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For Writers: Habit vs Process

For Writers: Habit vs ProcessHow much of your writing life is governed by actual process and how much of it is just habit?

Habits can be good and healthy. Some habits can hold us back. People tend to cling to what they believe works. This is why athletes and actors (and others, of course) can sometimes generate elaborate rituals before a game or performance. It’s based on the idea that duplicating a set of circumstances will duplicate the outcome.

Healthy habits include writing consistently, perhaps keeping a journal, and maintaining commitment to writing. Unhealthy habits can become rituals or fetishes that hold us back. For example, requiring a specific pair of slippers or environment to write is a constraint, not an element of process. What if you lose the slippers? What if you’re on deadline and the preferred environment isn’t available?

Experimenting with different elements of process and periodically examining our habits is a good thing. What worked for me five years ago may not work for me now. What works now might not work next year. Habits that serve my writing today may hold me back if circumstances change even just a little bit tomorrow.

Have I lost you yet? No? Good.

Anything that gets between you and words on the page is probably habit. Here are a few examples of ritual or fetish:

  • Requiring a particular pen
  • Requiring a specific time of day
  • Completing specific steps before moving into prose.
  • A special notebook or keyboard

Writing itself does not depend on these things. If you let them get between you and words, their lack becomes an excuse, right?

I’m all for habits that indicate to my mind that it is time to write because sometimes they are helpful. On the other hand, if I catch myself saying “I can’t write right now because . . .” then the habit has become a problem.

The key to all of this is awareness. Stripping things down to the basics, eliminating everything that stands between you and words on the page, can help you identify what you truly need as part of your process, and what just gets in the way.

  • Try letting go of that special notebook in favor of note cards stuffed into your back pocket.
  • Try writing in different environments to decrease dependence on your favored atmosphere.
  • Try writing at all hours of the day to prove to yourself you can do it, no matter when you’re creative peak may be.
  • Experiment with outlining, clustering, starting with characters, starting with setting, Change things up even if it makes you uncomfortable.

Do all of this, and then use what works for now with the understanding that it may not work later. Keep your process streamlined and free of ritual. It’s giving yourself the gift of freedom, really.

Work on healthy habits by all means. Work to eliminate the rituals that don’t serve you. Keep things simple so there is nothing between you and those words.


What is your initial reaction to words like habit, ritual, and process? Looking at your own writing life, can you identify habits you can eliminate?

12 thoughts on “For Writers: Habit vs Process

  1. Reblogged this on The 960 Writers and commented:
    I always tried to not get too dependent on rituals or tools for the writing. I thought it would become a problem that it would stop me from writing if my surroundings happened to be not perfectly aligned to my rituals. But I recently decided to let a bit of a ritual slip in, small things like sitting down on that one chair and taking a sip of tea before putting the fingers to the keyboard. It helps, as long as it’s not restricting me.

    • Some things do help, and new writers can be served well by healthy habits. But keeping them small, like you are, is just right, I think. I still prefer my cup of coffee but I know I don’t need it.. Thanks for the reblog!

  2. Writing is more an avocation for me but habits can affect everything. Work habits are often given way too much importance in business, especially the business of systems development (a kind of writing I suppose). I have seen process give way to habit many times and I have experienced it myself. You are spot on about the benefit of changing it up to avoid being trapped by habit. Great advice!

    • In a former life I used to examine work flow for various departments and knock out the dead wood. I always met high resistance for the first week but they liked me better after a couple weeks of jettisoning habits that didn’t work. Sometimes just changing things up was a great boost to productivity.It was a great lesson for sure.

      • It’s amazing how some habits remain long after the value (if there ever was any) has disappeared. I’ve seen people spend hours reviewing reports that basically say nothing of value in an organization.

  3. Lady, you have no idea how liberating it feels to finally find someone who agrees with me. I don’t believe that following the same schedule every day ignites your muse magically, ir that sitting in the same spot fuels my ideas.

    There is nothing magical about writing – it’s drudgery and hard work. But we can’t help but put words on paper or fingers to keyboard. It’s our calling and WE LOVE being enslaved to words.

    That said, our compulsion to write should NOT be dependent on obsessive rituals!

    Of course, there are certain times of the day that I know aren’t conducive to writing, simply because my other health issues rear their ugly heads during those times. So I read fiction or – more often than not – sleep to recharge!

    “Keep your process streamlined and free of ritual. It’s giving yourself the gift of freedom, really.

    Work on healthy habits by all means. Work to eliminate the rituals that don’t serve you. Keep things simple so there is nothing between you and those words.”



    • I think good habits can help a new writer change their mindset and understand they can work almost anywhere and any time, but sometimes habit is just habit and becomes rituals that restrict. I’m all for not having restrictions for sure. Thanks, Kitto. 🙂

  4. Love this Robyn! It is so easy to deceive ourselves into believing that a habit or ritual that we are engaged in his helping us, when in fact it is entirely unhealthy. I am pretty sure that I have a few bad habits in my writing life. I tend to wait for a specific time in the day as well as the perfect environment instead of winging it, per se. I am certainly going to try mixing things up a bit. I think you are certainly on to something – we do the same things with the expectations that we will get the same outcome. Perhaps, it’s not a half-bad idea to try something different and actually desire to get different results. We may just be more pleased with those results, right? 🙂

    • You’re absolutely right. It can help us grow. I have a (bad) habit of waiting for Hubs to go to work. He was off for a week and I struggled to write. Time to get rid of that habit pronto! I actually do better work earlier in the day when he’s sleeping, so totally worth digging that habit out of my writing life.

  5. There was a period in my life when we travelled a lot. Writing everyday grounded me. Because I was in a different place all the time I had no choice but to make my laptop the only habit.

    I can write at other hours of the day, but early morning will always be my favorite. Don’t make me give up all my habits.

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