Set Yourself Up for Success: How to Get Better at Starting to Write
Imagine you have a whole afternoon of writing ahead of you. You’ve been looking forward to it all week, but when the time comes you find yourself scrolling online or feeling a desperate need to organize your sock drawer.
The reality is that struggling to start, or giving up in the first ten minutes before you reach a flow state, is a common issue. By expecting to just be able to pop into writing mode at any moment we aren’t helping ourselves.
Let’s look at it from a couple of different perspectives: setting yourself up for success physically and mentally, and automation.
A Productive Environment
Figure out what works for you and give yourself permission to do that. Get out a journal and ask yourself what idealized picture you have in your head of what a writer should look like. What ideas have you absorbed about writers and what makes a person one (e.g. they must write every day)? Now ask yourself how you like to work and what actually helps you get into flow. Do you need to write once a week for a long stretch of time, to listen to loud music, to be out of the home, does one page a day rather than three feel good? Cross out all of the things you think you should be doing and focus on creating working practices that work for your brain and your life.
For most of us, a pleasant, calm place to write is more appealing than trying to write on the kitchen table surrounded by chaos and crumbs. Ideally you want a space, even if it’s tiny, reserved only for writing. If that isn’t possible, what small thing can you do to signal a switch off work/household chores/parenting duties? Or would letting yourself go to a café or library work better? Think about how you prepare for writing too. Maybe leaving your notebook open with a pen on top so that it’s always waiting or ensuring you have the right research prepared in advance will help.
What about time? Do you prefer scheduled writing sessions or utilizing slots as they appear in the day? Writing first thing in the morning can be great because it allows you to focus before the to-dos and the worries of the day encroach, but if you come alive at 10pm don’t force yourself into that box. Timers can provide an extra motivation boost. If that’s not for you, ask what would work better. If a little structure time-wise is beneficial for you, co-writing sessions, like the ones that Happy Writing leads, are fantastic.
Decide whether you want to use targets and which type – word count goals, scene targets, or time spent with your work are good. We like making goals small and manageable. Hitting them is satisfying and makes you more likely to want to do it next time than setting yourself up to fail with a huge goal that leaves you feeling guilty. Hate targets? That’s fine, don’t use them. It’s your party!
Try setting up a mini ritual. Love candles, tea, and Bach? Consistently lighting your favorite candle while you brew tea and start the same music sets it up as a physical writing trigger, and doing it with things you love turns writing time into a real treat that will bring you pleasure.
Turn off distractions. Put your phone in another room, close your tabs, turn off notifications, put your writing program full screen, try an app like Freedom or write by hand.
A Helpful Mindset
Often the problem we have, especially when things are busy, is not feeling able to switch into the creative zone. Writing requires a very different type of focus to normal life, so you might need stepping stones to help you clear your mind of other concerns and shift your concentration. Things that can help you re-set quickly include deep breathing, a quick meditation or visualization, music or even ASMR videos.
If you find a blank page intimidating, overcome that hump by starting the next writing session before ending the current one. Write the next line on a new page or take a minute or two to journal about what you’ll write next time, et voila, no blank page, hurdle overcome. It also means that if not knowing what to write each time keeps you stuck, you’ve already done the hard work. Starting the train of thought for your next session creates an open loop that your subconscious will be quietly working away on, which allows you to just follow what’s already there when you sit down to start.
Are you getting stuck because you’re overwhelmed by the scale of your project? Make a point each time of drawing your focus back to the one small bite you want to take today and lay the rest aside in your mind (this will take repetition). Every ending is reached by a series of small starts. All you need to think about is starting one small thing today and repeating.
Abandon the idea of needing inspiration. It’s wonderful when an idea magically appears in your head, but the majority of ideas come and are developed through work, and you’re allowed to have messy, half-assed ideas that are written terribly. Think of this stage as making the clay that you’ll later shape into a pot.
Get your journal out and ask yourself why you’re finding it so hard to write. Is it that you lack knowledge about what comes next? Maybe re-reading your last session or brainstorming is the solution. Lacking self-belief? What do you need to hear to reassure you, and can you give that to yourself? Asking yourself questions and giving yourself supportive answers is such a powerful tool.
Celebrate your progress. This is a step that people tend to discount or feel like they don’t really deserve, but encouraging yourself and focusing on what you have done is so motivating. Feeling constantly disappointed in yourself for not doing enough or discounting important tasks like organizing or research as not “real” work is a fast track to guilt, shame, and not wanting to write at all. This is one of the simplest and most effective ways you can change how you feel about your writing and make it easier to start, so celebrate every tiny step.
Making it Routine
Put all of this together into a very simple routine or ritual that incorporates a trigger to start writing, setting up in a way that works for you and celebrating your progress, then try it out.
Keep going, and the more you do it the easier it gets. Just practice starting again and again with a focus on enjoying the experience and celebrating every success. You want to create a kind of tramline in your brain where when you set certain physical and mental conditions, your brain goes okay, time to work.
Attaching things you want to start doing to pre-existing habits and using them as a trigger is a really effective way of developing a new routine. For example, maybe you wake up then make coffee every day. Start firing up your laptop while you make coffee and decide that you’ll sit down at your desk immediately with your mug. Boom.
It’s fine if you need reminding! Write a cheat sheet of the ritual and routines you want to create and stick them above your desk. Put alarms on your phone when it’s time to write, or reminders to think about your writing on your walk to work. Every single time you start is a win, a step closer to slipping into that tramline.
Finally, keep checking in with yourself, asking if what you’re doing is working and what would work better if not. We aren’t static, and it’s normal for ways of working to shift with seasons, life circumstances, even projects.
Charlie and Amie co-run the Six Month Novel, a programme built to help you get from idea to first draft using accountability, habit building, plotting, and support. It only runs once a year, so go check it out! sixmonthnovel.com