How to develop a writing practice

Writing is hard work. It might seem easy: a few words on a page, pen to paper or fingers on keyboard. But while the tools are simple enough, getting them to do what you want is not always straightforward.

On developing a writing practice

The foundation of ‘being a writer’ is writing practice. It’s like a musician doing scales, like a runner warming up for a run.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says that writing practice is ‘the bottom line, the most primitive, essential beginning of writing… It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, write our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.’

If you are serious about improving your writing, you will continue to practice – not refuse to do so because you ‘already know how to write’ (something I did for years). Goldberg says, ‘don’t stop doing writing practice. It is what keeps you in tune, like a dancer who does warmups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running. Runners don’t say ‘Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.’ Each day they warm up and stretch.’

In A Writer’s Book of Days, Judy Reeves describes the practice like this (which I love): ‘When you show up at the page and put in the time day after day, you learn to trust your pen and the voice that emerges as your own. You name yourself Writer. By taking the time for writing practice, you are honouring yourself as writer…You learn what you want to write about and what matters to you as a writer. You explore your creative nooks and crannies, and make forays into some scary places that make your hand tremble and your heart beat faster. This is good. This is when you are writing your truth, and that’s the best writing anybody ever does.’

So writing practice will be our baseline – our daily ritual to practise being a writer – to be a writer.

Writing practice will be done daily, for a set amount of time. It is entirely up to you what time you write for. I do ten minutes as my standard time, but on a really rushed day I might do 3 minutes. If I had a whole free day to work on my writing (ha!) then I might take 30 minutes. Experiment with different times and change them if necessary. Better you show up for 2 minutes and write your heart out every day than only twice a week because you think you should write for 30 minutes each time but can’t really fit that in.

Reeves says, ‘be flexible – create a schedule that works for you, so that when practice time comes, you accept it as an ongoing, necessary part of your life as a writer and look forward to it as a gift to yourself.’

Here are Reeves’ rules for timed writing practice (from A Writer’s Book of Days):

  1. Keep writing. Don’t stop to edit, to rephrase, to think. Don’t go back and read what you’ve written until you’ve finished.
  2. Trust your pen. Go with the first image that appears.
  3. Don’t judge your writing. Don’t compare, analyse, criticise.
  4. Let your writing find its own form. Allow it to organically take shape into a story, essay, poem, dialogue, an incomplete meander.
  5. Don’t worry about the rules. Don’t worry about grammar, syntax, punctuation, or sentence structure.
  6. Let go of expectations. Let your writing surprise you.
  7. Kiss your frogs. Remember, this is just practice. Not every session will be magic. The point is to just suit up and show up at the page, no matter what.
  8. Tell the truth. Be willing to go to the scary places that makes your hand tremble and your handwriting get a little out of control. Be willing to tell your secrets.
  9. Write specific details. Your writing doesn’t have to be factual, but the specificity of the details brings it alive. The truth isn’t in the facts; it’s in the detail.
  10. Write what matters. If you don’t care about what you’re writing, neither will your readers. Be a passionate writer.
  11. Read your writing aloud after you’ve completed your practice session. You’ll find out what you’ve written, what you care about, when you’re writing the truth, and when the writing is ‘working’.
  12. Date your page and write the topic at the top. This will keep you grounded in the present and help you reference pieces you might want to use in something else.

What you write about is up to you, but in order to make things easier I’ll provide a list of daily topics each week. Rather than spending 10 minutes thinking of what to write, I recommend you use the day’s topic: write it at the top of the page, set the timer and write about the first thing that comes to mind – trust it.

Reeves recommends taking the topic as a starter and changing it to work for you, if necessary: change the tense, the narrative point of view (from I to he, from she to you, or use names), turn the prompt into dialogue, write about it in a literal or metaphorical sense, work in whatever genre calls you in the moment – take it and make it work for you.

To get started, I think it might be worth exploring why you want to write. In your writer’s notebook (yes, you have permission to get a new notebook, don’t use your journal because it’s different – something we will cover next week) answer this:

  • Why do you want to write, why do you want to commit to a writing practice?
  • What do you hope to get out of your writing?

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