Discipline vs Inspiration: How Habit Keeps Me Going

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Writers, and other creative types, all rely on inspiration for ideas, but over the decades I’ve been writing, I’ve learned that inspiration can only take you so far.  Discipline and habit are needed to get you the rest of the way.

These days, I see writing from two different angles.  There’s the idea creation side of things that encompasses world building, character creation, and plotting (whatever that looks like), and then there’s the physical act of writing, which involves dedicating the time and energy to do the work (be that drafting, revision, copy editing, research, or anything else you need to do to finish the project).  In my early days of writing, I think I bought into the inspiration leads to writing idea a lot more.  I hadn’t learned yet that habit and putting in the time, can get me there even when I’m not feeling inspired.

Take this month as an example.

I started playing with an ide for a new character and world to help meet my April Camp NaNoWriMo goal of writing for at least twenty minutes every day.  I haven’t felt very inspired and some mornings it’s been excruciating trying to make myself write.  But somehow, I’ve done it.  My NaNoWriMo region has been doing early morning sprints together online for a few years now, and it’s become a part of my morning routine.  Even with writing slower and not writing much outside those morning sprints and my one weekly write-in, I have over 25,000 words on this new idea.  It’s a jumbled mess of random scenes, world building notes, and character descriptions, but it’s a lot more than I would have expected given how unmotivated and uninspired I’ve felt all month.

As one of my fellow morning sprinters put it recently “Discipline >> motivation any day.”  The habit I’ve built of writing every day (I’ve only missed two days in April so far) has carried me through when I was struggling to feel creative.

This is part of why I love NaNoWriMo.  While the challenge is ostensibly about writing 50,000 words in a month on a brand-new novel, in spirit, it’s much more about building a daily writing habit.  The ethos of celebrating all new words (or progress of any kind), no matter how few, and every successful effort toward more words, even if the 50k goal is out of reach, is something that I really like.  As a very fast typist who doesn’t usually struggle to get words out, the 50,000 words isn’t the hard part of NaNoWriMo for me personally.  The daily writing habit is my true goal for the challenge these days.  Writing every single day, even over the holidays and busy work times that always come in November, is something I’m really passionate about.

From talking with friends, both local and around the world, I’m not the only one struggling with inspiration these days.  It seemed appropriate to share with the world (or whoever reads this at least) the technique I’ve found to get me through when the inspiration might not be there.  Dedication can get you pretty far all on its own, and it’s more than worth developing good habits of dedication to your writing, or any other creative pursuits.

With that in mind, here’s what’s been working for me:

  1. Dedicate a time every single day to your writing.  This could be as little as five or ten minutes.  Consistency is the key here.  It’s about building up a mental habit which helps with getting into the writing headspace.
  2. If the words aren’t flowing, trying just one sentence.  If that goes well, try for a paragraph.  The physical act of writing (long hand or typing) can help your brain get into the right gear for writing.
  3. If it’s really not working, try changing something.  This could be switching to a different project, moving between drafting, revision, or copyediting, or trying out a different POV.
  4. Don’t berate yourself for working slowly.  Some days it will take 20 minutes to write as little as 200 words.  Some days you might manage two or three times that in 20 minutes.  You should be just as proud of those 200 words as you would be of 600 words.  It’s forward progress.
  5. Remember that revision and copy editing are still writing work.  Just because it might look a little different doesn’t mean you aren’t writing.

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