The big lesson I’ve learned this year as a professor is:
Writers need structure.
It was a hard lesson to learn, because many of the things I value in life cause me to downplay structure. I value things like:
- Intrinsic motivation (some would say “passion”)
- Doing what feels right or comes naturally
- Changing direction upon insight/discovery
- The journey, not the outcome
However, freedom can be our worst enemy. It can lead to paralysis, procrastination, aimlessness, or indecision. And especially for writers who are just starting out, the principles still need to be learned. While we may need room to experiment and explore, we also need meaningful practice and a way of measuring progress.
By way of example, the best writing course I ever took in college was Introduction to Poetry. The professor was well known for being a formalist, someone who required the students to write metrical verse. For those not familiar with the poetry world, this is unusual. Most classes focus on free verse since it’s the predominant poetic idiom today.
Some of the best work of my college career came out of that class. It’s like what Robert Frost said: “I would sooner write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” I found the challenge invigorating. It forced me to think harder about my word choices, and what I wanted to say. It sharpened every writing skill in a concentrated way.
For fiction writers—or all writers—here are 3 ways to introduce structure (or add a little more structure) to your writing life:
1. Daily or weekly creative assignments. Use writing exercise books or worksheets on a daily or weekly basis—but the kind that force you to go outside your comfort zone. One of my favorite resources for unusual, skill-building exercises is 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley . (He also authored a follow-up with more great exercises called 4 A.M. Breakthrough.) Here’s an example of a terrific exercise:
Describe a happy marriage over at least 10 years. You will have to dispense with focused narrative, summarizing to a large extent, listing details—the reasons you think this is a happy marriage. Is a happy marriage an enviable marriage? Can a couple be too happy? Inseparable and insufferable? 600-word limit.
For something whimsical, try the Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer. Click here for a few free worksheets. 
2. Scheduled writing time with specific tasks. If you don’t already have a set time and place for writing that you never deviate from, try this: Pick a 30–60 minute time slot each week that has zero chance of being superseded by other responsibilities. Go somewhere that is a treat for you: a coffee shop, a park, wherever you love to go. (If it’s more of a treat to stay home, then stay home, as long as you can’t be interrupted.) Make this your dedicated time to get the same writing task done each week. Never miss it, and always do the same kind of work. And see what happens!
3. Weekly and daily goal sheet. This is an excellent tool for a writer who is working daily (or near-daily) on a long-term project, who also may have other responsibilities vying for her time.
Each week, list what you’d be satisfied with accomplishing, given everything else that is happening in your life. Do not overshoot it. The point is to list what you’d be satisfied with. Click here to download a sheet I developed that you might find helpful.  It includes the following sections:
- What you plan to accomplish in a week
- What else is happening that may affect your ability to get stuff done
- What 1 task you’re avoiding that you promise to complete this week
- “Parking lot”: This is your free space to list or note what you like. I find it an ideal place to mention stuff I’m worried I’ll forget. If I keep it here and know it’s safe, my mind is free to focus on my work.
After you have your weekly sheet, at the start of each day, use a single Post-It note (a small one—and only ONE!) to list what tasks from your weekly sheet you have time for. Then accomplish it!
I recommend saving or filing past goal sheets so you can evaluate when your most productive times were. Sometimes you can gain insight into what motivates you to produce lots of work or your best work.
If you’re looking for more ways to get inspired on a schedule, don’t miss this fabulous article from The 99 Percent: How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic. 
And here are a few other articles about accomplishing big goals from PsyBlog:
- Top 10 Self-Control Strategies 
- Reaching Life Goals: Which Strategies Work 
- 11 Goal Hacks: How to Achieve Anything 
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Chris Halderman