I wish someone had told me, or better still, I had figured it out myself at the beginning of my writing journey. It took me twenty years of painful, frustrating, trial-and-error learning to figure out that I only needed to concentrate on developing three habits in the first year to become a writer.
Like all aspiring writers, I wanted to write and publish a book as soon as possible.
Why on earth would you write anything else?
I wanted to have something to show for all the hours I was investing in learning the craft.
This had been my approach with every endeavor. Even as a teenager, when I started learning embroidery, the only projects I ever undertook were the ones that I could hang on walls. I was not interested in embroidering table clothes and bedsheets, which wear off after a few years of use. My tapestries and cross-stitch are still hanging in my living room in expensive gilded frames.
In the busy, achievement-driven, self-important society we live in today, it is quite logical to set ourselves a goal of writing a book as soon as we can put a few sentences together.
It is no accident that the creative writing industry is booming. Everyone thinks there is a book in them, and everyone is in a race to write the next bestseller.
While I had every excuse on the planet (full-time job, raising a family, looking after aged parents) for not writing my book, the truth is writing is a skill hard to master. It takes time, and it takes old fashion hard work. Modern distractions (TV, mobile phones, social media) don’t help.
But as I became a veteran, I realized a simple strategy would have given me much better results in much less time. I was so trying too damn hard that I failed to see it.
Writing is not a God-given gift or attribute of geniuses. It is a set of habits you develop over time, just like a sportsman or a singer or a dancer does.
Rather than getting overwhelmed by all the learning, I believe you should concentrate on developing just three habits in your freshman year.
1. Write Daily
No excuses. Full stop.
Write one page, or one paragraph, or just one sentence. But write every day.
Write whatever. It doesn’t matter what you write. When you are starting, you are writing to learn to put your thoughts on paper. The actual content doesn’t matter; the formation of sentences does.
Write about your day, mood, surroundings, the tree outside your window, the smell in the air, the sound of the birds, or a conversation you overheard at the bus stop. If nothing else, write about the weather. You are not writing for others but for yourself to develop your muscles.
Your body has writing muscles. Did you know that?
Neither did I.
But apparently, it does.
Just like our body has drawing muscles (as my drawing instructor told me). Since I was not using them, they were deteriorating. I started drawing a sketch every day, and they got stronger and stronger. I am drawing much better sketches within a year of practice.
Start exercising your writing muscles daily. You will be surprised by the result.
You can write online, on your computer, or better still in a notebook. My preference is a notebook. Something magical happens when your fingers glide across the paper. They knock on a special area in your brain where creativity resides.
2. Read Daily
Reading is an easier habit to develop than writing. If you are interested in writing, you may be an avid reader. If books inspired you to write, great, continue reading them.
Rather double the amount of reading in your freshman year.
Read in different genres. Reading books in the genre of your liking will make you a boring writer. To become a good writer, you must be well-informed in other fields as well. That is called cross-pollination. You will find that the novel you started writing had ideas from the gardening book you read years ago. This is exactly what happened when Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the “Signature of All Things.” She was reading about the plants in her pots and where they originally came from, and lo behold; she found a 500-page story to tell.
You need to read with a purpose. Start a journal and note down the paragraphs that inspire you or the quotes you can refer to in your own writing. It is a significant phase of your development as a writer because all this reading will influence and infuse your thoughts.
There is nothing more frustrating when years later, you want to refer to a story, and you can’t remember which book it was from. Or worst still, you don’t remember at all, which leads to habit number three.
3. Organize your writing and notes
No writing book or article I ever read mentioned organizing your writing and notes, yet it is one of the most important habits for new writers.
I have spent months trying to find things that I scribbled somewhere or notes I took and forgot about them. A writer needs a system to organize and store their work and their notes.
Your system should consist of three things.
a. An easy but robust filing system. Both digital and paper-based. Save everything. Any writing which seems trivial at the moment will sound beautiful when read months or years later.
b. Easy retrievability. When you need anything, you know where to look for it and how to retrieve it.
c. An Idea Notebook. This is to capture any idea you get at any time of the day. It should travel with you everywhere, even in the bathroom (especially in the bathroom to capture the ideas you will get in the shower).
Everyone is different. The way you will figure out your system will be different too. It is worth sharing mine here so that you can cherry-pick what you like.
My physical filing system is a string of diaries and journals — separate diaries for separate purposes. In my daily diary, I write about my day. I have one page per day diary, which is all I need to capture my day. On the other hand, my journal is a register size where I write about thoughts, ideas, feelings, and notes from my readings.
Digitally, I have moved from Word documents to Evernote to store everything under appropriate categories. Evernote is one of the best note-taking apps and is available for free with lesser functionality. It has a mighty search engine, and as long as you can remember one word in an article or story you are searching for, it will dish it out for you.
I also use 750Words, a digital app, to write daily. It gives me a blank page and 24 hours to fill it. My writing is stored on the cloud and is accessible at any time. I can write from home, work, or bus stop using my phone.
For writing novels and non-fiction books, I use Scrivener, an application for writers developed by writers. It takes writing tools from everywhere and bundles them into one application.
This is it—the three habits of a freshman writer.
You don’t have to worry about characterization, plotting, great opening lines, foolproof headlines, and all that jazzy stuff so many books throw at you. Leave them for the sophomore year. First, build these habits, which will set the groundwork for a serious writer.
Concentrate all your energy on developing and cementing these three habits, and you will be on your way to becoming the writer you want to become — a bestselling author in not so distant future.