The 6 Things Always on Your Writer's To-Do List
As writers, we write and we read. And at a basic level, this is all you really need. But you don't have to be writing 24/7 to be involved in your writing life, and you shouldn't try to. (No one can write 24/7, and you'll burnout if you try).
If you just produce and produce and produce, your creative inspiration well will run dry, your practice will dull, you could be wandering aimlessly through your work, and your stories won't get read. As writers, we engage in other literary activities for our writing to prevent this and become the best writers we can be. We work to balance out our writing, to refuel our creative wells, to know our stories intimately, and to share our stories with the world.
I mean, think about it. Sometimes you'll be drafting intensely, but sometimes you need to step back and read. Sometimes you'll be revising your story, but you also need to start preparing to submit your work. Sometimes you'll be working intensely on your novel, but sometimes stepping away and experimenting with a new form can restore your energy and help you fix that plot hole you've been stuck on. We've got to infuse these kind of activities into your writer's practice so you can become the holistic, well-rounded, wholehearted writer you hope to be.
I've found that there are six major categories of things that should always be on your writer's to-do list to balance out your writing practice: Reading, Experimentation, Wholehearted Writing Sessions, Intimate WIP Discovery, Engagement with the Literary Community, and Writerpreneurship Building.
Plus, I've got 94 activities to accomplish these things and show your writing life some love. Put your email in the box below and get your master list!
Let's dive into them. Are you ready?
The 6 Things Always on Your Writer's To-Do List
1 | Reading
This one is pretty obvious. You can't be a Real+Good Writer if you're not a Real+Good Reader. And a well-fed writer is a well-read writer.
But often we forsake reading in the name of getting more words on the page. This isn't always a good thing. We need to read to inspire us, to study how craft works, to see how other writers have done the things we want to do (or don't want to do). Reading refuels our creative wells and teaches us how to be better writers.
Read intensely. When you read, you don't just want to be absorbing the story. You can read for entertainment, sure (and you should!), but you also should read with an eye to craft. Pay attention to the choices the author makes. Ask why she chose to write in first-person, or why he spent five pages talking about lotion. Map out the story's plot and see where it rises and falls. Look for what's between the lines, what isn't written, and what that implies. Study the story to understand how it works and what you can take back to your own work-in-progress.
Read widely. You definitely need to pay attention to books within your own genre and your own niche, as these are in conversation with your work and you want to be aware of conventions. But you also want to push your own boundaries. Reading books outside of your genre exposes you to new forms, new structures, new techniques. They show you how storytelling works across the board. You can use bring these techniques back to your work-in-progress to write innovative and compelling stories that are uniquely and magically yours.
Read the classics to understand timeless stories and how storytelling has evolved. Read fantasy to learn how to worldbuild. Read mystery to see how to create suspense. Read romance to learn how to infuse your stories with hope. Read stories from writers around the world to expose yourself to new perceptions and ideas you've never considered before. Read stories that challenge you, that excite you, that confuse you. You'll learn more this way than any other.
If you're looking for a good place to start with your wide reading list, check out this post on How to Be a Real+Good Reader. I've also got a printable reading challenge for you to help figure out exactly what books to put on your list!
2 | Experimentation
Experimentation in your writing life allows you to test out new things, discover what works (and what doesn't), and challenge your brain to grow. When you experiment, you want to play with both your writing practice and your writing itself.
You want to experiment with your writing practice to discover your best writing routine. You want to love your practice and be productive when you write, so you've got to figure out what that routine really looks like in your world. You discover your best writing routine when you experiment with new times, places, methods, and measurements.
Your best writing routine will also evolve over time. As your life changes (when you get a new job, welcome a child into the home, build new habits, notice your circadian rhythms changing), your writing life will need to change too. Experimentation (and documentation of your experiments) will help you see what's working and what you can tweak to make your writing life even better.
Habitualizing writing is essential to getting the muse on your shoulder with you every time and making the writing easy. But sometimes it just feels good to write using a different method you don't normally use. So, you want to try writing with different times, places, methods, and measurements to find your best routine (and habitualize it), but also to change up your practice and challenge your brain. (Psssst. I've got 86 ways to experiment with your writing life right over here!).
But you also want to experiment with the writing itself. You want to discover your strengths in your writing and stick with them. For example, if you're really good at writing novels and you absolutely love it, you're going to want to keep writing novels. Likewise, if you're really good at writing at short stories, you'll want to keep writing short stories. But you learn and grow as a writer when you challenge yourself, pushing yourself far outside your comfort zone.
You want to experiment with different genres, forms, structures, point-of-views. Just think of everything you can learn from experimenting with different forms:
- Practicing with short stories can help you see the big-picture story on a small, more manageable scale.
- Practicing with poems can help you focus on choosing the best word.
- Practicing with scriptwriting or screenwriting (using tips from my friend, E.M. Welsh) can help you see your story through a new lens (literally) and strengthen your dialogue skills.
- Practicing with first-person narration will help you get intimate and focused with one character, but practicing with third-person narration helps you learn to balance multiple unique perspectives at the same time.
You may choose to focus on brand new projects as you experiment, or just do it on a small-scale with a writing prompt. At the bare minimum, take 30 minutes out of your standard writing practice and just play with different writing elements. Think of this as flexing your creative muscles and building your writing skills. If you only do cardio to workout, you can make significant progress with your health, but you'll have a much more balanced fitness lifestyle if you alternate cardio days with lifting days. Experimenting with your writing in new forms is like doing a lifting day after doing a few cardio days in a row.
3 | wholehearted SESSIONS
You'll want to have a standard writing routine you maintain regularly. This is your baseline that you can hit consistently. But sometimes you'll want to give writing a bit of extra attention with some longer sessions. You won't be able to consistently commit to a full weekend of intense writing every single weekend, but interspersing more wholehearted, intentional sessions within your standard routine will help you make significant progress on your work quickly and help you dive even deeper into your work.
Wholehearted sessions are things like writing marathons, sprints, retreats, and drop-everything-and-read/write days. This is when you prioritize writing over life for just a short amount of time, and dive straight into words 150%.
A writing marathon is when you block off a significant chunk of time and do nothing but write towards a specific goal. You make take a Saturday for a marathon and choose to do nothing but write for 12 hours straight. You may take a weekend for a marathon and choose to reach 5,000 words. When you're marathoning, you're pushing for a very concrete, specific goal, and you're working tirelessly to reach it. The quality of your writing isn't the major focus here, but quantity is. If you want to make quick progress towards your goals, you'll want to do one of these.
Be forewarned, these are intense. This isn't your walk-in-the-park easy writing session. These are designed to challenge you, tire you, and make you work. Push yourself hard, but make sure to give yourself ample time to rest afterwards.
For a similar kind of intense session (but on a smaller scale), try a writing sprint. Sprinting is, again, pushing hard for a concrete, specific goal, but within a shorter amount of time. Most popularly is the #1k1h or #1k1hr (aiming for 1000 words in 1 hour) sprint on Twitter. Use the hashtag to find other writers around the world currently sprinting and race them to up your word count quickly.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are creative writing retreats. When you retreat, your goal isn't to push full-steam-ahead with your work, but to intentionally step back, relax, and replenish your creative well. You still have a goal in mind, but it's not word-count-based or time-based. Instead, it's more overarching and vague in nature: to spend time being intentionally creative. You could choose to narrow this down a bit (i.e. discover myself as a writer, experiment with new forms, unravel this plot-knot in my WIP) but ideally, you keep it vague and act from a place of instinct, emotion, and spontaneity. If you want to write, write. If you want to read, read. If you want to take a walk in the woods, take a walk in the woods. If you want to learn from other writers, learn from other writers in whatever way you see fit. Really, your goal is to listen to yourself and do whatever is best for you and your writing in the present moment. You could take a week-long retreat, month-long, or just use a weekend.
When you do a retreat, your activities don't all have to be writing focused. They can (and should) be about self-care and restoration too. Try yoga, or meditation, or taking a walk. Indulge in a nap. Cook a meal. Paint a picture. Replenish yourself as human and be wholehearted as you do it.
On a smaller scale, you could have a Drop-Everything-and-Write (DEAW-Day) or Drop-Everything-and-Read Day (DEAR-Day). When you do a DEAR- or DEAW-Day, you don't do anything but the activity in question. Again, the goal isn't to complete 5,000 words or read 10 books, but to just be present and involved with your writing. Remove all the distractions, listen to yourself, and enjoy the process.
These kind of practices get you to be intentional and wholehearted with your practice. They're not your write-for-ten-minutes-before-bed session, but designed to be intense. The difference is the pressure involved. Marathons and sprints are putting the pressure on to get the writing done. Retreats and DEAR-Days/DEAW-Days are taking the pressure off to replenish and recharge. There are times in your writing life when marathoning makes sense and times in your writing life when retreats make sense. Use both to balance things out.
4 | Intimate WIP Discovery
There is value in knowing your story like the back of your hand, and there is value in discovering your story as you write it. We could get into the whole planner-versus-pantser debate with this one, but the bottom-line is you have to know a little bit about your work-in-progress to get going. When you discover your work-in-progress intimately, you really get to know it, in some capacity, so you can write it more clearly.
This may look like plotting your whole novel out with a 10-page outline and a scene-by-scene breakdown. It could mean you write every single scene on an index card and take over your living room floor to see how it maps out best. It could mean that you draw a map of the world you're building, complete with roads and rivers and rules of how the world works.
But it could also mean you take the time to interview your characters, listening to them and what they have to say, following them down crazy roads that might never make it into the final draft of your story. By listening to your character ramble on and on about how she really hates water fountains might reveal a backstory of one instance when she got bullied in middle school by the water fountain, which might reveal she has issues with body positivity, which might help you understand why she's acting so weird as her sister tries on wedding dresses. The backstory of the instance of the water fountain might not make it into the story, but taking the time to understand your character will help you write the scene that does make it into the story more clearly.
It could also mean that you spend time thinking about your intentions for this story. What is the heart of this story, the themes? What message do you want to tell? Why is it important? Your story will never get done (and it won't read true) if it isn't coming from a place of passion and desire. You especially want to do this when you're revising, but you can also pre-plan your goals and intentions for writing this story. It will be much easier to write when you know where you're going and why you're going there at all.
Knowing your story intimately isn't really about knowing all the details ahead of time, but spending time with your story and looking at it from unique angles.
5 | Engagement in the Literary Community
It's no surprise that writing is a solitary process – you can't really do it with others, because you're taking your brain and putting it on your piece of paper. But the writing journey isn't one that has to be undertaken alone, and it shouldn't be. You don't exist in a vacuum. You're not the only writer on the planet. Engaging with other writers helps you feel more connected to the literary world (and it proves that you're not the only crazy human addicted to words).
To engage with the literary world, first, be aware of literary events happening in your local community. Likely, there is something going on in your hometown (or closeby) where you can connect with other writers doing the exact same thing you are. You can go to an author reading at your local bookstore and hear published authors read their words aloud – one of my favorite and most inspiring writing engagement activities! You can join a local writer's group at your library or through a MeetUp group. You can even go to an open-mic night and practice reading your own work aloud.
You should also pay attention to what's going on in the writer's community at large. There are writing conferences around the world all the time. Save up some money and go to one. There are writing magazines, blogs, and literary magazines that report writing news (like new book deals and book awards), interview authors, talk craft and industry hot-topics (like the ebook vs. print debate or diversity in traditional publishing). Take the time to know what's going on in the world of writers.
As a writer's bucket-list kind of thing, you could plan literary trips to see your favorite writer's home (I loved visiting Hemingway's Key West home and seeing the real-life descendants of his six-toed cats!) or visit the new American Writer's Museum in Chicago.
And you can also engage with the literary community from the comfort of your own bed. There are TONS of online writing workshops and classes. Or, you could participate in Twitter chats like Kristen Kieffer's #StorySocial chat every Wednesday at 9pm EST. Or, you could join a Facebook group to connect with writers all around the world. (P.S. When you join the Real+Good Writer's Club for free you get an invitation to my Facebook group just for Real+Good Writers like you!).
6 | Writerpreneurship Building
Writing the story is half the battle; getting it out into the world to be read is the other half. The last element you need to round out your writer's to-do list is to make sure you pay attention to how you'll get yourself out into the literary world.
If you want to make a living off your writing (or even if you just hope to sell a couple copies of your book), you are both writer and entrepreneur: a writerpreneur. You have to think about both the action of writing (the craft, the habits, the practice, the study), and also the business side of writing (the marketing, the publishing, the reputation-building, the sales).
When you think about the business-side of writing, you first want to make sure you have a plan for where you want to go. You want to consider what other books are competitive to yours (and read them, see above), how you want to be published, how you'll continue to grow as a writer. (I've got your whole writer's business plan right over here).
Then, you want to make a plan for how you're going to share your work. You need to have a list of literary magazines that are right for you and your work, a list of agents you want to query, and a submission strategy of how to do it. This takes time and energy to research. Your work is going to get rejected (because that's just how competitive the literary world is), but you decrease your chances of rejection if you target your ideal literary magazines and literary agents. Spending the time to read the literary magazines, research the publishers, agents, and options is SO valuable in figuring out how you're going to get your stories out into the world.
Once you've got your plan, you actually have to submit your work. You have to write query letters to agents and cover letters for your story submissions. You have to format your work appropriately for the publication's standards. You have to write a bio that will go out publically (do you know how hard and time-consuming a little bio can be?!). Submitting your work isn't as simple as a quick click-and-publish kind of thing (if you want to up your chances at being accepted), and you so you really have to invest time in strengthening the packaging of your work.
And then finally, you have to promote yourself. You need to create a social media presence for yourself so you can connect with your readers. You need an author website for your readers to have an online home. You need an email list to tell your readers when you have new and exciting things happening. This step alone is a whole job in and of itself, and some writers choose to pay people to do it for them, because it does take a whole heck of a lot of time. But if you're not actively engaging with your readers in the world, you're not going to have very many readers.
Sitting down and putting words on the page is your number one goal as a writer. But you also have to do a lot of other things too if you want to balance out your writing life and become the well-rounded writer you hope to be.
But doing all these things is a lot.
You don't want to put "experiment with writing practice" or "read widely" or "create marketing plan" on your actual writer's to-do list, because big, vague things like that are overwhelming and misguided. You won't end up doing anything because you won't have any guidelines for if you've succeeded or not, and it's so overwhelming to get started looking at something big like that.
Instead, you want to break these things down into small, concrete activities that you can do over time. Doing just a little bit every day for your writing life, taking baby-steps, will get you much much farther than trying to tackle the whole big thing at once.
(For some tips on how to set goals that actually work and get shit done, check out this post).
Your activities shouldn't be "read widely," but "read a classic book." It shouldn't be "make a plan to publish," but "research agents." It shouldn't be "know everything about WIP," but "interview a character."
I've got a list of 94 activities you can infuse in your daily writing practice right here. Take them and place them right into your writing schedule. When you infuse these things into your writing life, you'll end up with a well-rounded writing life you love. Get your copy below!
If you're a writer who likes more structure and organization, the brand new WriteLife Planner can help with this too.
- Every day there's a daily writing task that asks you to do one of these activities. They only take about 30 minutes (so not too much time away from the writing itself), but they help you build these big to-dos into your writing life on a small scale.
- Each weekend you get a wholehearted practice challenge that encourages writing marathons and writing retreats.
- There are pages for what books you plan to read and recording the basic intimate details of your novel.
- There's a daily tracker for your writing life so you can record how your experiments went (and analyze the results at the end of each week and month!).
- And it's undated, so you can start today.
Now, go balance out your writing life, you beautiful, busy writer! Let's write!