Build Great Writing Habits: 20 Tips for Getting It Done | Amy Stewart | Skillshare

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Build Great Writing Habits: 20 Tips for Getting It Done

teacher avatar Amy Stewart, Writer & artist

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

8 Lessons (28m)
    • 1. Intro: Building Great Writing Habits

    • 2. Some Thoughts on Discipline, and Your Project

    • 3. How, When, and Where

    • 4. Big Picture Priorities

    • 5. Pick Up a Habit!

    • 6. Find Cues that Work for You

    • 7. Maintain Your Brain

    • 8. Getting Unstuck and Final Thoughts

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About This Class

If you struggle to find the time, the patience, and the focus you need to get your writing project done, you're not alone. Every writer deals with distractions, dead ends, and those days when nothing works.

In the twenty years that I’ve been working full-time as an author, I’ve never not had a book under contract. That means I have to get up every day and write, even when I don’t feel like it.

Over the years, I've developed all kinds of tricks and techniques to help me keep going. Now I’m going to teach you everything that’s worked for me.  I’m going to give you my twenty best ideas for building a successful writing practice. I’ve used all of these at one time or another, and it’s how I’ve kept writing—and supported myself as a full-time author—for two decades.

Whether you’re embarking on your first writing project, or trying to get your tenth book finished, you’ll find something here that helps you to maintain a more satisfying, productive writing practice.

Meet Your Teacher

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Amy Stewart

Writer & artist



Welcome! For the last twenty years, I've devoted my life to making art and writing books. It gives me great joy to share what I've learned with you. 

I love talking to writers and artists, and bonding over the creative process. I started teaching so that I can  inspire others to take the leap. 

I believe that drawing, painting, and writing are all teachable skills. Forget about talent--it doesn't exist, and you don't need it. With some quality instruction and lots of practice, any of us can make meaningful, honest, and unique art and literature.

I'm the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books. When I'm not writing or traveling on book tour, I'm painting and drawing in ink, watercolor, gouache, and oil. Come f... See full profile

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1. Intro: Building Great Writing Habits : Hi, I'm Amy Stewart. I'm the author of over a dozen books, including four New York Times best sellers. In the 20 years that I've been working full time as an author, I've never not had a book under contract. That means I have to get up every day and right, even when I don't feel like it. Um, if you struggle to find the time, the patience and the focus, you need to get your writing project done. You're not alone. Every writer deals with distractions. Dead ends in those days when just nothing works. So over the years, I've developed a lot of tricks and techniques to help keep me going. These are the kinds of habits that didn't come out of nowhere. I had to learn him myself, and now I'm gonna teach you everything that's worked for me. I'm gonna give you my 20 best ideas for building a successful writing practice. I've used all of these at one time or another, and it's how I've kept going and supported myself by making a living from my writing for two decades. So whether you're embarking on your first writing project are struggling to get your tent, the book finished. You'll find a lot of ideas here to help you maintain a satisfying, productive writing practice 2. Some Thoughts on Discipline, and Your Project : you know something? I hear a lot from people when I'm on book tour is Oh, I could never write a book. I'm just not that disciplined, So I want to put that idea to rest first thing. Writers are not more discipline than anybody else. I mean, sure, it takes a long time to write a book, but it takes time to do anything. It takes time to raise kids. It takes time to go to work every day. It takes time to watch all eight seasons of game of Thrones. Writers are just people who decided to spend some of their time writing and all these tips and tricks and techniques. I'm going to show you. Writers do things like that because they're not disciplined. They do all this stuff because they need help staying on track. So give yourself a little credit. Think of everything you do in your life, from your education to your job, to your family, to the running of your household. I'm willing to bet that if you add it all up, you accomplish a lot, and you can do this too. So remember, be kind to yourself if a friend said to you. Oh, I really want to do this thing. Whatever it iss Um but I never could because I'm so indisciplined. What would you say to your friend? Would you say, You know, you're right, you have no discipline, and for that reason, you're never gonna pull this off, so just forget about it. Of course you wouldn't. You would never say that. So try to be as kind to yourself as you are to your friends. Don't go around telling yourself that you're not capable of sitting down and writing a page . Of course you are. But you might just need to put together a little bag of tricks to help get you going. If you're a writer, you probably already know that putting words down on paper can have a powerful effect on your life. So for your project, I have created a checklist that I want you to download and use to describe your intentions for your writing practice. Think of all the strategies that you're gonna learn in this class and how best to adapt them to your particular situation and then use this worksheet to describe your intentions and lay out what you want. You're writing, practice toe look like going forward. And of course, by sharing these ideas with the class, you will help to inspire other students as well. So I really want to see your projects. Oh, and I've actually already given you two tips that have worked for me. The 1st 1 is to go easy on yourself and to be kind with you. And the second is to write down your intentions for your writing, practice by hand with a pen. Okay, there's a lot more to come, so let's get going. 3. How, When, and Where: okay, The first thing I want to do is to cover the basics of how, when and where you right, because this is actually where people could get stuck before they've even written a single word. They struggle with how to fit writing a book into their life, and it's true. It's a big thing, so let's take care of that. First, let's talk about how people really do ask me if I write on a computer or a typewriter or longhand, so I write almost entirely on a computer. Like most people, if you are prone to getting injuries from typing too much, which has happened to me over the years, you might try a voice recognition program like Dragon. Naturally speaking, the technology gets better every year, and it does a nearly perfect job of transcribing what you say. I do know writers who prefer to write their pages long hand and then type them up at the end of the day or at the beginning of the next day's writing session and do a little revising as they dio and believe it or not, there are still a few writers out there who love banging away on typewriters. It really doesn't matter how you write your pages, but whatever you dio, please make a backup. Computers crash papers get lost and damaged. I use an automatic daily backup system. I use carbonite. I also email my day's work to myself every day so that it's sitting on the email server and from time to time, I upload my document to Google Drive. So that's three backup systems. Now, if you're writing on paper, I want you to consider taking a snapshot of the days writing with your phone. And, of course, make sure those pictures air backed up to the cloud in case you're phone gets lost. Um, the pictures don't have to be great. They'll be legible. But it's really easy to lose a notebook. So look after that stuff now. Maybe more importantly, the question is, when do you right? So I'm not a morning person. I do other things in the morning that need to be done, or that I want to dio. But I sit down after lunch to right, and I'm usually finished up by dinner time. I write every day when I'm working on the first draft, but you know that's because it is my full time job. Of course, not everyone's gonna have that luxury to be able to devote that much time. So what's important to you is that you find a period of time that works for you. Maybe it's every morning before work. Maybe it's in the evenings after dinner. Maybe it's on your lunch hour. It might be impossible for you to get anything else done during the week, and what you need is to schedule yourself a four hour block of time on a Saturday afternoon . It doesn't matter when it is specifically. There's nothing magical about any particular time of the day or any particular number of days. In the week. You will hear writers say that you absolutely have to write every single day as if there's something magical about that. And I think that's nonsense. We have lives, we have responsibilities. What matters is that you find the days and times that work for you. And then finally, there's the question of where so I'm lucky to have this room in my house where I can close the door and not be disturbed. And the rule here at my house is that If the door is closed, you leave me alone Unless the house is on fire. I don't want anybody knocking on that door. And in return, I promise not to complain about whatever happens without consulting me. So if everybody in the house decides to go get pizza and a movie without me, I'm fine with that. I was working. I always tell him you do what you want to do. Pretend I'm not even here. Pretend I'm out of town. So you might need to make an agreement like this with the people you live with. Talk to them. Tell them what you're doing and let him know what kind of time and space you need. This might involve making childcare arrangements or making sure somebody else can look after the pets. Some people are perfectly happy. It a right in the middle of the chaos with the kids running around the laundry, going dinner on the stove, the TV on. And if that's you, Congratulations. Obviously, you can get your work done anywhere, but a lot of us need a little more, uh, quiet. A little more downtime than that. And for some of you, the only way to get that is gonna be Teoh. Leave your house in order to do your writing. That way your family doesn't disturb you. You're away from all your usual distractions and you can really focus now for this. I recommend libraries above all next to that, A nice, quiet coffee shop might be a good option. And maybe you can even stay late and work in your office. The important thing is that you find a place where you could block out distractions. Turn off your phone and I mean off, turn it off and unplugged from the Internet. However you write wherever you right, whenever you write, the important thing is to create a place in time where you can settle down and give all your attention to the pages you're going to write. 4. Big Picture Priorities: The question of how to fit your writing practice into your life is a little different from the question of wind to sit down and write during the day. It's a bigger question about your priorities. It's about what you want in your life and what you don't want, what you can do less of and what you'd like to do more of. So a few years ago, I was having a tough time with this. So I sat down and wrote out a list of what I would dio on an ideal day. Now I'm not talking about my idea of a perfect day, because on a perfect day I wake up in Paris and wander around the city all day and probably wouldn't do a bit of writing. So I'm not talking about that. This is just a night ideal. Normal day, an average Tuesday. What did I want that toe look like? And really, what I was doing was I was making a list of everything I wanted in my life with the idea that I could have all those things and bite size pieces every day. So, like on that list, I put exercise because I wanted Teoh take better care of my health. I put art because I like to draw and paint. It's really just kind of a hobby, but it's something I wanted more of. I wanted my afternoons free to write. As I've said before, I'm not much of a morning person. So afternoons air really my best time, and I did have to acknowledge that I have to spend some amount of time every day on admin work. This could be answering emails, updating my website, um, paying bills, making travel arrangements, all that boring stuff that just has to get done. I don't like to do it, but it's also not very hard. So I realized those were things I could do in the evening when my brain was already a little drained. I put down an hour max for that stuff, figuring that by 80 clock or so in the evening, I was gonna shut off my laptop and be done for the day, no matter what, and having that kind of natural limit on how much time I spend on annoying admin work that really helped. It meant that I focused and got a lot done in a short period of time. So something else that I have done and sometimes still do is if I'm having a really terrible day. Maybe I'm sick. I'm just in a horrible mood. I have a lot of interruptions that I can't avoid. Sometimes I decided to just cram a whole bunch of that admin work into one day. I just sort of figure, you know, this day has already shot. I might as well do all the annoying stuff that's been piling up because I can't possibly get any more annoyed than I already am. And, uh, I actually get a lot done on a day like that. So what I didn't realize at the time was that I was doing a little exercise that productivity experts call big rocks, gravel and sand. This idea has been around for a while, but I'd never heard of it. Um, here's how it works. Imagine you have a big jar and you're gonna fill it with these big rocks, and you also have to put in some gravel in some sand if you put the gravel and sand and first there's not as much room for the big rocks. But if you put the big rocks in first and then pour in the gravel and then pour in the sand . You could get a lot more in there. The gravel and sand will find places for themselves around the big rocks, so the big rocks are your priorities. You make those the focus of your day or of your week, and all the little stuff fits in around the edges because it has to and, you know, the gravel and sand is still important for me. It includes all that admin work, which I absolutely have to dio. It includes grocery shopping and laundry and all the household stuff. It includes spending time with people I love. It's not unimportant. It's just things that I can work in around these big rocks. So if writing is one of your big rocks, give it a place of prominence in your day or your week, and also make a list of what you consider to be the sand in the gravel, because those were the things that you can fit in around the edges 5. Pick Up a Habit!: Okay. Now, once you've put that big rock in the place, you have to keep it there. If having a regular writing routine is new to you, you might find that it's hard to stick with it. You've already got your habits and your routines, and it's easy to fall back into those. So the good news is that it's not hard to develop a new habit. And, um, I want you to think about how easy it is to develop a bad habit. Let's say somebody opens a cookie cart in the lobby of your office and you go down there wants to try the cookies because you just be a nice right. You want to help this new business? Well, it turns out that the cookies are delicious, so from time to time you find yourself going down there to get a cookie to celebrate a big success, and then you start buying them whenever you're having a tough day, and you just need a little reward to get you through the afternoon. And the next thing you know, you're taking a cookie break every day at three o'clock. So congratulations, you just formed yourself. Ah, cookie habit that was easy, right? It's actually really just that easy to form any kind of habit. Now, maybe you've heard people talk about this idea of habit stacking. The idea is that if you want to get in the habit of doing this new thing, you added on to something else that you already do every day. So think of something that you're definitely gonna dio every day without fail and make your writing session thing you do immediately, before or after that. Maybe you could write for 30 minutes every day before lunch or right after you take the dog for a walk in the morning. Maybe only have time to write on Saturdays, and you go to a younger class on Saturdays. Great. Take your laptop with you and make writing the thing you do right after yoga. The trick is to find a moment when your day would otherwise go a little sideways and make a change right there. If you're in the habit of walking in the door after work and turning on the TV for an hour or so before you make dinner, maybe that's where the change happens. You walk in the door, you grab your notebook in your pen and you, right until it's time to make dinner. What you've done is you've packed this new thing in between two things you already do every day. Come home from work and make dinner. So find that place in your life and see if there's a way to just graft your new writing practice or your ongoing writing practice onto something that you've already done to help solidify that habit. 6. Find Cues that Work for You: You know, there's another thing that can help with creating a new riding habit, and that's toe havoc. You of some sort. Let's say you're going to start writing as soon as you get home from work. You might want some way of turning your attention to your writing practice before you even get home. So maybe on your commute, whether you're in the car, you're writing a bus. You can listen to an audiobook. They get you in the right frame of mind for the kind of book you're writing. Or you can even listen to a really great book of writing advice, like an LaMotte's Bird by Bird or Stephen King's on writing. Another thing is that some writers have a little Q when they sit down at their desk and even setting up your space to get started. Writing is a type of Q that can really help close the door. Turn off your phone, close the Web browsers or any other software on your computer unplugged from the Internet, open your document. Just the act of shutting everything else out and opening The document that you're working on is a great way to tell your brain that it's time to go. We're here to work. You know, some writers do other kinds of little rituals. Light a candle, meditate, whatever works for you. You know, Speaking of meditation, I started using the headspace app for meditation this year. And I hate to admit it, but all those people telling you that you should meditate, they're right. It really does help you settle down and focus, you know, headspace in particular. It has a long serious on creativity and all listen to even five or 10 minutes of that. And I have to admit, it really does get me focused on what I'm about to dio. Another thing is that some writers start with a little journaling and this could be really helpful because it does get your hand moving. It gets you physically involved in the act of writing. Now I keep a little notebook or a legal pad on my desk that I fill with notes and ideas, and it serves as a kind of ah diary for my book when I'm frustrated or when the work isn't going well, this is where I go to complain. And by the time I'm finished writing in this notebook, the solution or just the next step almost always presents itself. It's kind of magical, you know. I also know that some writers listen to music, and I love to listen to music when I'm painting. But for some reason, I can't listen to music when I'm right when I'm writing. But if you can then think about starting out that way. Store your writing session by playing that music. You know, I read that Neil Gaiman listens to film scores when he writes, and I think that's such a fantastic idea because they are so dramatic and evocative. And I realized that a lot of streaming services have film scores available or just white noise tracks that you can listen, Teoh. Another thing I do is to copy out a page from a book I love, and it doesn't have to be a book exactly like the one I'm writing. It might just be something that inspires me for reasons I can't really explain. Like one year I fell in love with Elmore Leonard's book Swag, which is about a couple of small time car thieves. I thought it was funny and I love the pacing. It really moved along. Another time, it was this novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Kind Words Saloon. I just adored the dialogue, but neither these books or anything like the books I write, but just copying out a random page by hand into a note. But it would just get me move. One thing. If you're going to do this, make a note at the top of the page about whose book you were copying. So you don't look back years from now and think that you wrote those brilliant words yourself. Another thing you can do is to set a timer to get yourself going. So sometimes I'll use an app called Freedom to kick myself off the Internet with freedom. What you do as you set a timer and you tell the program how long you want your freedom from Internet distractions. Toe last and I found that there's something really powerful about just setting that timer and knowing that I had 30 minutes to get my work done. If 30 minutes seems intimidating, set a timer for 10 minutes and see how it goes Now. The last thing is, this might sound a little out there, but it does help when you wake up in the morning before you get out of bed. Try to picture this really great writing session you're gonna have later in the day. Think about where you're gonna be. Think about what section of the book you're gonna work on and just imagine it is a really joyful, productive, focused time in in the day. And hold on to that idea for us, long as you can before you get up. So I want to think about what kind of cues might work for you and start using them regularly to get your writing. Practice started every day. 7. Maintain Your Brain: We all know that piano players have to take care of their hands. Tennis players have to take care of their elbows and you're a writer. You have to take care of your brain. Writing is one of the most complex and demanding tasks our brains can perform. And when your brain's not in great shape, the writing doesn't go so well. Uh, maybe you've noticed that already. So ah, part of your writing practices actually to take care of yourself, and that means getting plenty of sleep. Getting some exercise may be thinking about how alcohol or drugs could be slowing you down . I'm not your mom. I'm not gonna lecture you on how to live your life. But every professional writer I know has had to figure out how to address these kinds of lifestyle issues to take care of their brains. So if you needed one more reason to take better, carry yourself, that's it and will make a difference now. A few years ago, I became fascinated with Daniel Khanna Mons Amazing book, thinking fast and slow. He won a Nobel prize. So you want to listen to him? This book is ah, really interesting Look at how people make decisions and how they process information, and this is gonna be a huge oversimplification. But here's how I apply his ideas to my writing. He talks about the brain working on two tracks. System one and system to system One is so fast, it's basically automatic. What's two plus two? You can't help but think for you already know that. What's 28 plus 173 Now you gotta use system to You have to slow down. You really have to think it through. You have to do a little bit of processing of information. So it's possible to transfer skills or our ideas from system to into system one like think about a master chess player. They can just glance at a chess board and see the next four or five moves. It feels like system went to them. It's just automatic. But for me to make a move on a chessboard, I'd have to sit there and think about it and look up the rules in a book. It would be really hard because I'm relying on system to, But if I devoted my life to the game, if I practiced all the time some of that would become automatic. It would become system one with a lot of practice. The same thing goes for learning a musical instrument. It's definitely happens with dancing. After enough practice, it starts to feel as easy and as automatic as two plus two. But here's the thing, I think and remember, this is just my idea about how I apply his ideas. I think that writing is always stuck in system, too, that every time you sit down to put words on paper, it's a different challenge because no two paragraphs air over the same no. Two books are ever the same. There's just not a lot of repetition in the act of writing, and I think that's why it's so challenging, and this is where we get stuck. But here's the other thing that Daniel Kahneman talks about. His research shows that when people are doing that difficult system two thinking their brains went out of glucose faster and that that work just gets harder and harder to dio. Which leads us Teoh Snacks and breaks. I bet you didn't think I was going there, did you? But look, your brain cycles in and out of sleep at night, and it goes through cycles like that during the day to once you've blocked out all your distractions and you've done whatever you need to do to get yourself started writing, and you're really immersed in your work. You can only stay there for so long, maybe 45 minutes, maybe an hour and 1/2 but you'll know when you're done. You'll know when you look up and suddenly you see the room around you and you wonder where the time rent and you'll know when your brain is like, Yeah, that was cool, but I really need to go do something different for a minute. So I'm serious about the snacks. If your brain runs out of food, feed it and also take a break. But I hope that break isn't scrolling mindlessly through the Internet or watching TV. Try to take the kind of break that will let you come back to your work. Feeling rejuvenated, Go outside, take a walk, run around in the back yard with the dog, do some yoga, meditate. I have a little balcony in my office and even just standing out on that balcony for a few minutes and looking out over the treetops. It's a nice break, So be aware of this. With your writing practice, you can approach your writing with a sense of ease and playfulness. But it is work, and your brain's gonna let you know when it needs a break. So give it what it needs. Give it food, give it rest and then get back to work. 8. Getting Unstuck and Final Thoughts: Listen, everybody gets stuck. Sometimes good habits fade and they have to be rebuilt. So you should expect your work to go through cycles. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the book you're writing or that there's anything wrong with you is a writer. It just means that you need a fresh perspective. We all need that from time to time. So an easy way to get a new perspective is to change up that how, when and where you write that we talked about at the beginning of the class. Sometimes I decide that I need to be in a bookstore around all the other books. So I take my laptop and I go down to my favorite bookstore and I write in their coffee shop every afternoon. Sometimes I switch to pen and paper for a while, or I find a different, inspiring book, and I copy pages out of that. It might also help to write your book out of order. Skip ahead, right? Some pages that belong later in the book, they're probably not gonna work perfectly. You're gonna have to rewrite him when you get there, but it will get you moving again now It might also help Teoh pick up that journal that I've been talking about and actually write about the reasons you're stuck. Write down all the reasons you can't possibly write another page. Everything that's going wrong, everything that's not working about you, you're writing practice the book you're working on, Um, and by the end of that you might just write yourself out of all your problems. But finally, I want you to give yourself permission to write some terrible pages. Chances are they're not as bad as you think, or you will go back and look at him later and you'll know right away how to fix it. Just remember that if you're a writer, you're in it because you want to write. It's It's just the same as how Ah Runner wants to run. You know, if you're a runner, you put on your shoes, you go out the front door, you run a mile. Every day isn't a victory lap for the Boston Marathon. Runners run because they want to run, and they know that the secret to a successful running practice is to keep running. Even on the bad days. They take care of their bodies. They have the right equipment, and they run at the time and place that works best for them. Any time that allows you to run is the right time to run. So treat your writing practice the same. You know, give yourself the equipment, the habits and the practices that will make it possible for you to keep showing up and writing your pages and be prepared to be flexible. And I have to change that and adapted over time. It won't be the same forever. So let me see your projects. Please post your comments and questions in the discussion. I want to hear from you about what's working and what's getting stuck. I'll see you there.