Now, I get that you may not think you even have any writing rituals. For many, the word conjures images of religious ceremonies or cloaked figures gathered around a fire in some dark, remote setting.
The fact is, though, that rituals have driven human behavior for thousands of years and affect all areas of life, from meals to work to sports.
And, yes, even your writing.
At its simplest, a ritual is a set of repeatable procedures that help achieve a certain result. More than just a routine or recipe, ritual includes social and stylistic elements that cue you in to what’s about to happen and set the tone for the event.
As an example, consider what happens when you go out to eat. You get dressed, hop in your car, chitchat on the drive, check in at the restaurant, get seated by your server, order appetizers, talk some more, and then finally get down to the business of eating. By the time your food arrives, you’re ready to tear into it because all the signals of the evening have prepared you for the main course.
The same is true for your writing.
Maybe you build up to a writing session by brewing coffee or walking to your basement office. When you sit down, you might click on a favorite album or reach for a pair of ear plugs. You open your writing software, adjust your clothing, get the lighting just right, type a certain way, work on particular parts of a project.
That’s all part of your ritual.
And, if you want to wring the most from your writing time, you need to tune your rituals to ensure they’re setting the stage for productive work, both in each session and over the long term.
Michael Hyatt recently published an article on rituals in which he ran down the characteristics of what he calls “optimized rituals”:
- Rituals add predictability to your performance in any endeavor.
- Rituals allow you focus on your goals for the day without dwelling on the mechanical details.
- Rituals provide a safe framework from which to experiment and improve.
- Rituals give you peace of mind and confidence because you know what you’ll be doing for their duration.
Do these sound like attributes that could benefit your writing?
If so, read on, because you can unlock the power of rituals, starting from where you are today. All it takes is a reasoned, systematic approach that you can repeat again and again.
And that’s just what the set of steps below gives you — a roadmap to improved writing rituals.
Consider it your ritual for building better rituals.
Write Down Your Goals
You won’t get anywhere in life if you don’t know where you’re going.
When you travel, that means having a destination in mind and a map with mileposts that shows you how to get there. You might have elaborate rituals around packing, the layout of your cockpit, and pitstops, but none of that will matter if you don’t have a targeted landing place.
Similarly, when it comes to writing, you must have a solid set of goals in front of you or your ritual won’t mean a thing.
In general, your goals should be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. You want targets that are detailed enough that you’ll know when you hit them, will help you further your writing career and can be achieved within a reasonable amount of time.
That said, it’s also a good idea to have different levels of goals, say for the short, medium, and long terms.
For example, your long-term goal might be to make a full-time living from your writing, while a medium-term goal that would help you move toward that overarching target would be to publish two novels this year.
You could break this down further to come up with short-term goals of writing three chapters this week and finishing a rough draft for one of your books this month.
As with taking a trip, no ritual in the world can save you if you don’t have strong goals. As you’ll see below, though, the marriage of goals and ritual can keep you on track like nothing else.
It all starts with your goals, though, so go write them down if you haven’t already.
Catalog Your Current Writing Activities
The only way to make improvements in any area of life is to start where you are now and get better from there. But in order to do that, you have to develop a clear picture of your current situation.
When it comes to using rituals to become a better writer, you have to figure out what your routine already involves.
Think you don’t have a current writing ritual? It may not be obvious to you, and you may never have thought about it in those terms, but if you write, you already have a ritual.
In order to figure out what that is, all you need to do is write a little more.
Specifically, you need to write down everything that you do pertaining to writing for, say, the next week. Include times, activities, and the goal or goals you’re trying to accomplish with each.
For instance, here is how my early Monday morning unfolded last week, including only writing-related activities:
- 5:45 am — checked email while my oatmeal cooked; goal: interact with readers and address any issues
- 6 am — outlined article on unusual websites for finding story ideas while I ate my oatmeal; goal: write at least one long-form post per week
- 6:15 – 6:45 am — wrote first four sections of “unusual websites” post while I drank coffee; goal: write at least one long-form post per week
- 6:45 am — saved all open documents and left for work
I do something similar to this every morning, and it’s become the first part of my writing ritual: prepare food and for the day, do research and eat breakfast, write and drink coffee, wrap up and prepare for work.
Find Ways to Track Progress Toward Your Goals
Once you have your current writing ritual pegged, you need to figure out how effective it is in moving you toward your goals. This can be tricky to measure, but doing so is the only real way you can evaluate which pieces of your ritual are keepers and which ones need to be swapped out for something else.
Here are some example metrics you can use around the activities in your rituals:
- Emails processed — read and acted upon in some way — per minute
- Words written per minute
- Time required to outline book chapter or post section
- Words edited per minute
- Social media posts scheduled per minute
You get the gist.
Now, I realize that you won’t be processing multiple emails or scheduling hundreds of social media posts per minute, but the idea is to come up with numbers you can track and improve upon. So, if you spend 15 minutes on email and get through five messages, you’ve done .33 per minute. If later on, you’ve adjusted your ritual and can move through those same five messages in five minutes, you’re up to 1 per minute.
That’s real progress, which is what you’re after.
If the specific activities in your ritual tend to bounce around from day to day or week to week, you can look at more coarse metrics.
For instance, if you have multiple writing projects going but only one block of time available per day, you might want to look at chapters written or blog published per week.
In general, though, the more specifically you can tie the activities of your rituals to your goals, the more easily you can fine-tune for better results.
Keep the Most Productive Parts of Your Existing Ritual
Now that you know what you’re doing and how well each part is working, it’s time to make some decisions.
Here’s how …
Read through your rituals and the list of activities that describe them. Which ones are delivering the type of bang you want from them?
In my case, I might ask … Am I getting through all the email messages I need to when I include that 15-minute block to start the day? Am I cranking out enough words while I sip my morning coffee to justify not using that time for something else?
These are somewhat subject evaluations, but you can make them more objective by comparing across different contexts. For instance, I also like to work on blog posts at night before I go to bed, but I sometimes write fiction in one or both of these time slots — morning and night.
So what I can do is observe my productivity in both activities across both periods. As it turns out, I tend to write more words of fiction earlier in the day than later, so when I have two projects underway, I’ll target stories and novels in the morning and blogging at night.
That’s a simple example, and you’ll have to do some comparative shopping to figure out what’s really working for you. The answers may only become apparent over time, but keep working, tracking, and evaluating, and the trends will become more evident.
Find the Courage to Cut Non-Productive Parts
It’s easy to hold onto your most treasured activities, especially when they’re delivering results. But it’s really hard to let go of something when it’s become part of your ritual.
One of the most important things you can do to get the most out of your writing time, though, is to jettison anything and everything that is not effective for you. And you need to take action the instant you discover a weakness in your approach.
I mean, you’ve only got so much time left, right? It’s a hard and ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. Can you really afford to waste your precious minutes doing things that aren’t helping you achieve your goals?
I know I can’t.
As a case in point, I “bit” hard on the social media lure a couple of years ago and built an hour or more of posting to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and other outlets into my daily writing routines.
I thought I had to cover all these bases to reach my readers because that’s what so many “experts” told me in their blogs and podcasts.
After a few months of fighting to find the time to do all this posting and networking, I managed to build a few hundred followers on each of the platforms. That was great, but all those connections accounted for next to nothing in the way of new readers for my fiction. Finally, feeling burned out and frustrated, I stopped.
Eventually, I came back to social media in a more limited fashion and focused on building a really targeted following on just a couple of platforms. Most importantly, I dramatically scaled back my “social” ritual and now spend no more than 15 minutes a day there — usually less.
And what do I do with that “extra” time? I write more! Novel idea, I know, but one it took me awhile to grasp.
It all comes down to employing the Pareto Principle in everything you do — find that 20% of your work that delivers 80% of your results and cut everything else as close to the bone as possible.
Then, with your newfound time, double-down on the big-bang 20% and also …
Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things
You’ll never get better at anything if you keep doing the same old thing every day. There is power in ritual and routine, but that doesn’t mean your ritual can’t or shouldn’t evolve over time.
Once you have identified the activities that are working best for you right now, it makes a lot of sense to devote even more time to them. That’s what I did with my actual fiction writing in the example above.
But you don’t have to spend all of your new surplus in the same place, and you shouldn’t. Instead, when you manage to free up a little time by cutting the fat from your routine, use at least some of it to explore new additions that might make you even better.
Here are some examples you might try:
- Write something in a genre you’ve always wanted to tackle.
- Try writing short stories if you have previously focused on novels only.
- Enter some writing contests to expand your readership and your portfolio.
- Try shuffling the pieces of your morning ritual in relation to each other.
- Swap some activities from your morning ritual and your evening ritual.
- Examine the practices of your favorite authors and try out parts of their writing rituals.
When you adopt one of these changes, make sure you can tie it to your goals and make sure it’s measurable.
For instance, if you write mainly horror but want to try a western novel, what goal will that help you accomplish? And how will you know if it’s worthwhile after the fact?
This applies loosely to my situation, and the goal writing a western might help me achieve is to increase my overall reader base by 100 readers in a month (hypothetically). This would be pretty easy to track because a month after publication I can check to see if I’ve sold 100 copies or given away 100 copies in exchange for email addresses.
If not, I probably wouldn’t write another western in the short term. If I do hit my goals, though, I might consider inserting western writing into my ritual on a permanent basis.
Always Push the Margins
Building solid rituals can go a long way toward helping you get more writing done each day without having to put a lot of mental energy into the process every time.
Once you learn your ritual, it’s there, ready for you to use whenever you’re ready. It’s a proven formula for success, however you define that.
But you shouldn’t be satisfied to just repeat the same old routine over and over, either. There is always room for improvement, and you should be on the lookout for ideas that can beef up your routines and make them more productive.
Don’t tweak for the sake of tweaking — that can be a time sink and rob you of precious writing time.
But do continue to measure, evaluate, and adjust your rituals.
Becoming the best writer you can be is a lifelong learning experience, and your rituals provide the framework to allow you to experiment while producing your best and most prolific work.
Nurture your rituals, and they’ll reward you handsomely.
Also published on Medium.