Thursday, February 4, 2010

Maintaining a daily writing habit: Here's what works for me

I’ve been invited to speak to a local women’s group about keeping a journal, so I’ve spent some time over the past few days trying to pull my thoughts together around a topic that for me feels largely intuitive, and yet still merits articulation once in a while. Daily writing: Why do it? And if you want to do it, how?

Though I make a big deal of being a daily or “streak” runner, I hardly ever think about the fact that I’m a streak journal-keeper as well. It’s become such a habit that I don’t even acknowledge it most of the time, but not since late 1994 have I missed a day of writing in my journal, when I finally realized it was easier to write every day than to skip days and then have a sense that there was “catching up” to do. As I frequently say, journaling is so much like running or any other kind of exercise: the longer you go without doing it, the harder it is to start up again, so it’s easier and certainly more mindless to just set out with a pre-defined commitment – which could be every day, but it could also be every other day, three times a week, even once a week – and stick to it rather than begin every day with a “Should I or shouldn’t I” question.

When I was younger I wrote before bed, summing up the events of the day just gone by. When I was in college, sometimes it was very late at night, well into the wee hours of the next day in fact, but I often felt like I couldn’t go to sleep until I’d processed the events of the day in writing. It was almost as if the day hadn’t officially happened until I’d made note of it.

These days I follow the method set out by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write, which Cameron calls Morning Pages. The idea is to write three fast pages the minute you get out of bed in the morning. Three pages doesn’t work well for me as a benchmark since Cameron is talking about longhand and I always keyboard, so I use one thousand words as my minimum goal. Back when I was writing longhand, I used ten minutes as my framework. I don’t think it matters, though, whether you go by word count or duration or physical pages; it’s just a matter of getting yourself to stay with whatever measuring stick you’ve chosen.

And the reason I think it’s important to choose one of these benchmarks goes back to the idea of never having to decide whether or not this is a good day for writing. If you’ve committed to ten minutes, as I used to, then on those days when you feel like you have nothing to say, you’ll find something. You won’t revert to the all-too-easy “Nothing much going on” entry, or if you do, you’ll write past it. I employ a lot of journaling techniques that delve into the abstract or hypothetical. For example, if you find yourself writing “Not much going on today,” you can then pose the hypothetical statement: “But here’s what I wish were going on.” If you find yourself writing “I don’t feel like writing today,” use the rest of your ten minutes to take that next step “…because this is what is distracting me and keeping me from wanting to write.”

Often, I just write the same way children keep diaries, describing the here-and-now of the previous twenty-four hours. Finished an article; talked to my sister; went on a three-mile run; can’t wait to pick up that new novel at the library. Mundane, everyday events fill the pages of my journals, and have for years. I almost never re-read them. The point for me is the exercise: keeping a daily journal compels me to process my thoughts and feelings (or face the fact that I am avoiding them), and, just as with running, it keeps me at a certain “fitness” level. When I have to write something fast for work, it never seems like a strain, since I’m so accustomed to sitting down and writing, whether I have anything to say or not. Faced with an article assignment that I have no idea how to begin, I do the same thing as with my journal: I just start writing anything, to see if I can get through the mental static and make my way to the point.

Key points if you want to write regularly:

1) Find the time and place that work best for you. It might be 6 AM in your home office, which is what I do; it might be 3 PM at your local coffee shop or library; it might be 9 PM after your family has settled down and the house is quiet. It might even be in your parked car for ten minutes before you go into work. Experiment with different possibilities.

2) Choose your target benchmark for minimum output, whether it’s word count, duration in minutes or number of pages.

3) If you feel like you have nothing to say, write about nothing. Write about not having anything to say. Write about what you wish you had to say. Write about why you don’t want to say what you have to say.

4) It takes three weeks to build a habit. Decide your frequency goal, whether it’s daily or a certain number of times per week, and commit to that for at least three weeks.

5) Have someplace you can jot down thoughts that come to you during the day that you want to write about, and turn to that list when you next sit down to your journal.

As the late writer Donald Murray, a published poet, UNH writing instructor and Boston Globe columnist, often said, “Nulla dies sine linea – never a day without a line.” Ultimately, it’s easier to just sit down and write than to put off writing. And it only gets easier with practice.


  1. Nancy,
    This was an awesome post on journal writing; loved it! Having a goal to write for a set amount of time and for frequency is a good tool to creating a solid journal writing habit. I also love the creative approach to when you don't have anything to say. Love this idea.
    I am very similar in approach to journal writing, summarizing the day's events. I average about 20 to 45 minutes per evening. I also feel like I have to catch up if I don't write every day or I feel as if I might have missed something really important.

    Thanks for posting this article!
    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Be Refreshed!
    @journalwriter7 on Twitter

  2. Hi Nancy - thanks for leading our discussion last night. Journal writing helps me process ideas. You may have inspired a few others to give it a try. Thanks for posting your notes here.