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Why you don't need a writing routine

Why you don't need a writing routine

I’ve been coaching quite a few freelance writers lately and when we talk about some of the challenges they have there are five words that pop up over and over: “I don’t have a writing routine”. Often these writers tell me they feel guilty and unproductive because they don’t have a set routine. But I think the focus and pressure on freelancers to have a writing routine is unnecessary. Here’s why.

Why freelance writers don’t need a writing routine

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When freelancers tell me they want a writing routine I’m genuinely curious about why they don’t have one, why they want one and what they think a routine would give them.

By and large they tell me that they’ve read numerous articles espousing the importance of establishing and sticking to a writer's routine – how Stephen King’s writing schedule means he sits down at a certain time each day in the same seat with the intent of writing six pages or how Barbara Kingsolver wakes at 4am to write.

These routines of well-known and prolific authors are impressive, but I don’t believe it’s all that helpful for freelancers.

It’s not that I’m not against routines – they can carve space in an otherwise chaotic day, they give some people enormous comfort,  and having a routine (such as always writing in the same café) can immediately place you in the right zone for writing - but I’ve come to believe that a lack of a routine is holding many freelance writers back.

Not because writers don’t have a routine, but because they feel like they should have one.

Some of us thrive in a regular, writing routine. I admire those people – for many years I tried to twist myself into a version of them, but I am not naturally one of them.

I’ve finally realised that you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and who you are.

When you look up synonyms for the word ‘routine’ – you get offered alternatives such as mundane, dull, repetitive and monotonous – not exactly words you associate with being a creative professional.

And in fact, they are not words that I think anyone would associate with being a freelancer.

I love these comments from illustrator Marc Martin in Madeleine Dore’s wonderful blog Extraordinary Routines, where he says:   

“One of the greatest things about freelancing is being able to make my own rules – I don’t like the idea of having to be at the same place at exactly the same time every day just because somebody said so! Being flexible with times and routines helps me feel in control of my life – if I want to work from home in the morning, or come into the studio later, I’ll do that too.”

I think the beauty of being a freelancer is exactly what Marc says – you’re free to set your own schedule and that’s a huge part of the appeal.

Of course, for lots of us (me included) that means a tendency to procrastinate if a deadline isn’t looming and that often makes us crave a routine so that we can be more productive.

But I’ve found that if you try to shoehorn yourself into a routine that doesn’t suit you or your life, it’s a recipe for feeling miserable and even more unproductive – if you’re a night owl who is trying to get up at 6am because that’s what you "should" do, then you’re going to be mighty unhappy.

I want to reassure you that you can be fulfilled as a writer – you can be pursuing the stories you want to, writing the articles that make you happy, as well as puddling around on social media, day dreaming and also earning a good income. It’s possible. I’m living proof.

What a routine is really about

I think most people’s unhappiness about routines doesn’t come from the fact that they can’t stick to a routine or don’t have one, but because they feel like they should have one and they don’t.

A writing routine doesn’t automatically make you productive, or suddenly less prone to procrastination. No.

A writing routine gives you the structure so that you can be more productive and get on with it.

It’s all about getting the job done.

So rather than a writing routine, think about what you need to get your job done.

For some of us, it’ll be a physical space away from the kitchen table, the kids’ homework and the clothes in the washing basket. For me my only real routine is that I have the same two days a week in at my fantastic coworking space and that's enough to anchor my productivity. 

For others of us, we need the emotional (and perhaps the financial) support of our partners or families to get our writing done – it’s not just about time.

For yet others it’s about needing the confidence, the contacts or knowing how to get started with freelance writing.

So much of the advice out there about routines is one-size-fits-all, but there’s no one right routine.

Yes, habits can be really great in helping you get your work done (and this is an interesting idea about using your ‘weakness’ to drive a habit) but freeing yourself of the need for a routine (and the guilt of not having one), is one of the best ways you can move your freelance business forward.

Do you have a routine? Do you think freelance writers need a routine?

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