Every year, we make resolutions about what we plan to do in the next 12 months …
We’re going to exercise more.
We’re going to write more.
We’re going to clean up our diets.
We’re going to save money.
Aside from giving up a few specific vices — smoking, reality TV, negative thoughts — most of our plans are things we want to start doing or improve upon.
But maybe even more powerful than beginning something new is having the courage to give up activities that waste time or hurt our overall goals. If we can muster the strength to “stop doing” a few destructive things each year, we’ll have more time and energy to devote to what does matter.
And, while everyone’s “stop doing” list is different, there are some time-killers common enough among writers that most of us could do without them altogether.
With that in mind, here are 10 habits which you should nix right now if you want to make the most of your writing this year.
Tweaking Your Website
Having your own place on the internet is a good idea for most writers.
You may have had success with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), but there is no guarantee it will be around forever. And there is really no guarantee that Amazon won’t change the rules in a way that negatively impacts your success as an author.
If you carve out your own place on the web, though, you can be sure that it will be around as long as you are. Buy a domain name, set up a simple hosting plan, install WordPress, and start building.
With your own website, you can blog to stay in touch with your audience and, maybe more importantly, you can stand up sales pages for each of your books. If Amazon or Kobo goes away, you still have a way to get your work out into the world.
But as great as having your own website can be, it comes with its own dangers. Chief among those is that it presents yet another opportunity for your perfectionist tendencies to run amok.
With a WordPress site, in particular, the options for customization are endless:
- You can adjust your color scheme until your eyes bleed.
- You can tweak the layout of your widgets until your mouse hand cramps.
- You can try out different fonts until they become a big hieroglyphic jumble in your mind.
And you will do all of these because you’re an author and your creativity and sense of aesthetic will get the better of you.
Eventually, though, you need to stop fiddling around with your site and get back to writing. Because, unless you have a really terrible or really revolutionary website, all your machinations won’t mean much to your audience.
Pick a simple theme that’s easy to read, brand it with some reasonable colors and images, set up your email capture forms, and then stop.
Maybe revisit your design once a year or so just to make sure it’s fresh and functional, but otherwise, you should be producing content and new books.
Nobody cares if your font size is 13px or 14px.
Further Reading: Joanna Penn has a nice, concise guide to setting up an author website in 30 minutes. For a clean, simple WordPress theme, you might want to check out Hellish Simplicity by Ryan Hellyer.
Posting to Social Media
The advent of social media has been a wondrous and revolutionary development in human history.
That may sound like hyperbole, but consider how social media has changed our lives:
- We can catch up with friends and family from all over the world whom we haven’t seen in decades.
- We can get from-the-source updates on historic events as they develop.
- We can talk directly with celebrities and influencers in all walks of life.
- We can pick our potential spouses long before we ever meet them in person.
- We can share funny cat videos with our mothers at 3 am.
It’s all truly amazing, especially if you grew up during an era when “cell phone” sounded like part of an amoeba that you might learn about in biology class.
But for all the good that comes with social media, there are some decided “bads,” too.
Like the daily news itself, much of your social media feed is bound to devolve into a stream of negative thoughts and people ranting about this or that. Features like “block”,”ignore”, and “unfriend” are great for working around this problem.
More insidious is the time you spend posting to social media in the name of connecting with your audience or interacting with your readers.
While it’s true that platforms like Twitter and Pinterest do allow you to converse with your potential audience like never before, they should never be the main focus of your daily efforts, and they should never eat into your writing time.
You can craft all of the clever, visually appealing Tweets you want, but unless you’re leading folks back to an avalanche of quality work on your own site or book pages (on Amazon, for example), the overall impact for you is going to be small.
Enjoy social media all you want, but be aware that it’s a tremendous time sink, even if you’re just posting and manage to avoid those kitty vids. For most authors trying to get their platforms off the ground, posting to social media shouldn’t consume more than 10-15 minutes per day (at most).
Further Reading: Jenny Bravo has put together a solid guide on how authors can use social media to best effect.
Writing good prose is tough because, not only do you want to get the words right and produce a compelling story, but you need to get the facts straight, too.
Whether you’re writing a blog post on Siberian Snickerdoodles, a short story about aliens in the old west, or a novel about American beer makers in the French Revolution, you have to do your research. If you try to wing it, your readers will sniff the BS and call you out on it.
But research comes with its own dangers, chief among them that you may never finish if you’re not vigilant with your time and your goals.
For instance, most eras of history are fascinating when you dig into them, and it’s really easy to climb deeper and deeper into any particular rabbit hole. Before you know it, you’ve jumped from your primary objective of identifying the shortest and heaviest players ever to take the field in Major League Baseball to how many different voices Mel Blanc mastered in his lifetime.
The Internet makes this terrain all the more treacherous because the next wrong turn is always waiting for you in clickbait form.
It’s also really easy to trick yourself into thinking that your endless “research” advances your writing when it doesn’t.
“Just wait until I have all my sources together. Then I’ll be able to rip through my book in no time, and it will be the best tome on the underwater oatmeal sculpture culture of colonial Canada that you’ve ever read!”
Do your research, but don’t let it take over your writing life and don’t let it stretch out forever.
Write your story and, along the way, come up with the questions you need to answer. Go back, find the answers to those questions, and write them into your story. Repeat until you don’t have any more questions.
Further Reading: For some perspective on author research, check out Joe Finder’s pointed article on the topic.
Hiding Your Writing
Especially among those of us who have non-writing jobs that we love and plan to keep, there is a tendency to perpetually view ourselves as “aspiring authors.”
This is a limiting label that we need to squash forever.
Part of the problem with “aspiring” to write is that it gives you an automatic out when you fall behind on your goals. Since you were only aspiring to write, there’s really no harm in failing, right?
More insidious is that by not fully owning your writing ambitions, you relegate your efforts to the dark corners of your life.
Maybe you’re working on a novel but don’t tell anyone about it because they might think you’re dreaming. Or maybe you write for a sports blog but don’t promote the posts to your friends because you’re not a real writer and don’t want to risk ridicule.
So you slink about in the dark hours of morning and the candlelit recesses of night just to avoid being caught in the act … of writing.
This might sound dramatic, but it’s not far from the truth for many of us who don’t fully embrace the “author” part of our lives.
On the other hand, simply telling those closest to you that you’re a writer can be tremendously empowering.
Suddenly, you’re accountable to someone other than just you for reaching your writing goals.
You can legitimately block off time to write because it’s a commitment just like going to work or paying your bills.
And you’ll probably find that your friends and family are supportive of your aspirations rather than derisive. And if they’re not, maybe you need to find new people to hang out with.
You can aspire to finish a story or publish a book, but in my view, you’re either a writer or you’re not. Bringing your writing out of the shadows will help you move closer to the creative life you want.
Further Reading: Alan Watts had it all figured out when it came to aspiring writers.
Editing While You Write
We all want to write good, clean prose with enticing word choice and sentence construction throughout our work. After all, you can’t produce junk and expect readers to come back for more.
But trying to make everything perfect as you write is a sure way to stifle your overall word count and ultimately prevent you from producing your best work. That’s because the more you write, the better you get (generally), so anything that slows you down will keep you from progressing.
Agonizing over every word choice, backspacing three or four times in every sentence to correct typos that creep in, and fussing with spacing and word order over and over will do nothing but hold you back.
The far better approach most of the time is to just write that first draft of whatever you’re working on as fast as you can and then come back to edit later. You’re going to read over your pages many times anyway, so why not separate your creative (writing) time from your analytical (editing) time?
That may seem easier said than done, but there are a few techniques you can use to get the words moving.
- Set a timer and write as fast as you can for 15 or 20 minutes, but commit beforehand to not making any corrective keystrokes during that period. It’s tough to swallow at first, but liberating the more you get into it.
- Open YouTube on a second monitor or turn on the TV and watch something visually appealing while you type. Turn down the sound if it’s distracting, but keep your eyes on the (other, non-writing) screen.
- Turn off you monitor entirely and write “blind.” This is probably the scariest of the options, but often the most effective. Be prepared for some ugly words the first time you try this, but it gets better.
Sculptors need a hunk of clay to carve into, and you need a hunk of words to hack into with your editor’s machete. Don’t short-circuit either process — writing or editing — by picking and poking at every word you type.
Further Reading: Blake Atwood presents a 10-step process that you can use to self-edit your work.
Thinking About Writing
You’re trying to become a better writer. You’re trying to write more words — better words — every day. You may even hope to give up your day job and become a full-time writer.
It’s only natural, then, that you think about writing … a lot.
You think about your next story idea, your next blog post, why people aren’t reading your work more, how to write better, how to write faster, how to make money with your writing, and on and on and on.
Not only do you think about writing all the time, you also read about writing all the other time. And you probably talk about it all the other other time. Maybe you even dream about writing.
The good news is that you’re not alone. This kind of obsession is pretty common with ardent participants in any activity, from bodybuilding to custom cars to scrapbooking.
We throw all we can into learning about our passions and hope it makes a difference.
And it does, of course, at least to a point. But does it do you any good to read for the 87th time that you need to “show not tell”?
Probably not, yet we’re always on the hunt for that next tidbit of writing info that will get us over whatever hump we’re currently behind. Most of the time, we’d be better of actually writing something than philosophizing about writing.
And maybe, just maybe, it’d be helpful to step away from writing completely on occasion because burnout is real for even the most dedicated of scribes.
So, once you’ve finished this article, feel free to push back from the writing information smorgasbord for a bit.
Further Reading: Marie has some, ahem, thoughts about not thinking about writing.
Neglecting Your Physical Health
Writing is a sedentary activity, and its practitioners are also somewhat prone to worry and perfectionism (see above). That combination can lead to all sorts of physical maladies, from becoming overweight to high blood pressure to back problems to hemorrhoids to worse.
Add in the fact that so many of us spend our non-writing days tied to keyboards and sitting at desks, too, and you have a health-wrecking cocktail that can derail all of our writing efforts.
You can’t write much if you’re sick all the time, and you can’t write at all if you’re dead.
That’s why authors in particular need to keep a careful eye on our health. You should be seeing your doctor on a regular basis and actively working on any problems that do arise.
You should make time for regular physical activity, though what that is depends a lot on your personal preferences, health history, and goals. Your doctor can help there, too.
You need to make sure you’re eating a healthy diet of real, whole foods that provides all the nutrients you need but no so many calories that you get fat.
And, for goodness sakes, get up and walk around every once in awhile. The movement will do your body and mind good.
Further Reading: Author Josh Vogt has put together an array of resources to help writers stay in tip-top physical condition.
Reading What You Don’t Like
We all have to do things we don’t like doing.
Going to the dentist or the doctor usually fits into that category.
Visiting Aunt Gertrude’s family for Christmas qualifies.
For the very unlucky, trudging to work or school is no joy.
Eating vegetables, doing the laundry, scooping cat litter … you get the picture.
But reading should fill one of about three needs: it informs you, it helps you get better at something, it entertains you.
If what you’re reading right now doesn’t meet one of those criteria, then why are you reading it?
And, if you don’t like what you’re reading, isn’t there a more well-written option that will fill the same niche?
Life’s too short to do things you don’t want to do if you have any choice in the matter. If you start reading a book or article that leaves you cold, leave it behind, and move on.
The next (and better) brilliant blog post, short story, or book is out there waiting for your eyes.
Further Reading: Kira Walton relates a personal story about the discomfort of pushing through a book you don’t enjoy.
Writing What You Don’t Like
Life’s also too short to write what you don’t like.
Sure, you have to write reports for work and school, Christmas cards to (yes) Aunt Gertrude’s family, and permission notes for your kids, but you’re not required to produce anything in particular in your own writing career.
A lot of folks “write to market,” and that approach does have some merit. If you hope to make money from your writing, you need paying customers.
But that does not mean you should pick a genre you don’t enjoy just in the name of chasing a buck. For one thing, choosing to write, say, a romance novel rather than a horror novel, likely won’t make a huge difference to your bottom line unless you “get hot” with either. The truth is, it’s hard to make a living in any particular genre.
For another, there is an audience for just about every type of writing out there — you just need to find them.
At the very least, you can find your own unique angle on any writing assignment you undertake and use that slant to make the writing fun for you.
Because, if you don’t enjoy writing, then why in the heck are you doing it?
Further Reading: Alicia Rades makes a passionate plea for bringing passion to your writing.
Reading the News
Want to kill a good mood and deaden any creativity that may be flowing through your veins? Then you should be reading the news on a regular basis — three or four times per day, at least.
Look, everyone wants to know what’s happening in the world, and the best way to do that remains reading newspapers — physical or online — or watching the news on television. But a little bit goes a very long way.
Before cable television and the Internet changed our lives forever, most of us had to scramble to find the events of the day. We could watch the evening news, read the morning paper, maybe listen to the headlines as we drove to work. And, of course, we could talk about current events with people we knew.
We can still do all that, but now all the news is at our fingertips all day (and night) long. It’s easy as pie to click out of the blog post or short story we’re working on to get a shot of CNN or Fox News (or worse).
But not only does that diversion break your writing momentum, it also adds nothing to your life. The stories you read about a day ago and an hour ago are still there, and they’re just as negative now as they were then. Maybe even more so.
And it’s all the same, over and over and over. Elections, wars, deaths, economy, and other “cheery” topics dominate the headlines. About the only place you’ll find variety is in the sports section and the clickbait farms. Neither one will do much to put you in a good mood or refresh your mind in any way.
You don’t have to avoid the hard truths about our world, but there’s not need to thrash yourself with them several times a day — pick a time to catch up, then leave it alone for 24 hours. and, if you just can’t avoid your frequent news fix, at least look for more positive sources, like Positive.News, Sunny Skyz, the Good News Network, or Uplifting News.
Further Reading: James Altucher has an interesting take on the news … and college.
Should you give up all of these things at once?
Maybe, maybe not. If you derive genuine entertainment value from, say, social media or reading the news, then cutting them might not be right for you.
But you definitely should look for unproductive or downright deleterious activities that you can remove from your life.
And when you find them, be ruthless with your cutting. After all, you only get so much time, and it’s getting shorter every day.
What activities are on your “Stop Doing” list? Let me know in the comments below.