Do you need a system for writing consistently? You’ve probably heard a lot of professional writers talk about their systems, but have you ever wondered, “Would this really work for me?”
The truth is that every writer needs a system, but most writers get there by piecing together their own best habits and practices through experimentation and trial and error. This could take a long time and there isn’t a great way to determine which experiments will yield the most results.
Every writer needs a system; no writer needs an out-of-the-box system. The key to productivity is self-knowledge about what works for you. So what you really need is a framework to find your writing system.
Here are five questions to consider when trying to discover your writing system:
Q1: Are you a routine person or a stimulation person, or somewhere in-between?
Most people gravitate toward one of two types of work—doing something different every day or hour (prevalent in management or any other job where you’re reactionary to problems) vs. having a routine of what you’re expected to accomplish each day (prevalent to sales, speaking, etc.). If you picture the extremes of these two types of work at the ends of a spectrum, where would you fall on it?
Depending on your answer, you’ll be able to decide:
- whether you’re going to work on multiple projects at a time (better for writers who need stimulation) or stick to one and focus (better for writers who like routine)
- whether you’re going to vary locations (coffee shop one day, living room the next, bookstore the day after) or whether you need to have a dedicated space on your home
- whether you can stick to a time block at the same time each day (from 2-4pm each day) or whether you want an overall goal of time spent (2 hours a day)
- whether you need to write sequentially or whether you can hop around within your manuscript
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you decide what kind of writing routine you’ll have, how loose or tight it will be, and what’s going to work for you to actually sit down and produce words.
Q2: Are you a digital capturer, analog capturer, or both?
All serious writers have a system for capturing their initial ideas and putting them into words, the minute they have the thought. This helps keep the writer focused, because otherwise those thoughts can overwhelm and block the creative process.
Knowing how you’re going to capture your ideas on the go is extremely important and will help you set up your system. If you prefer pen and paper, you’ll need to carry a notebook around and work on an organizational system so your notes don’t get jumbled. If you prefer digital, you’ll need to keep software on your phone, tablet, or laptop so you can access it at any time. And if you use both methods, you need a way to sync the two so that you have one place where everything is available.
My recommendations are:
- Evernote or Simplenote (both are free with premium versions) for capturing digital notes on the go, because they have apps for Android, iPhone, Mac, PC, etc. Simplenote also syncs with Scrivener, which is a useful feature I’ve used more than a few times to write on the go.
- Moleskines with grid paper, because they have multiple sizes and are really durable for every day carrying. I use the 5.5×8.5 softcover grid journal for on the go and keep my 8×10 softcover grid notebooks at my desk. I use a new notebook for every project and use Evernote’s capture camera to backup my scrawled content in a searchable form to their app. Bonus: Moleskine and Evernote partnered on special notebooks for analog-to-digital syncing.
- Post-its and an easel pad, because you can hang the pad on the wall and organize your content by plot, character, theme, and setting, moving the color-coded Post-its around. Post-its also have an Evernote version.
- Scrivener, which is not an on-the-go tool, but which syncs with Simplenote so you can pull your character sketches and plot ideas into your manuscript document.
Q3: Are you a “burst-of-energy” person or a “slow-and-steady” person?
When it comes to writing, your manuscript progress will be almost entirely driven by how much energy you have to devote to the project.
Energy levels vary not only by person but also by external factors, like how well you’re sleeping, eating, exercising, what your natural circadian rhythm is set at, and what hours of the day you feel most productive.
In addition to those things, some people are the hardcore, I’m-going-to-kick-out-this-draft-in-two-weeks types and others would rather write 500 words a day on the draft.
A slow and steady type might set a small daily word count goal and try to hit it every day, while a burst of energy type might clear their weekend, hole up in a hotel room, and crank out their story all at once.
Most people will fall somewhere in the middle, but once you know this you can plan and block off times for your drafting, based on how you like to work.
Q4: Are you a questioner, obliger, rebel, upholder?
Writing consistently is entirely about how you form habits. Are you a good habit-former? If so, you probably put together a writing routine with ease. If not, you may be struggling to get started, not just with writing but with a number of other routines in your life!
The 4 Rubin Tendencies (developed by Gretchen Rubin) will help you determine what kind of habit-former you are and what will motivate you to make writing a part of your daily routine.
I also recommend forming some of the other keystone habits of writers that I talked about in this post, because these will make a consistent writing habit much easier.
A number of researchers have also come up with a simple framework of trigger, behavior, reward, which are the three elements of effective habit formation.
Trigger: my alarm goes off.
Behavior: I sit at my desk and start typing.
Reward: I get to check off a box on my list of to-do’s for the day. (I know—my reward is lame, but I love checking things off. You can pick anything that motivates you.)
Lastly, you may want to look into BJ Fogg’s simple process for habit formation called Tiny Habits, which will help you get started with habits in general. They really matter, so don’t skimp on the process if you need to study habit formation first!
Q5: Are you a plotter, pantser, or plantser?
Even though this is the last question, it’s probably one of the most important!
It helps you figure out what exactly you’re going to do when you sit down to write.
The thing that stops so many of us from starting is that we don’t know what to do next in our project.
For example, if you’re a pantser, what do you do when you get stuck on your book? How do you get to a point where you know where the story is going again? How do you know when your story is done? All of these questions need a system or process build around them so that you know what to do next.
That way, when you sit down, you’re never at a loss and those fear gremlins never hit you to the point where they stop your progress.
The same is true for plotters—what structure are you using for this particular project? How much outlining do you need before moving on to the next step? When do you get to the point where you’re ready to write?
I added the third category, the plantser, because that’s what I am. I started out a pantser, then became a plotter as I tried to learn story structure. Now, a lot of that story structure is ingrained in me (half a million fiction words will do that to you) and I can intuitively find my story without confusion or fuss.
But before you get to that point, you need systems in place for if-then scenarios.
If I get stuck, then I do ______ to get unstuck.
If I run out of story, then I do _____ to tie up loose ends.
If I finish my draft, then I do _____ to start editing it.
And on, and on. Knowing what kind of general system in terms of plotting works for you will help you keep moving forward and through the confusion that often leads to fear, that often halts the project.
What questions would you add to this?
I hope these questions give you a lot to chew on. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with just one question and try to come up with your personal answers to it. Make a little progress per day on that one question until you’re ready for the next.
Do you recommend any other questions aspiring writers should ask themselves? Leave a comment to share your knowledge.
And good luck!