Skip to content
Effective Living » Articles » How I built my writing habit from scratch

How I built my writing habit from scratch

brown wooden desk

N.B. There are lots of articles about how to make money from writing, but this is about the practice of getting your first few pieces written, and building a habit. It’s also about my personal journey, and I’m still in the early stages. This is working for me now, but I suspect I will require further tactics to sustain my writing into the long-term future.

It’s nerve-wracking to put something out there into the world. Personally, I have always preferred picking holes in what others do, and thinking about the ways in which I could do it sooo much better. But unless you count my embarrassing forays into student journalism, I’ve never written publicly before.

And yet I really wish I’d started writing sooner. What’s been holding me back is a combination of fears, and I would guess that if you’re thinking about writing publicly, at least one of the them will be swirling around in your mind somewhere too:

  • What if no one reads it and I’m doomed to a life of working for other people and creating nothing?
  • What if people do read it, but think it’s a load of rubbish?
  • What if my friends, family and former colleagues read it and make fun of me?
  • What if I have nothing to write?
  • What if I make some stupid mistake with grammar, or a much bigger mistake in content that ruins my reputation and my chance of succeeding in anything else?

However, over the last six months, I’ve gone from nothing to publishing on Medium, starting my own blog, and creating a consistent daily writing practice. Here are the tactics I used to do it:

Making writing less daunting

  • I committed to writing just 100 crappy words per day. That’s basically just a title and a few casual thoughts – less than I write in WhatsApp messages each day. However, it’s enough that you’re a) building a habit and b) creating something to come back to and build into a proper article. I usually end up writing more than this – in fact, this article came from 800 words I’d written on the topic a few months ago – but I allow myself to consider my work ‘done’ when I’ve hit this benchmark. Obviously this isn’t going to be sufficient to actually get me up and running as a writer, especially as we’re not talking 100 quality words here, but I figured I would only need to produce about 400 excellent words per day to make it sustainable, and this was sort of getting me 25% of the way already! I also write a different article each day, rather than a further 100 words on the same thing as yesterday. This keeps things fresh, and means I have loads of green shoots to cultivate into proper articles over time.
  • I didn’t publish anything for the first two months. This sounds counter-intuitive, as you’d think you want to get over the hurdle of doing it quickly, get some feedback (even if that’s just the fact that no one read it!), and adjust accordingly. However, telling myself I didn’t have to publish anything for a while gave me the freedom to start writing without fear of failure, and write what I wanted before feedback made me second-guess too much. I wrote eight complete articles in the first two months, which I doubt I’d have achieved if I were publishing as I went. I’ve kept up this mindset of writing drafts rather than finished articles to separate the creation of my content from the editing and publishing. This makes it less scary, and means I can publish when the article will have the most impact, rather than when they’re done. It also gives me a bit of time to consider before I hit go on anything which may be career-limiting.
  • I published stuff on Medium before launching my site. Whilst my ultimate aim was to build and write on my own site, writing is a different skill to setting up, designing and maintaining a website – or even directing someone else to do that to your requirements – and I wanted to focus my effort on the former. Previous point aside, I did want to get something out there relatively quickly, and before spending time and money setting up my own platform. The downside to this is that some of the traffic you might get through your content is going to someone else’s site, rather than your own, but that downside seemed like it would at least be offset – certainly in the short term – by the extra exposure of having the writing on a site people actually visited. Medium helped me do this by being quick and easy to set up. It also has a ready-made audience that is likely to give you more views (and thus more feedback) than a website you’re starting from scratch.
    • Edit: In setting up my site, I remembered just how easy WordPress is, so I probably should have done it sooner. A big delay I had was finding the right domain name, but I probably should have just set up a website under my own name before starting this one.
  • I started before I needed to make money from it. This gave me the freedom to write about what I found interesting, and develop my own style, rather than writing what someone was going to pay more for, or making it horribly clickbaity. Obviously the need to make money after losing a job is what drives a lot of entrepreneurial motivation, but it can also stifle you if you’ve got a really short time-frame in which to make it pay.

Getting enough content ideas

  • I make sure I’m reading/consuming lots. Most writing advice will tell you to read lots too, and it’s true – except that in 2021, it doesn’t have to be reading. YouTube videos, podcasts, audiobooks and various other forms of media can all be sources of inspiration. The important thing is not what format the material’s in, but how you consume it. Once I developed my small writing habit, I started seeing content everywhere: things I could improve, content I could combine or repackage, and ideas I could steal. Personally, I’ve found it hugely useful to make notes on things I’m consuming, and store them in my Second Brain. For this article, for example, I was able to search my Notion notes for ‘write’ and ‘writing’, which resurfaced loads of notes, quotes, and ideas I could use, saving me loads of time and effort.
  • I keep things flowing. By working on loads of different pieces of content, or content ideas, at a time, I keep my work flowing, rather than getting stuck on one problem. At any one time, I have:
    • Loads of different notes that aren’t yet content
    • A list of content ideas
    • Some of those content ideas in early draft, with 100-500 words
    • Some of those in a completed first draft
    • Some of those reviewed by a friend
    • Some of those edited and published
  • This way I’ve got lots of different threads to pull on at any one time, depending on what inspires me, what I have energy for, and what I’ve just found new material for. There’s also plenty more source material in my ‘read it later’ app, in my journal, and in the email newsletters I subscribe to.
  • I didn’t worry about being too original. Part of my rationale for starting my own writing was that I thought I could do a better job than the average writer. So early on, I’m OK with finding articles by what I consider mediocre writers, then trying to write a better version. Not something perfect, incredibly original, or that would change the world immediately, but that was just marginally better than the last thing I’d read, and thus (possibly) worth doing. All artists steal – it’s just a question of whether you’re adding some value too – and remembering to cite your sources. A useful rule to apply is that if you’re reading something but feel like it’s not telling you anything you didn’t already know, then you’ve probably got something you could teach.
  • I write about problems I want to solve. Lots of advice tells you to write about what you know, but I’ve found it easier to write about problems I’m trying to solve, even if those problems are mostly just my own. If I’m struggling to come up with an idea for an article, I start with a problem I’m working on, make that into the title, then google it. It at least allows you to get started.
  • I don’t stick to a coherent theme or niche. A lot of advice about starting a blog or online company tells you to find a niche and then stick with that. It probably does a lot of good in terms of search engine optimisation (SEO) in the medium term, but the thought of forcing myself to write about just one thing is pretty off-putting. Given I’ve got a little bit of time before I need to make this work financially, I’m planning to let my niche develop over time, when I’ve found something I know I want to commit to. To paraphrase Austin Kleon in Steal Like An Artist (2012), what unifies my work is that I made it.
  • I experiment with constraints. Perhaps the best example of this is from Dr. Seuss, who was challenged by his publisher to write a children’s book using a vocabulary of only 225 words. He came up with The Cat In The Hat, which helped transform literacy education. When the head of Random House bet him $50 he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words, his riposte was Green Eggs and Ham, which was even more successful. I can’t claim to have written a blog post using only 10 words or something, but experimenting with, for example, writing everything you know on a topic in less than 500 words, writing something in email format, or writing an article in just one hour, can be strangely liberating.

Building the habit

My habit-building has been greatly influenced by Atomic Habits (2018) by James Clear, in which he outlines four rules of behaviour change: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it rewarding.

  • Doing my writing first thing each morning. Getting my writing going was my number one goal for the year, so I made it my number one goal each day. Doing it straight after my morning routine means I remember to do it, my energy is high, I’m probably at my most creative, and I don’t let other things get in the way. Doing my most important task first thing also gives me a sense of accomplishment that helps the rest of the day go well. 
  • And in the same place each day. Other than when I’m traveling, I sit at the same desk every time I write. I don’t let that space be used for anything else, so everything’s ready to go when I set down. It helps build a ritual if you use the same space, at roughly the same time.
  • I make it attractive. Over time, I’ve improved my desk set up to make it comfortable and aesthetically-pleasing. You could write on pretty much any laptop, but I use a MacBook Air that looks nice and works well with my other devices – it’s more expensive, but it probably reduces my aversion to sitting down and working just a little bit. And whilst I use Notion for my digital notes, I write in Pages because again, it’s pretty, plus the autocorrect works really well and saves me time.
  • I make it really easy to accomplish. As I noted above, my goal is to write just 100 words per day. Even sitting down in the same place each day at the same time without writing a word helps to get a habit started – and you can build up the habit once you’ve established it. I’m always trying to find ways to make my practice easier, too – the most recent has been experimenting with dictation on my laptop, which enabled me to write 1700 words in about 40 minutes.
  • I use intermediate steps to make it rewarding. If you only feel like you’ve accomplished something when your work is published, or even when it gets a certain number of views, you’re probably putting in a lot of effort per reward. By breaking down the process into smaller steps e.g. research, creating the outline, writing 100 words, finishing a first draft, I give myself lots of little wins along the way.
  • I’ve tied my identity to it so I stick to the habit. Even early in the process, when I hadn’t produced much, I told friends I was writing — not so I could get them to spread the word, but because public announcements make us more likely to maintain our habits. Making habits stick in the long run requires us to tie them to our identity, so each time I write a page, or tell someone that I’m a writer, I reinforce that I am indeed a writer.