Trying to fit regular writing time into your life can be a really daunting task. Some of us are lucky enough to have the flexibility to write whenever we want, but for most people, long term commitments like work, family and relationships can make regular time at the keyboard difficult to get a handle on. And it’s often the first thing to go when you’re going through a period of stress. Writing is like a muscle: the more you practise, the easier it gets. And without regular practise, your writing’s unlikely to get better.
A little while ago I went through a really dry period where my writing pretty much ground to a halt. I’d taken on a new job, moved in with someone, and lost a lot of the usual rhythms that led me to write. I’d tried kidding myself that it would just happen: that one of these days I’d be less busy, that I would find the time to sit at my desk and start typing merrily away, but I never did.
I realised the only way that I was going to get my writing mojo back was by beating myself into shape with a writing schedule. I needed to hardwire writing time into my life – and after taking a look at my weekly routine, I realised that reclaiming my mornings would be the best way to go about it. I thought if I carved out some time before work, I could get back into writing properly.
But how to do it? I had grown used to late nights and lie-ins, and the thought of rising early to fit in an hour or so before work filled me with a groggy-headed dread. But in practice, it wasn’t so bad at all – as long as I followed a few rules I set for myself.
Everyone has their own of working, but these are my top tips for making early morning writing a sustainable part of your routine:
Don’t wake up too early. We all need to sleep. Margaret Thatcher may have been able to make it through on only 4 hours a night, but needing 8 is much more normal. Don’t skimp: you’ll get exhausted, make yourself ill, and your writing will suffer. Take a careful look at your schedule and set a realistic wake-up time – and know what time you should be going to sleep. It’s better to have 20 minutes of writing time on a full night’s sleep than an hour without.
Don’t write on an empty stomach. The last thing you want is to ruin your writing time with a growling tummy. Roll straight out of bed and into the kitchen to make yourself a simple breakfast while your mind wakes up. Take time to eat it properly, too. Don’t try to eat and write – far too messy. Read the paper, check Facebook or listen to music – but then be ready to go straight to the keyboard as soon as you’re finished.
Do it in your pyjamas. Write first, wash later. Whenever I get ready for work, all the little tasks have a funny way of expanding to fit the time available. Leave yourself enough time to get ready once you’ve finished writing, but prioritise your time at the page. If you’re late, be late because you had an amazing writing session, not because you spent too long in the shower.
Find a place to do it. Don’t improvise; take this seriously. Whether it’s at a desk or curled up on a sofa, find yourself a writing nook and make sure you show up there every time. It’ll help you stick to the habit. Try to avoid the bed, as this can interfere with your sleep hygiene – yes that’s a real thing – which can have negative effects on your sleep, and your writing.
Make sure you’re ready to go the night before. Lay out your books, your pens, your computer, and unclutter your writing nook so you can just walk in and get started. Unf**k Your Habitat have great tips for keeping your work area tidy. Make sure you have what you need for your quick breakfast, too.
Don’t put any pressure on yourself. Don’t set a word count; don’t set a goal. All you’re trying to do is show up at the page and write. You don’t need the stress of deadlines getting in your way. Some days you will do really well, and other days it will be like pulling teeth – so don’t beat yourself up about the inevitable dry spells.
Make sure you’re stocked with inspiration. If you like working from writing prompts, make sure you have some lined up to get you going. If you get stuck and find yourself casting around for an idea, make sure you’ve got some nice books or images to hand. If you’re going to be doing something else, like editing a scene or developing a character, make sure you’ve decided what it is before you show up. You don’t want to waste time trying to work out what you should be doing.
Have a backup plan. Sometimes you will have bad days where you can’t write anything. You might be ill, you might be knackered, your laptop might die. Or there might be no reason at all. It happens. But when it does, try to use that time in another constructive way – maybe read something inspiring, go back over an old draft, brainstorm a character, or even just doodle something to get your mind moving.
Know when not to do it. Don’t be too hardcore about this. Good writing doesn’t come from working yourself into the ground. If you’re unwell, if you’re exhausted, if you’re stressed by something major happening in your life, don’t feel awful about taking a morning off to steal some sleep or do something else you really have to get done. If I’m having a hard week at work, I normally take Thursday morning off and have a lie-in instead. That extra hour of sleep helps me make it through the week – and one good Friday morning is better than two mornings of exhausted rubbish. Just make sure you’re not making excuses to let yourself slack off.
Be prepared to get better. At first, just waking up and typing the date may well be challenging enough for you. But the more you practice writing, the better you’ll get at it – so be prepared to move on. You may start to find automatic writing boring – see this as a good thing, as it means you should be trying something more challenging. Try more demanding exercises, or start working on project that means something to you.
Don’t pretend this is everything. Writing for short, sustained periods in the morning is a great way to revitalise your writing life, but it can’t replace the proper commitment of longer amounts of time spent at the keyboard. Block out a regular evening once a week to do more of the heavy lifting, think about taking the occasional writing holiday for a few days running, or just fit in a few hours once a week wherever you can. Whatever you do, you’ll find your morning routine leaves you feeling better prepared, your mind clearer, and your writing sharper.