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6 Things I Learn By Doing “Writing Streaks”

Writers write.

That’s what I hear all the time. “I want to be a writer.” “Okay, so write. Writers write.” Seems simple enough, but it’s often very difficult in practice.

You see, when you have a job, you have a boss that breathes down your neck to produce results. You have something to measure to. And most importantly, you don’t get paid if you don’t do your job.

As a writer, especially a beginning one, it’s really hard to put that kind of pressure on yourself. I don’t make a living from publishing books (yet). So to let it slip a day here and there doesn’t have any impact on my current, short-term quality of life. “I’ll just write more tomorrow,” I lie to myself.

A few years ago, I bought a giant dry erase wall calendar that displayed the entire year’s view. My goal was to start writing 1,000 words per day. I wanted to exercise that “writing muscle” and see what I could do with it.

I wrote in fits and starts. But finally, once I reached April, it clicked. I had a 600+ day run where I wrote every single day, at least 1,000 words.

In the end, it was a meaningless exercise for reasons I’ll get into below. But it did tell me one important thing about myself: I could do it.

I didn’t think I needed another writing streak, but as we enter July here, I’m not making the money that I was expecting to make at this point from book publishing. There are a few reasons for that, but one of them – the main reason – is that I’m not publishing enough. I need to publish more often if I want this thing to succeed, and that means writing more often.

I’m 7 days into my new 1,000 words/day writing streak. It’s tweaked a little to be a more specific goal, and here’s what I’m learning so far…

Momentum is everything.

This is the heart of the writing streak concept.

My writing streak is essentially “Don’t Break The Chain“, the productivity concept often attributed to Jerry Seinfeld. You mark down the days you accomplish your goal on a calendar. The intent is to create a long chain of successful days, which will spur you on to keep going and not break it up.

Amazingly, this works. It’s such a simple idea, but it works.

During my last streak, I would write at 11:30pm if I hadn’t gotten it done yet that day. I’d stay up after the family went to bed and I was half asleep just to keep the streak going. When you’ve invested 200… 300… 400… or more days into building this thing, you don’t want to throw it all away on accident.

The streak builds momentum, which gives you the ability to build more momentum. More momentum = more writing, which is the whole point, obviously.

Social accountability works when momentum doesn’t.

The hardest part, of course, is getting started. Quitting after 3-4 days is incredibly easy, and tempting. It’s not much of a chain yet, so you can build another one, right?

I decided to fight this off and hit the ground running by borrowing a little piece of strategy from former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink.

Jocko is a fascinating guy – and he’s all about discipline. On his Instagram page, he posts pictures of his watch. He’ll post other stuff too, but every day, there’s a picture of his watch, just like this one:

Why? I’m sure for a lot of reasons, and I know he’s got the discipline in him to do this without posting the picture, but he’s holding himself publicly accountable. Every day,  he gets up before dawn to work out. So when he gets up, he takes a picture of what time it is.

I decided right away that I wanted to do this too.

If I publicly commit to posting a photo of my word count every day, I can ensure that the streak will continue and I will hold myself accountable:

It’s amazing how effective this is for me. I’m in it, and I haven’t broken the chain once. I haven’t even been tempted to, because it’s really gratifying to post that picture when I’m done.

But I need to make this work for me beyond the word count…

I need a purpose to my writing.

The first 1K Streak was just about words. It didn’t matter if I wrote them for a book, in my journal, or even in a freewrite. Freewriting is a great tool, but is it writing? Does it flex the writing muscle? Not really.

When I ended the streak after 600+ days, I figured I was ready to move forward as a writer, but I stalled. That’s because I didn’t develop any kind of writing, I just wrote.

This streak is different. With this streak, I am challenging myself to write 1,000 words of fiction every day. In addition, it has to be fiction for my Hardwick series of books.

This accomplishes a few tasks. One, I am going to force myself to write more fiction, which can only result in good things. But two, it will keep my Hardwick output strong.

I’ve committed to releasing a new Hardwick book every two weeks. In order to do that, I need my daily word count to be consistent. By writing at least 1,000 words for Hardwick every day, I put myself ahead of the game. I ensure more output, which is exactly what I need to do at this point in my career.

My writing gets better.

To this point, Hardwick has been a very plot-driven series by design. It’s action, it moves quickly, and there’s not a lot of dwelling going on.

I like that about the series, but I also want to focus on developing the characters as well. The stronger I can make the characters, the longer the story can go on. I want to be writing this same series for years to come, and I can’t do that with flat characters.

Now normally, there’s a tight structure to my stories. Each one serves the overall plotlines. So the focus of each chapter is usually about trying to solve a murder. Last night, I tried something different.

I won’t spoil too much, but instead of pushing an action-packed sequence, I wrote an entire chapter where two important characters in the books play a board game. There’s no dialogue. Nothing happens necessarily. But I wanted to develop their relationship a touch and open a new side to the main character in the books. I actually found that the chapter was gripping in a whole new way, and I smiled watching it unfold at my fingertips.

A few months ago, this would have been unheard of. I don’t like chapters where nothing happens. But at the same time, it’s my goal to write better. And last night, I learned that I can write a chapter where nothing necessarily happens outwardly, but the chapter accomplishes an important character development.

want to write.

This might be the weirdest realization to me, but it’s another important one.

I wrestle with self-doubt constantly. I know that’s pretty universal with writers, but I’ve been freelancing and running my own businesses to varying levels of success for the last 10 years. I’ve been publishing fiction for 2 years. I still don’t feel like I’ve “arrived” anywhere, or that I have my career figured out.

After writing fiction for 2 years, I worry that I’m losing my passion for it. It’s not something that comes very naturally to me. So I question it constantly – maybe I should be doing something else!

But just in the last week, I’ve discovered that I still have a fire in me to write fiction. I am developing a new appreciation and a new love for the practice. That can only help my writing and my career.

I’m enjoying the work. And I need to enjoy the work.

It’s hard, but it’s not hard at the same time.

Finally, writing fiction is hard work. Developing stories and characters is a challenge.

But writing 1,000 words per day isn’t a challenge for me. I can do it. I know I can.

The practice is reassuring. Some days I’ll put down garbage. But I know that, as long as I show up in the chair every single day and try, good writing will come out of it. I’ll enjoy it, my readers will enjoy it, and someday, even my bank account will enjoy it.

Here’s to the next 600 days. I’m excited to see where it takes me as a writer, and where it takes the Hardwick story.