Write Every Day? No.

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So lately it seems I’ve been lobbing grenades at Conventional Writerly Wisdom (CWW) so I figured I’d persist, if only out of my usual impulse to be perverse, by taking a shot at one of the great sacred cows of CWW: that all serious authors must Write Every Day.

Actually it’s usually phrased more as an utterance from within a pillar of fire and framed by heavenly hosts with trumpets, and it goes more like “Thou shalt not miss a single day of writing, and yes, we’re talking Thanksgiving and Christmas too here, slacker, so get on it lest thou be smited.”

Great writers (and great writers on writing, including one of my favorites, Stephen King) concur. Serious writers, they say, writers who really mean it, professionals or those determined to become so, write every day and So Should You.

To which I say, bollocks.

You don’t need to write every day to be either productive or good, in fact I think that a lot of people do better (in terms of both output and the quality of that output) if they don’t write every day. I for one need time to reflect, to figure out what comes next in the story and to mull the tonal weight of how I want those next scenes to play out, all of which takes time away from the actual keyboard. And I also just need to take a break from thinking about the story entirely in order to keep my batteries charged.

I realize this may sound like a lot of pretentious crap, but I became a writer because I wanted to be an artist, not a brick layer. Yes, I write mainstream genre fiction which has a commercial and utilitarian bent, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking of it as art, something that—to borrow from Keats—has its own beauty and truth, even if it also has monsters and guys with guns. You don’t make art by clocking in and pounding out your eight hour work day. Or at least, I don’t. You make art when it’s there in your head, clear and fast as a mountain stream, when you’ re driven to it, thirsty and desperate to share it with the world.

Still pretentious crap?

Possibly, but there’s something of the puritan work ethic to that Write Every Day alternative, something slightly joyless and Product Oriented which chills my soul like a deep cave and makes me Suspicious, and not only because those Founding Fathers hats with the buckles look ridiculous on me. We’re making books here, people, not machining nuts and bolts.

Let me insert the usual Magical Words proviso here in case you hadn’t seen it lumbering towards you over the horizon like a Chieftain tank: in the end, the right way for you is the one which works. Some people need to write every day, or at very least, on most days. That’s fine. Good. Wonderful.

But if you don’t, don’t sweat it.

Not needing or being able to write every day doesn’t mean that you are not a real writer (whatever the Hell that is). I have a job, a family, non-literary interests (imagine that!) and all kinds of other commitments that get in the way of writing every day but, as I’ve already suggested, that’s really not the issue. I genuinely believe that when I do have the opportunity to write every day, it’s not good for me, my brain, or my writing. I need the time away from actually hammering out the words to think, recharge and—yes—just live a bit as something other than a writer. This is important, and much of what I do when I’m not consciously being a writer will actually finally inform my work in some abstruse way. In short, to be a writer, I also need to be a person, and that means being something other than a writer from time to time.

Does my output suffer as a result? Perhaps, a little. I’m really not sure. But I know that I have spent hours doggedly banging out a few thousand words out of a sense of obligation only to find later that I had to trash most of them because they weren’t worth the price of admission. But I think that I actually produce pretty quickly, and that is partly because I’m not writing constantly, so that when I do embrace a project, or a writing week or a day, I’m fired up, passionate and ready to create, driven by a conviction, a hunger to get out what has been simmering during my off days (or weeks or even months).

Still pretentious crap?

Like I said, whatever works. But if you stick to the Write Daily mantra, make sure it really does work for you and isn’t just some vaguely corporate work ethic designed to make you feel serious or committed. Some times the very best thing you can do for your writing is to walk away from it.

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24 comments to Write Every Day? No.

  • There’s a website, 750words.com, that encourages people to write every day. There are levels depending on how long of a streak you can manage, and I think so far they’ve had one or two people manage thousand-day streaks. But if you miss a day, you go back to zero. I appreciate the intent, but I managed a 67 day streak once, and then couldn’t get past a week or two after that. I stopped finding it useful as it became a struggle just to produce that much fresh content every day. Thank you for this, AJ. Glad to know I’m not wrong for needing to take breaks.

  • Good heavens, darling, thou givest away all the secrets. Next I know, thou wilt share the secret handshake and copy the key to the *writer’s only* lounge, the one with the servants who give us writers massages and feed us grapes and tell us how wonderful we are.

    Oh. Wait. That was a nice dream. Sorry.

    I once took off a year. It was great. Of course, I wrote lots of proposals, and two 100 page partials, but I took the year off. And I still take off weekends (for the day job that keeps me in medical insurance) and one day a week to play. Write fast does not mean living a boring life.

    Yeah. What AJ said.

  • I agree with this sentiment, although not primarily for artistic reasons. As you allude to in your post: I have a day job, I have a family, I have responsibilities.

    One thing I don’t have?

    A professional writing career.

    I don’t get paid to do this. (Well, except that one time, but that doesn’t happen often.) In my heart-of-hearts I hope one day to get paid to do this (on a regular basis). But until such a time comes to pass… writing is a hobby. It’s a hobby I take seriously (I’m a pretentious artist, too). But because it’s not a source of income for my family, because it is a hobby, it has to come after those other obligations. My wife, my family, and my job all have to take priority in my life, and some days that means no time for writing. I probably write between 2 and 4 days per week, on average, spending about an hour to an hour-and-a-half block of time writing when I do. I don’t let myself feel guilty that I can’t write more often, because that’s not fair to myself, nor to my family.

    Even if I did this full time, I suspect I’d still only write 4 or 5 days per week (I’d likely take the weekends off), although I imagine I’d spend longer blocks of time writing on those days. If I were full-time, I’d feel more of an obligation to write more regularly, because then it wouldn’t just be a hobby, it would be my job – and thus the means of supporting a family. But that’s not likely to happen any time soon, if ever. More likely, I might end up getting paid to write without getting paid enough to support a family. Depending on where in the pay spectrum I ended up, I’d likely variably treat writing as either a hobby that gives back (at the low-end of the pay spectrum) or a second job (at the higher end).

    In none of those cases, I think, would I abandon the pretension that I am an artist.

  • Amen, Hallelujah, and preach on, brother! I do not live a life where I can write every day. Not without, as you suggest, making myself miserable. For me, it is a lot the day job, but it is also that when I write, I write in long streaks of 5 to 10 thousand words in a day. I write for several hours. I’ve found that when I do have the opportunity to write several days in a row, they are most effective after I’ve been mulling things over. I’ve always written that way. I’ll read stuff, wander around and think a lot, make some notes, and then I’ll sit down and bang a bunch of stuff out. I have a hard time doing the “stop and start” thing. So the whole “grab 30 minutes at lunch” thing? No way. I’d be just hitting a stride when it was time to stop. And I do a lot of rereading of my work, sometimes to edit, but mostly to get me in the zone and in the mood and know what the heck I’m supposed to do.

    I’m all for the “whatever works for you” idea, so this is my way. I have become much more of a plotter over the years. I think I always was, but now I actually write stuff down, rather than simply storing it in my head. (A good thing because I’m reaching the stage where I can remember why I came into a room, oh yes, for the pen, where’s the pen? Oh, I’m holding it in my hand. What am I doing in this room again? Oh look! Cats!!) So, I write stuff down and then I when I sit down to write, I have a plan that I can more easily fall into.

    But yeah, writing everyday? Or even most days? Not really going to happen. But writing once a week (maybe twice), I did finish a first draft of 80,000 word novel in about 6 months. I think I edited it in less than that. That was a success, at least to me.

  • There is more to writing than just writing. In my case there is quite a bit of thinking involved and a lot of note-taking. I only start typing when I have a clear idea of how the passages will play out. This could be because I can write by hand faster than I can type, but also because I feel more free when putting pen to paper than pressing keys on the keyboard. If you count all the other stuff I can say I “write” almost everyday, but the word count goes up in spurts at irregular intervals.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this AJ. I suffer from the same thing where I feel like I have to write every day. Part of this is that my writing time is so limited, that I just don’t feel like I’m making the progress that I’d like to be making. Another part of this is that the rest of my life would reach in and devour the hour (ish) a day I have to write without a second thought and I’m fiercely protective of it. It took a hell of a lot of work (both physical and emotional) to carve out those 60 minutes.

    But…

    Last night I was exhausted. I had my BIC and was editing and the next thing I knew, I was jolting myself awake. At that point (ok, actually, after the third time it happened), I realized that I wasn’t doing myself any favors and might actually be damaging stuff in the WIP so I pulled the plug on the day.
    Part of me felt guilty for not getting the full hour in. Another part of me said “Hey, you got something done at least.” A third part of me said “Shut up, you two and go to sleep!”

    So I did. In the past, I would have woken up feeling wretched with myself and my lack of discipline. Not today though, and certainly not after reading your post.
    Thanks :)

  • Laura,
    I wasn’t aware of that site. Doubtless some people find it useful, though keeping score like this is reminiscent of evaluating your progress solely according to word count. It seems likely to become an end in itself and one which may have little to do with actually producing good writing.

    Faith,
    absolutely. Writing fast and being productive doesn’t equate to generating arbitrary rules to force you to write. I think what bothers me about such things is that it becomes like the dread New Year’s resolution to go to the gym daily: it’s not sustainable for most people, and the moment they fall off the wagon their sense of failure leads them to quit entirely. Not healthy.

    Stephen,
    I totally understand. Writing was a hobby for me for 20 years before it led to actual publication, and there were many times when other pressures made me think it wasn’t something I could justify spending time on, let alone doing daily as if it was some kind of religious ritual. We have to keep these things in perspective and remember that acknowledging the demands placed on us by other parts fo our lives doesn’t mean we’re flaking out on our dreams as writers.

    Pea,
    I’m the same. Not for me the 45 minutes of writing between other tasks. I need days at a time interspersed with time to think and plan. When I write, everything else goes on the backburner. That’s not something I can do every day.

    Patchi,
    agreed. I do some of my best work walking around the neighborhood (before I lost her, with my dog). Even so, I need to completely stop and not think about it fro time to time. Then I return refreshed and energized.

  • Ken,
    ah yes, writer’s guilt: at least as potent as writer’s block. I sympathise. Writing and publishing are so uncertain that we feel tremendous pressure to keep generating stuff in the hope we’ll find something that sticks when we throw it at the wall, feeling compounded by the insistent pressure of our own mortality (especially for those of us looking at life from the dread perspective that we have less time in front of us than we have behind). Dwelling too much on things can make us frantic–even frenetic–in our impulse pound stuff out. But I still think that ideas and execution trump merely getting stuff down ans that–particularly for the unpublished writer–the best route to success is stil through quality, not volume. I’m all for writing fast and producing lots of stuff, but for me those things aren’t dependent on a daily regimen. Quite the contrary.

  • While I’ve always written, for the first time in decades I’m writing seriously, meaning writing something that someday someone besides me might read. Right now I’m between jobs (as they say) so I can write everyday, and at first I tried to follow that sacred cow of CWW. It didn’t work. Once I stopped forcing myself to sit down and write everyday, I felt so much better and became much more productive. Then I had one of those “duh” moments and realized that in every job I’ve ever had I always needed those breaks, whether it was an actual weekend, going out for lunch, or just leaving the desk for a 10 minute walk.

    I appreciate this post, because although I gave up on trying to follow this rule, I did feel vaguely ashamed–and now I can at least cross “write everday” off my list of things to worry about when I wonder how real a writer I am.

  • Unicorn

    When I try to write every day, I stuff my story full of scenes that don’t accomplish anything except word count. I sat down, every single day, and wrote, for a whole year. And ended up with a 160 000 word YA novel. Not cool. So now, I write when I have an idea or really know where I want to go next, and my WIP grows a steady 2 000 – 4 000 words every few days.
    Now I just need to cut that oversize YA down to size. I’ve been trying for a year, and I’m still having trouble. The first draft of my new novel is going fine – the revisions of the old one are a different story altogether.
    Thanks for the post, A. J.
    Unicorn

  • Blasphemy! Sacrilege! Pretentious crap! But yeah, sound advice. I take weekends off. I take days off when I need them. I just traveled with my kid and except for blog posts didn’t write a thing. For me this is a job; for others it may be a hobby. Regardless, time off is good. No one works his or her job 365 days a year. No one engages in his or her hobby each and every day. Why should writing be different?

  • I’m not a write every day person, either. That said, I’m going to drop the “However” word and defend the CWW tenet for a minute.

    A body can’t go to the gym every day and expect to do a full workout circuit and not ache the next day. It takes time, and effort, and dedication to get to the point where you can do that full work out and actually feel better afterward. You have to build the muscles up.

    The same goes with writing. When you put your BIC and HOK (Hands On Keyboard) you are exercising a mental muscle. You can’t expect to do a full workout without conditioning that muscle, first. Writing is hard! The “Write Every Day” mantra is a conditioning exercise designed to instill the discipline to ~do it~ despite the aching, and to teach that mental muscle to revel in the work.

    When I first started at the gym, I tried to go every day, no matter how much it hurt. I worked through the pain. In time, I loved going, and working hard, and felt wonderful after a two-hour workout. When I hit that point, I didn’t have to go every day. Three, four times a week was perfect for maintaining the tone and health.
    When I first started writing, my mental muscle was flabby. I’d sit there, stare at the blank screen and … nothing. Dreck. It hurt. I ached. But I made myself do it until it stopped hurting. Until the time I spent BIC and HOK felt good. Was productive. Now, I can miss a few days, because the muscle is toned and ready to use when I need it.

  • TwilightHero

    So I’m not the only one who needs an hour to build momentum before the juices start flowing? Cool 😛

  • I try to be a Monday through Friday writer and set a goal I can usually make in the time frame I have alone. I don’t always get there, but tend to pick it back up another day. Won’t be able to do it this week, but that’s okay. Had other things on my plate this week. I also skip writing on important days and vacations…and when the house gets so bad that I get fed up and need to deal with it. And as I do have a word count goal, those words have to be relevant and useful to the story, not just padding. This is probably why I have some days with less than my goal, and others more, and sometimes why I throw pieces out. Then again, that happens even to people who don’t bother with word count.

    But at the end of the day, this is what I want to do as a career, this is my day job (even if it is designed on a couple year or so plan to get enough material out there to increase the possibility of notice) and so I also have to treat it at least somewhat seriously in that regard, whether it’s earning me anything right now or not. My typing speed is also not that great, so a first draft in approximately 10 weeks sounds pretty good, but I do have to keep on it, Monday through Friday, 2k a day if at all possible, with vacations of course. 😉

  • Hallelujah and pass the mustard! (I seriously have no idea what that means, just always wanted to say it ;)).

    I haven’t beaten myself up over not writing every day, but I do have a vague nagging voice (sort of akin to those days I don’t eat enough veggies) that I’m not “Serious” since I don’t write every day and I dare *gasp* to make sure I still have a social life. (Along with my full time “day job”).

    I think for folks who thrive on writing everyday- go for it! If that’s how your brain works, wonderful. But stating or implying (or giving you that Look) that someone is not serious because they aren’t locked into a daily routine, is not only unfair it could destroy a love of writing.

    Thanks for a gutsy and well written post.

  • Megan B.

    I totally agree. I’ve been struggling with feeling guilty any time I’m just sitting around when I have the opportunity to write. But I keep telling myself, if I am not in the mindset for it, I don’t have to. I refuse to make something I enjoy into homework. I do not have to sit down and write just because I am home alone with nothing else pressing to do.

    There was a woman in my writers group for a while who insisted it was a good idea to write for half an hour first thing in the morning (every single day). That may be great for her, but for me that would be a no-go. On the other hand, writing for half an hour on my lunch break works wonderfully for me.

    Thanks for this post. It’s good to be reminded that writing on my own schedule is the best way to write.

  • Sisi,
    thanks, glad the post assuages some guilt. There’s no shame in taking breaks. Often, they make for better work.

    Unicorn,
    I’ve done the same. Work ethic might make lots of words, but they aren’t necessarily good words.

    David,
    agreed. And as one of the full timers here you write, I’d say, more than most, so it’s good tp hear we’re on some version of the same page.

    Lynn,
    building good habits and baseline skill sets is certainly valuable, and you certainly can’t do that without working the respective muscles, I agree. I just don’t think we need to be doing it every day to prove our seriousness.

    Twilight,
    I often need weeks!

    Daniel
    again, this is one of those whatever works posts. If that kind of regularity is good for you, great. I just don’t think people for whom it’s not good or not possible should feel obligated to adopt it.

  • I dont think we write everyday. If we did, how would we gain any experience to write. As a writer, I feed off my daily dily dallies, whether is a book, poetry or even a song(which is my favorite). I love reflecting on the previous days work. Its great when I can write for days straight but im not bummed if I dont either because I get inspired ALOT and I jot down notes or do research. And yes, I have to live. Those moments we make during the our not writing time, is really what we write about.

  • Oh, I agree. And it doesn’t always work for me either. Like this week… I wasn’t saying I agree with those who say you have to write every day. I take time off too. My above comment was merely how I feel about my own need.

  • latedra
    good point. We need to live so we can have things to write about. Nice.

    Daniel,
    absolutely, yes.

  • I tried so hard to write everyday. Really, with all my might. And I produced page after page of material I felt no connection with. I set goals for myself, like 1000 words a day or half a page a day or 30 minutes a day. And I kept writing, but it was just for the sake of writing or achieving the set goal so that I wouldn’t feel guilty or depressed.
    Now, the only thing I try to do on a daily basis is update my blog. Why? Because I like it, because I feel connected to what I write there.
    On my book I work when I feel that I can do it. When the words in my head are too important to lose and go to waste. I no longer think of writing as a chore that has to be done every day. It does not mean that I am less committed to writing then the writer who writes daily, now I know that.
    Therefore I agree with all that you said. And that everyone should allow writers to find what works for them by themselves. Without slogans and strong words that say that only one way is right.

  • Aishi
    this is a perfect illustration of my point: thank you. Most of us write because we want to. If we adopt practices that kill the joy of the thing, what’s the point? There are easier ways to make a living.

  • JJerome

    AJ – I just got on board the SSM Writer. Every day I don’t write (blogging/networking does not count, or does it?) my pores practically drip with guilt. My question to you is… when did you free yourself from the chains. Eegod, I’m mixing metaphors like crazy. More guilt drips from my forehead…

  • JJ
    I fell into writing long before I knew there “rules” for this kind of thing so I don’t think I felt the guilt until comparatively late, when I started to fear that a lack of productivity or success might be the fault of my writing habits. The sensation passed because, as I said, I’ve always approached writing as something that emerges from an inner impulse. That’s not to say I don’t have a pretty hefty work ethic: I do. But the rules I follow are designed by me based on my current project and what else is going on in my life.

    As to whether blogging and networking “count” I would of course not worry about what “counts” (for whom? according to what?), though I would say ultimately that if you are talking about writing fiction then that’s the only kind of writing that matters. You can learn verbal fluency and such from other kinds of writing, but I don’t think blogging etc. seriously advances your current novel in progress. Just my 2 cents, of course.