The Power of Rituals for Your Writing

Rituals have existed since the dawn of mankind for one reason.  They work. Work for what, you ask?  Rituals are used to reinforce good (and bad) behaviors for individuals and groups.  Examples include the obvious, like church rituals.  Holy Communion, the marriage ceremony, and baptism are all rituals.  Other rituals are not so obvious, like how we get ready for a date, how you celebrate birthdays, and what you do on New Year’s Eve.  While not as elaborate as the church rituals, they are every bit as potent in terms of how they affect the individual.

Yes, I know you’re impressed with this bit of trivia, but you’re also wondering how this applies to writing.  Rituals help you get your work done with less fuss.  They allow you to focus on the work that is going to be the most productive for you provided you have the correct structure for the behavior.

You may be saying “hold the phone, Bill. You’re talking about good habits, not rituals. There’s a difference.”  There is a big difference between good habits and ritualistic behaviors.  Habits are a loose collection of behaviors we perform without much conscious thought.  An example would be putting two scoops of sugar in our coffee when we make a cup.  It happens and we don’t even think about it.  Rituals, on the other hand, are specific behaviors that are performed the same every time, for the explicit purpose of accomplishing a certain task.

I use rituals for the three main tasks of writing: idea development, writing, and editing.  There is much precedent to back this practice up, too.  An entire book has been written about it.  It’s called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Curry. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to do so (or try it on Audible – I really prefer this title read aloud.  I often listen to it when I go for a walk before my scheduled writing time).  Full disclosure: if you follow this link and purchase the book, I will receive a small commission from Amazon.  This commission will not raise the price of your book but it will help support my work. Thank you!

Idea development can be the bane of the writer.  Sometimes the ideas flow easily, and other times not at all.  That’s why I use a ritual to assist in idea formation.  I perform my idea ritual every day.  I open my “idea spreadsheet” and add five ideas (more if it’s a good day).  I do not care if they’re good ideas.  They’re just ideas.  Some will be better than others.  I’ll decide if they are good later.  Some days I struggle to get my five ideas in the file.  The struggle pays off when I write.  I don’t have to come up with a good idea before I start.  I go through my list and see what jumps out at me.  Sometimes I need to tweak them to make them a “good” idea or to fit my mood, but it’s a lot easier job than racking my brain for an idea when I’m staring at the blank page.

If idea development is the bane of the writer, writing is the heavy cross they bear.  It is the sine qua non of the profession, yet the one thing we writers find the most difficult.  I use a ritual to assist in the performance of my daily writing.  Each day’s writing is done first (before idea creation).  I schedule a block of time for the day’s writing.  When it’s time to write, I pick a topic from my idea file, open Scrivener, title it with a working title, and then I write.  For 20-30 minutes.  Without stopping.  Without editing. I let the words stream.  I don’t spend a moment thinking about the quality (aside from spelling and grammar – I’m sort of a nerd that way) as lingering over word choice and sentence construction for the sake of “quality” is the path to the Dark Side. Once you try to make your first draft perfect you’ll be lost in quicksand.  Nothing is ever perfect, especially the first draft. It’s always better to blow through your first draft with the understanding that a lot of it is crap.  You can worry about cutting the garbage once the first draft is done.

Last is editing. Once the words are on paper, you have to fix the errors and sort the good copy from the cruft. Again, a ritual helps. First, I use Grammarly to fix the obvious problems like subject-verb agreement, spelling, etc.  Once done, I work backward.  Yes, backward.  From the last paragraph to the first, I edit for clarity and quality.  I aim for a ten percent reduction in word count.  I also remove any adverb I find lurking in the prose.  Once done, I repeat the process moving forward, first paragraph to last.

You will not be able to concentrate on the rest of my article if I do not explain why I edit backward for the first pass. When I edit backward, I see the paragraph in isolation, even when I’ve just written it. It helps me think about what I’m saying in the paragraph without the “noise” of the rest of my article.  It’s too easy for me to miss an error or a slight change that needs to be made when I’m thinking ahead of where I’m at in the reading. Going backward slows me down enough to make me really think about what I’ve included in a paragraph.  I hope that makes sense.  It works for me.  Give it a try, it may work for you, too.

These three rituals work for me every day.  I don’t remember seeing them suggested on any writing website I visited, but they’re not rocket science.  Anyone can up with them.  I hope these rituals are tools you can put to use in your own work.  If you don’t like them the way I described them, come up with your own.  There is no “right way” to get your work done.  You just need to get it done.  Figure out rituals that work for you.  You should also help other writers figure out rituals for themselves by putting any rituals you use in the comments below.

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