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It’s impossible to be a writer without a system

I knew I was going to write books for a living when I was in the second grade. I’m 34, and I still haven’t accomplished that goal. I have figured out how to start and finish books, though (and it only took me two and a half decades to figure out!). The problem wasn’t so much that I didn’t have the tools to write a book, it’s that I didn’t have a system.

There are few acts as lonesome and thankless as writing a book. The average novel weighs in somewhere close to 100,000 words. Mark Twain wrote 1,000 words a day. Stephen King says he cranks out 2,000 per day (come hell or holidays). Twain, God rest his soul, was a professional writer. So is Stephen King.

Us plebs have day jobs. And most of those day jobs don’t allow us to stare off into space thinking about the things we’re going to write when we get home. Even the best among us might be able to write 500 words a day. If we did that for 200 days straight, we’d have our rough draft finished!

That’s right.

200 days.

There aren’t many fields that require you to labor on something for more than half a year before you produce such a flawed and hideous product that you can’t even show it to your friends.

(And please don’t tell me you’re in the habit of sharing your first drafts with people. If so, you probably like walking around with morning breath and your zipper undone. First drafts aren’t meant for public consumption. They’re for you and you alone).

After your first draft, you need another six months to come up with a halfway decent second or third draft – one that you’re comfortable showing to a loved one.

Let’s recap.

You’ve just spent every free moment of the past year working on a piece of writing that no one else in the world has seen. Talk about an act of faith. You’ve climbed Everest from your office chair. You’re a gladiator. You’re my hero. You’ve done the impossible.

And the only way to do something that normal people can’t is to come up with an ironclad system.

It’s impossible to be a writer without a system.

Haruki Murakami says it best (via James Clear):

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.

I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

It’s impossible to be a writer without a system.

In 2006, a researcher at Duke found that 40 percent of our daily actions are a result of habit (source). Like brushing our teeth or wiping our bottoms after a doo-doo, our brains are adept at going on autopilot. If you don’t turn writing into a habit, you’re not a writer.

It’s impossible to be a writer without a system.

My habit is this: I write 100 words a day, every single day. At that pace, it’d take me about 3 years to finish a draft of a novel, but what I find is that 100 words quickly turns into more. Some days, I write 400 words, some days I write 101 words. I don’t really care so long as I break that 100-word barrier.

Since I don’t want to take 3 years to write every single rough draft, I have a weekly word target, too, of 2,500 words. That’s substantially higher than the 700 words per week I’d hit if I really only wrote 100 words a day, but I’ve found that my daily goal makes my weekly goal manageable.

The longer I’ve kept this system, the easier it is to maintain. Writing 100 words is so quick and easy, the psychological pain of NOT doing it outweighs the trouble of actually sitting down and writing. Then, I have the added benefit of turning writing into an ironclad habit – one that’s as automatic as shampooing my hair.

It’s impossible to be a writer without a system.

There’s another benefit, too. When I write every day, I immerse myself in fictional world every day, too (and where the hell else would I rather be?).

Aristotle recognized the power of habit almost 2,000 years ago, writing famously:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

It took me 25 years to learn this: if you’re not writing every day, you’re not a writer. That’s my system. Yours might differ slightly, but I can guarantee you this: It’s impossible to be a writer without a system.

Fredrick Marion

Fredrick Marion

I like books that refuse to let you sleep at night. I like coffee, talking animals and hearing from readers. Sign up for my email newsletter, and I'll send my latest blog posts to your inbox!

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