot. Her second book The Secret Adversary stemmed from a conversation overheard in a tea shop: “Two people were talking at a table nearby, discussing somebody called Jane Fish… That, I thought, would make a good beginning to a story — a name overheard at a tea shop — an unusual name, so that whoever heard it remembered it. A name like Jane Fish, or perhaps Jane Finn would be even better.”

‘How Christie Wrote’, The Home of Agatha Christie

Present, engaged listening is a great habit, not just for writing but for life.

Start a new draft if near the end

Many serious writers don’t rest on their laurels when one work ends.

A recent editing client had written a whimsical, engaging and often hilarious story about a group of streetwise kids living in a fictional town in Florida. When the author finished editing and started querying agents, they immediately began a new project.

There’s natural perseverance and intelligence in doing this. Even if you hear a ‘no’ from an agent (or several), you’ll at least already be well on your way with an exciting new project.

Author Will Self, when asked, ‘How do you write (do you have a daily routine)?’ said:

First drafts as early in the morning as possible, then second, then third (retyping, I work on a manual). Once the first draft is 80% completed I start on the second, so that there’s a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book.

Will Self, interviewed by Sarah Kinson in ‘Why I Write’ for The Guardian, May 9 2007.

Find the times that serve you best

A large part of developing writing rituals that keep you writing is time. Making time, but also knowing which time is your most productive, least distracted.

Toni Morrison spoke of the necessity of writing in the early morning when she started, because she had young children.

Charles Darwin’s son kept a diary of his father’s habits, commenting that Darwin worked in his study from 8 to 9:30 am, a time he considered his best.

From fiction authors to evolutionary biologists, many writers have found mornings particularly conducive to building writing rituals.

Looking for a writing partner to help you build the routine and technique you want? Find a writing coach who understands your genre.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

2 replies on “Writing rituals: 8 good habits of serious writers”

Absolutely, Todd. It really helps to understand the landscape of your own genre well (and helps with finding comps to mention when querying). Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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