6 Tips To Nail Down Your Writing Routine (From Legendary Author Henry Miller)

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Ahoy and happy Monday!

Welcome to another week of Start Writing Online—where every week we dive into 1 of the 10 biggest problems all writers face:

  • Distractions
  • Over-editing
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Self-confidence
  • Generating ideas
  • Impostor syndrome
  • Writing consistently
  • Finding time to write
  • Loose feedback loops

(And, of course, if you want to crush all 10 of these AND master the fundamentals of Digital Writing in just 30 days, we'd love to have you in the next cohort of Ship 30 for 30!)

This week, we want to help you you create a consistent writing routine by using lessons from legendary writer Henry Miller.

Henry Miller was a prolific artist.

He wrote novels that were so controversial the US banned them from publication (The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn to name just two of them). He was also a literary critic, wrote travel memoirs, painted watercolors, and was an amateur pianist. So if there is anyone we should look to on how to create a consistent routine for our creativity, it’s him.

In 1930, Henry made a list of 11 Commandments that are a must-read for any aspiring creative:

These 11 commandments were part of Henry's personal "Program"—they were rules that he followed day in and day out.

From these, we can draw 6 overarching principles which we should try and implement to create a more reliable writing process.

Let's dive in!

1. Write first and always

Miller put writing at the center of his schedule.

It didn’t matter what other commitments he had, the writing came first. This is a trait we see in so many legendary writers we admire and is one of the reasons why we focus on helping all new Shippers in Ship 30 find their “Sacred Hours”. These are blocked off chunks of time which are dedicated to writing.

  • No distractions
  • No other responsibilities
  • Nothing else to check up on

Just you and the writing.

So how do you find your own Sacred Hours?

There are two key questions you need answer:

  • What time of day am I most productive?
  • What time of day can I be least responsive?

Your Sacred Hours lay in the intersection between these two times:

Keep in mind that there's no right or wrong answer. This will be different for everyone. But as long as you are prioritizing the writing (even if it isn’t the first thing you do in the day), then you’ll show up 99% of the time.

Like Miller says, “Write first and always.”

2. Chase no shiny objects

We are inundated with distractions and temptations:

  • Netflix
  • TikTok videos
  • Your Twitter feed

The list could go on and on.

It’s easy to spot these “shiny objects” which give you an instant feeling of escapism and relief. But, in his commandments, Miller is warning us against more subtle shiny objects. Ones which are just as powerful as the dopamine rush you get from all the ones we just listed.

These are “productive” distractions.

At the time, Miller was writing his novel Black Spring. He was warning himself against trying to start any new books or do more research for the novel in front of him—these were the “new fertilizers” to be avoided. He knew these were ultimately shiny objects, and would distract him from getting the work done, even if they felt “productive.” So he had to keep reminding himself to focus on the main task in front of him.

Yes, you need to design your environment to avoid the dopamine rich distractions which are everywhere in today’s world, but you also need to be careful not to distract yourself with “productive” shiny objects.

3. When you can’t create, then you can work

To Henry, "creating" and "working" were two separate things.

For us, “work” are the meetings, tasks, emails, and other things that gnaw at our precious attention. These are similar to the shiny objects we met above, but aren’t as tempting. But when we’re faced with the prospect of creating (which can always feel a bit uncomfortable, especially if we’re doing something new) then it’s easy to fall into “busy” work rather than moving the needle forward on a creative project.

So Henry did those “work” things only when he could no longer create—a solid and powerful rule.

4. Work calmly, joyously, and recklessly

This is such an important (and often overlooked) point.

When you’re building a writing habit, it’s important for you to enjoy the process.

This is why part 2 and part 4 of James Clear’s four-part Habit Feedback Loop are aimed at keeping you coming back to the habit:

Your writing should be something you look forward to: you will crave to do it and find it satisfying once you’ve done it.

So, for writing, here’s how to achieve this:

  • To make it attractive: Have a list of the benefits you hope to unlock once you start writing consistently. And review them every time you sit down to write. Whether that’s building an audience, learning faster, or thinking more clearly, this exercise will help you keep the momentum going.
  • To make it satisfying: You want to find as many ways as possible to be “rewarded” every time you sit down to write. The easiest way to do this? Print out a giant calendar and make a big red X over each day you write and publish. Or team up with someone also trying to build a daily writing habit. Share your struggles, cheer each other on, and build a rock-solid relationship.

This commandment draws us back to the theme of focus: work on what’s on hand, nothing else.

5. Recognize that great writing is a byproduct

There’s a romantic idea that “great” writers produce art by locking themselves in a writing cabin in the woods, excluding themselves from society while they create their masterwork.

We’re here to tell you: this is completely upside down.

You become a better writer (or artist) by interacting with the world around you.

  • Reading books that challenge you
  • Going to the movies at the weekend
  • Hanging out with your friends on a Friday night

This is where you generate all of your ideas.

And it’s one of the reasons Miller would leave his work for the day and come back to it tomorrow. He new he needed to let his ideas percolate. It didn’t matter if he had to quit early for one day, as long as he renewed himself by enjoying the world around him, he’d get back to it the next morning.

So when it’s time to sit down to write, all you’re doing is putting the finishing touches to the ideas you’ve been collecting when you haven’t been writing.

6. Stick to the program, but enjoy every second of it

We study legendary writers (and share what we learn) because we always want to be improving as writers—these are the signposts to better writing and writing habits.

But ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s up to you to form your own program. This will take a lot of trial and error. You’ll make adjustments to your own “program” as your life circumstances change. The key is, though, is to stick to it and make sure you’re enjoying every moment.

Because if you don’t enjoy the journey, you’ll never reach the destination you’re aiming for.

That's it for today!

Chat next week!

–Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

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