The most useful piece of writing advice I have ever read—and followed—is Gregory Martin’s treadmill journal technique.
Martin, who teaches at the University of New Mexico, cuts through the romanticism of only writing when you’re inspired and said students who believe writing should be fun and spontaneous “become highly accomplished at writing unpublishable first drafts.”
Instead, he emphasizes the importance of discipline—and keeping track of your progress. He calls his daily writing journal a treadmill journal because
it’s hard to romanticize a treadmill. But you can’t get in shape if you jog two miles every few weeks, and trying to write a meaningful piece of literature is like training for a marathon.
Click here for a PDF of Martin’s article in The Writer magazine.
Here is his method, with my variations.
In a small notebook, I devote one page to each writing session. On each page, I write:
1. The date.
2. What time I am starting to write and when I expect to stop. Most often, I am writing on weekday mornings and have to be at my job at a specific time. I rarely have the luxury of open-ended writing sessions.
3. What I will work on. I am as specific as possible about which scene, which plot problem, which piece of dialogue I will tackle.
4. A few notes at the end of the session describing how things went. It’s a chance to pat myself on the back for accomplishing what I set out to do, or simply acknowledge that I showed up for my writing session even if I don’t have much to show for it. It helps reinforce the habit of writing.
Then I fill out 1 and 2 on the next page of the journal, so in essence, I’m scheduling my next session. I typically address #3 as well by noting where I want to pick up next time.
Martin recommends writing 18 hours a week—three hours a day, six days a week. I block out my available writing hours a week or even a month ahead of time. My ability to hit that 18-hour target varies wildly, but I would never come close or even log 20 or 25 hours on an especially good week if I didn’t have a treadmill journal. And it’s invaluable for helping me remember what I need to do next.
It has changed my life as a writer. And it’s such a simple thing. Give it a try! And let me know how it goes.