Five Tips for Starting a Regular Writing Practice

First Story’s work is all about encouraging young people to write creatively and have confidence in their voice and their story, but we’re not stopping there. We want to get everyone writing, which is why we started National Writing Day. If you want to cultivate a regular writing habit but have found full-time work or a lack of confidence to be a barrier, these tips could make getting started easier.

Consider the reasons you want to write.

Whether your desire to write is an urgent one and you don’t need much encouragement to get started, or you desperately want to write but find it difficult to motivate yourself, it can help to start by outlining what you want to achieve with your writing. It’s easy to think ‘I should really find some time to write’ but then dismiss that thought in favour of something with a clear, positive result. ‘I need to go to the shops because I don’t have any food in’ isn’t half as enticing as ‘I need to go to the shops because I don’t have any food in, and I found a great recipe for a Senegalese peanut curry which I want to try’. ‘I should read more’ is vague, but ‘I really want to read that book my friend enjoyed so that we can chat about it together when we meet for tea next week’ is focused. I’ve always loved writing, but when I’m lacking confidence in my abilities or tired from work, it’s all too easy to put it off. Outlining the reasons you want to write, envisaging an outcome, can help you focus. Perhaps you want to publish a novel, chapbook or collection of short stories. Maybe you spend a lot of time working and you need a creative outlet to decompress and express yourself; there are many benefits to health and wellbeing from participating in arts and culture. This is why, at the start of First Story’s programme, some of our Writers-in-Residence encourage students to write a group manifesto covering their beliefs and boycotts – what they want to achieve from the workshops (such as gaining the confidence to share their stories) and what they want to avoid (such as waiting for permission).

Make your writing space somewhere you want to be.

If you’re looking for advice on cultivating a regular writing practice, you might come across the suggestion that you treat writing like you would treat work. In many ways, this is great advice, but if you have negative associations with the word ‘work,’ this idea can be daunting. So, let’s break it down a bit: it’s a good idea to set aside dedicated periods of time to writing and eliminate distractions. The problem is that even if you love your job, it’s unlikely that you hear the word ‘work’ and think, ‘I’d love to be at work right now.’ Make the space you write somewhere you do want to be. This doesn’t mean you should settle down in bed with a notebook, as pleasant as that sounds; using the same space to work and sleep can make you too sleepy to work or else your sleep can become disrupted if your bed is a place you associate with anything other than rest. Instead, choose a dedicated space for writing and build a pleasant work environment there. Fill the space with things which make you comfortable and happy, but won’t distract you. For instance, when I write I like to sit at a desk, facing a window so that I have plenty of light. I focus best with fresh air, so I open a window. I know that being around nature lifts my mood, so I have a couple of house plants in view. I also make sure I’ll be comfortable there for a long stretch of time; I have a cup of tea or big glass of water, hand cream, lip balm or anything else I need to avoid discomfort, so that I don’t have to keep getting up and looking for things. Think about all your senses; what sights, sounds and smells put you in a good mood?

While you’re building a space which you find comfortable and relaxing, make sure you’re not surrounding yourself with distractions. I love listening to podcasts while I’m tidying, and if I’m feeling anxious, I listen to an audiobook to soothe me. Background chatter doesn’t help me write though; I can’t focus on my own story while listening to someone else’s, and the words on the page become jumbled with the words I’m hearing, so instead I play music (something without vocals) or natural sounds like rain. What works for me might not be right for you though; many writers enjoy sitting in a public place like a café, where the conversations of strangers might provide inspiration. Truman Capote famously claimed that he wrote best lying down – on a couch or in bed – while Maya Angelou rented a hotel room just for writing in. Maybe you feel most creative after going for a run. Think carefully about what you need for a good balance of comfort and clarity, and start there.

Set an achievable goal.

If you sit down with the aim of writing a novel – a huge feat – chances are that you’ll be discouraged before you’ve even started, but, as I said above, it’s helpful to set out with a goal in mind, or there’s nothing driving you. It’s helpful to set yourself a manageable daily goal, such as writing 500 words, or setting a timer and writing for 45 minutes. They don’t have to be the best 500 words you’ve ever written. In fact, when you’re done, you never have to look at them again if you don’t want to. Just writing for a fixed period will help you form a habit, reassure you that writing needn’t be daunting, and help you generate ideas. Creativity is like a muscle that strengthens with use, so if you want to write but you’re waiting for inspiration to strike, the best thing you can do to invite inspiration is write a little every day. This writing can be a stream of consciousness or a response to a writing exercise, it doesn’t need to be a part of a larger project you have in mind.

Write without editing (write in white!).

It can be difficult to write freely if you’re worrying about things like spelling, grammar and punctuation. Part of what First Story does in our creative writing programme is provide a space for young people to write without the restraints of academic assessment, which can be an obstacle to creativity. You might have seen this advice before; that it’s best to write freely and then go back and edit later, but this is easier said than done if you’re used to amending errors as you go along. This is something I’ve always found difficult personally. If I spot a typo, it’s hard for me to leave it alone – why not fix it as soon as I’ve seen it? – and if I can’t quite find the right word, I’ll sit and search for it instead of moving on, which utterly stops me in my tracks. Writing freely and editing later is great advice in theory, but how exactly can you break your perfectionist habits? One way is to write by hand. This more or less eliminates accidental typos, and any errors you do make won’t be automatically underlined in red, so you won’t notice them until you read your work back later. If you prefer to type though, there’s one trick which has helped me more than anything else: change your font colour to white. When you start writing, you won’t be able to see any errors, and even if a red, squiggly line appears, you won’t be able to see what’s wrong and fix it without changing the font colour. Doing this has completely changed the way I write where simply telling myself to ignore mistakes did nothing. When you’ve finished writing, just highlight the block of text, change it back to black and start editing.

Get started with writing prompts.

When I was young, I wrote constantly. Children are full of creative ideas, and storytelling often comes naturally to them. As I grew, the number of reasons not to write seemed to grow with me. I didn’t have time, I was too embarrassed to share my work, and, most of all, I didn’t have any ideas. How could I write if there wasn’t anything to write about? It’s discouraging to think that once, you were full of stories, and now you’re not, but this is why a regular writing practice is so important. Writing generates ideas; the more you write, the more you’ll find to write about. If you don’t have a story or theme in mind, start by responding to writing prompts, and don’t be afraid to write across genres. If you’re hoping to write a thriller, you could still find inspiration in your response to an autobiographical or magic-realist writing exercise. Ideas don’t come from nowhere, so give yourself a way in to writing with one of these prompts:

 

By Eleanor Exton

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