How to Start a Writing Habit from Scratch

I try to write every day, but more often than not, I fail.

In fact, I’ve tried to start a daily writing habit plenty of times in my life, but I’ve only recently stuck to it pretty regularly. And now I consider it a success if I write something at least four times week. When I was an English teacher, I was pretty much a hypocrite- making the students fill out a journal every day while the only letters I ever put to the page were a red A  – F.

In the last year, I’ve changed a few habits and have been getting slightly better at it. First, I started journaling online instead of in a 99-cent composition notebook. The transition to the keyboard made a lot of sense because I never really use a pen anymore, so my muscles just weren’t trained for it. Writing on a computer is just a lot more fluid.

Second, I started journaling first thing in the morning, and also returning to my every time I got that urge to mindlessly surf the internet. I set up a clear expectation in the morning and then forced myself to create output every time I get the mindless urge to consume more input.

I believe that writing is one of the more important daily habits that everyone should develop, like exercise or making fun of my wife for watching The Bachelor.

Here’s my advice on starting a daily writing habit, starting with a private journal, but hopefully developing into some sort of publication, like a blog.

From self-examination to self-expression

Regularly scheduled writing is a chore. I suggest starting with a few minutes in the morning where you simply freewrite– clearing out the junk in your head. If you find a blank page intimidating, it’s OK to use a trick that’s very popular in writing instruction right now: sentence starters. Here’s few starters for that daily journal:

  • I’m happy about…
  • I’m pissed about…
  • Today I need to…
  • One thing I really don’t want to do today…
  • Yesterday I…

And so on. The point is to develop a healthy habit of self-examination. Take a peek at whats inside your head by throwing it on the paper. There’s no audience, just you. Use it to brainstorm problems at work, vent about your social life, and peel back the layers to your complex relationship with your mother. It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s simply the act of writing. Think of it as doing a pre-workout stretch or practicing a bicep curl when there’s no weight on the bar: the stakes are low but the repetition is good for you. Return to the journal throughout the day, if needed.

Keep this up and pretty soon you’ll find yourself writing about thoughts or feelings that you didn’t even know you had. This is good because you’re clearing out the pipes in your brain, tapping in to that reservoir of words and thoughts that we sometimes feel doesn’t exist.

If you do this for awhile, however, you tend to start hating everything you’re writing. You begin to see your insecurities displayed on the page in front you. You might also hear your boring, whiny voice starting to take a toll on you. This is good and a normal phase of writing.

The issue? Self-examination (how am I feeling today?) quickly becomes self-indulgent (me, me, me). This is where we want to start growing our writing from a strict self-examination to the include the higher form of self-expression. The key difference? Self-examination is a great starting place for exploring how we as an individual feel about something. Self-expression searches for ways to understand what is universal about our situations and our feelings. Self-examination looks inward. Self-expression pushes back outward.

Self-examination applies to ourself. Self-expression applies to everyone. You’ll tend to move back and forth between the two. The key point is to try to avoid self-centeredness (why does everything happen to me?) without losing our sense of honesty. This is a private journal, though, so we don’t want to censor our feelings. We want to be clear at expressing them; so clear, in fact, that if someone read your journal one hundred years from now, they’d relate.

From self-expression to self-improvement

If we’re trying to build a writing habit, then chances are we’re also interested in bettering ourselves overall. So for this part, I recommend not simply expressing yourself, but also finding concrete and practical ways that writing can improve your life.

Of course, spending any time getting to know ourselves better is good. In fact, I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve gotten upset, journaled, and realized halfway through that I wasn’t actually mad about the thing I thought I was mad about. Typically, I discover that there was something I should’ve done differently or I at least gain a new perspective on the issue. Maybe the girl at the checkout stand didn’t want to hear my thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you say to yourself.

But simply recognizing and becoming aware of something doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t lead to practical results. Make it habit to start including actionable items in your journaling:

  • Next time I will…
  • By the end of the day, I should…
  • To kick ass on this project I need to…

Try focusing on your recent successes and failures. Document your decisions during and after a project that your working on- at work or in life. Start to ask questions and really evaluate your choices and actions. Be brutally honest with yourself knowing that nobody is going to read what you’re writing. Resist the urge to deflect or blame others and always look inward for a chance at growth and improvement.

From self-improvement to reader-improvement

A blog is not a personal journal. A blog should never be a place to catalog your recent meals, or vent about the imaginary slights you received from anonymous strangers. Save that for your diary- I mean, journal. This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t be personal. One major goal of a private writing habit, apart from personal growth, is to create skills and ideas that translate into a public writing habit.

Earlier we described journalling as exercising without weight on the bar. Transitioning to published writing, whether its a blog, a book, or just a really long story on an Instagram post, is a separate entity from a personal journal. Putting thoughts into the world and receiving critical feedback on them makes you a stronger person. But it does hurt. The stakes are higher. But so are the gains. Exposing your thoughts to criticism either kills them or makes them stronger.

As your personal journal writing develops, start to pull out the ideas that you could share with the public. The important thing to remember is that the personal journal is about improving yourself, but published writing is about helping your reader. You cease to be the center of the universe. The purpose now is to take all of the lessons learned and share them in a way that supports your reader and improves their life.

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