Off the Page Writing Habits Worth Developing
Writing is a craft. It takes time, training, and dedication to develop, and though there are plenty of helpful writing tricks and techniques that screenwriters, playwrights, and novelists can glean from the great writers, teachers, and masters of the craft, no craft book, blog, podcast, or Master Class can do for the writer what actual writing can.
To develop our craft, writers must study it but also apply it. As the Spanish proverb says, “it’s not the same to talk of bulls as it is to be in the bullring.”
However, without strong off the page habits and a well-rounded approach to the creative process, even the best writer can lack the energy, focus, commitment to apply their creative discoveries, learning, and craft observations to their work on the page.
As someone who has spent more time this year writing than ever before, I can speak to the oft unspoken side effects of not having healthy habits off the page. And yes, these side effects do manifest in the quality of work on the page.
Habits do not form overnight. They must be forged and tempered by the steady hammer of repetition. As Aristotle wrote,
“we are what we repeatedly do.”
While it makes sense that if you want to get better at writing dialogue, character arcs, or effective exposition, you have to repeatedly work with those elements, practice, fail, assess, and revise.
Likewise, off the page habits of writing must also be practiced and repeated.
Here, then, are a few of the most helpful off the page habits I’ve learned to adopt that have dramatically influenced my own writing and creative work for the better.
Get Some Exercise
A lot has been written about the effects of exercise on physical, mental, and emotional health. In fact, studies have shown that regular exercise can be one of the most effective tools to combating depression and a plethora of other health issues.
In a time when millions of people have been out of work, locked in, and simply unsure of what the future holds, a hike in the hills, bike ride, or jog around the neighborhood might go a long way to lift the spirits of individuals that desperately need an infusion of energy and hope.
Not enough can be said about the role exercise also plays in boosting overall creativity and productivity.
Though writers may spend a lot of time sitting, we should be reminded that, in pure Physics terms, “an object at rest stays at rest.”
The longer we stay planted (or seated) in one location the quicker our body begins to stiffen. No one gains energy by sitting all day, no matter what we’re doing.
While good posture and regular stretch breaks are important for writers, setting aside a solid twenty to thirty minutes to get the blood and oxygen flowing can help increase circulation and improve your overall energy and focus throughout the day.
Whether it’s first thing in the morning, at the end of the writing day, or somewhere in between, going for a jog, riding a bike, taking a hike, or swimming laps can improves the quality of your writing time and overall mood going into your work. A little nature, fresh air, sunlight, and Vitamin D aren’t so bad as well.
So take time to get out of the house. Go for a walk or hike. Go surfing or to the gym if you can. Try rock climbing, kayaking, or basketball. Do something new. Stay active.
Exercise doesn’t just set you up for success throughout the day (and the rest of your life). Sometimes a change of scenery and movement can provide fresh perspective on your work and excitement to return to the page later.
Be Mindful of Your Eating Habits
I highly encourage writers and artists to become more mindful of their eating and drinking habits.
I am not saying that writers should never have a cup of coffee or reward themselves with a snack or piece of cake at the end of the day. However, as athletes must train their body and fuel it properly to perform to its peak potential, so writers must also train their body and mind the right way if they hope to have success or produce good work at a consistent level. That includes what we choose to eat and drink.
Certain foods, snacks, and drinks may provide short term boosts of energy. That’s fine. And I’m all for an occasional dark roast in my favorite mug. However, when we consume things like sugar, caffeine, and other stimulants, we’re not giving our body the long-term nourishment it needs. A crash, both mentally and physically and perhaps even creatively is inevitable.
These sorts of foods should be treats not staples of the writer’s diet.
I ask, therefore, would you rather have an occasional good day where you felt energized, alert, and motivated, or would you rather fuel yourself so you feel invigorated, productive, and motivated every day?
Writers who develop consistent eating habits, will often write better and do so on a more consistent basis.
Nourish Your Joy for Writing
Like all work, writing can become tedious if we let it. After enough time staring at a computer screen, anyone will go crazy. And don’t even get me started on the mind melting insanity of social media and the constant stream of news and information overwhelming our brains on a daily basis. Unfortunately, most of the problems we face in society today are diseases of abundance, not scarcity.
If we become too focused and too consumed by our work, words begin to lose meaning and the excitement we once had at starting a project can turn to the drudgery of simply trying to finish it.
Writing should be fun. As writers we should enjoy telling stories and finding the right combination of words to effectively communicate what we want to say.
Writers, like any artist, must water and nourish their excitement, passion, and joy for their craft. One way is to remind ourselves what inspired us to write in the first place.
What are the books or movies that bring us joy and inspire us as writers? Who are the storytellers who inspire us and challenge us? When was the last time we reread a beloved children’s book, listened to an old audiobook, or watched a favorite movie?
It is possible to glean new insights from reviewing beloved stories and works of art. As writers we should be observant of how others write and what they do well. However, sometimes it’s also good to just enjoy writing as a reader.
Delight in Reading
Of course, one of the best ways to stay inspired as a writer is by reading!
If you’re a novelist, you should be reading novels. If you’re a poet, you should be reading poetry. If you’re a screenwriter, you should be reading screenplays, not just watching movies.
You don’t necessarily have to always read in your genre either. In fact, I encourage writers to find other writers they admire and figure out what they do well in their genre that can be applied to their own work.
As Katherine Paterson says:
“reading makes me want to write, and writing makes me want to read. And both reading and writing make me enjoy being part of the great human adventure we call life.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Write Longhand
Before the advent of personal computers and even typewriters, most writers got by with the most primitive yet effective tools: a pen and a pad of paper.
Yes, computers make it easier to type more words in a shorter amount of time. And the cut, paste, and delete features of most word processors can be a tremendous time saver.
However, there is a beauty and a freedom to actual handwriting that we often realize.
Don’t get me wrong. I am no Luddite when it comes to modern technology. Technology has given writers access to a wealth of information as well as new platforms to share their work.
However, sometimes a break from the internet, our phones and laptops, and the spell check feature on our computers can be liberating.
Sometimes, we just need to get words on the page, imperfect as they may be. Handwriting can help with this. And though handwriting may be a slower process, I wonder how many writers are as productive on their computers with a world of distractions just a click away.
An occasional longhand writing session, handwritten first draft, or reflective period of personal prayer and journaling can be refreshing and even more conducive to a productive work day.
Best of all, we don’t need an extension cord to write in a journal or composition notebook. Longhand provides the freedom of being able to write just about anywhere, sunlight, Vitamin D and all.
Commit to Your Writing Time
The principle here is pretty straightforward. If you’re going to write at a certain time of day, commit to that time. Make it an appointment. Add it to your calendar. Treat it like a date with a colleague or best friend.
I am a huge advocate for setting aside time in the day to write, even if it’s a struggle making that appointment. That time could be thirty minutes or five hours. Set a time to write and then allow yourself the freedom to move on to other things in life, be it work, exercise, or other family responsibilities.
We all have busy schedules. Very few writers can afford to write full time. However, if you only write when it is convenient or when you feel like it, your writing will be sporadic at best.
Consistency is key.
We may be tired. We may only be afforded a half hour every day before work or once we’ve our children to sleep (I’m there, friends); but if it’s intentional, focused time, even thirty minutes can become productive time. And over time, the repetition of a set writing schedule can become a habit that leads to completed work.
Establish a Writing Space
Similar to committing to a set writing time, I encourage writers to establish a writing space free of interruptions and distractions.
If there’s a place in your home where you can shut the door and let everyone else know that, when you’re in writing, you are not to be disturbed, that’s ideal.
Treat your writing space like a workshop. Make that space your workspace for the task of writing. Assemble your tools. Know where they are. Eliminate distractions. And get to work.
Some writers prefer a minimalist, closed room so they can concentrate on just their work. Others prefer to write in a garden, at a coffee shop, or at a library. Some writers have written masterpieces on trains or buses. I know some writers who like their creative space to be filled with as much color and inspiration as possible.
Your writing space can change. Just find an environment that works for you and make it a place where you go to concentrate, create, and put your best work on the page.
Of course, when it comes to off the page writing habits, I will always support going to public readings and book signings, visiting libraries and bookstores, attending writing conferences, and becoming a part of a writer’s group.
Writers should have other passions, get good sleep, and be willing to celebrate life and others.
Writing should be fun. It is work, but who said work can't be our delight and an offering of joy to the God who gave us work to do in the first place?
None of these habits should be a substitute for actual writing, but good off the page habits are what help us continue writing and give us the tools to consistently bring our best time, energy, and focus to the work we do and enjoy it while we do it.
So get to it!