Quick-Tip Tuesday: Realistic Expectations (and a Little Math)

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David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonIn my last post a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about writing on a daily basis. I basically said that while no one should tell you that you have to do this in order to be successful, writing every day, despite life’s intrusions, is what professionals do. It is also the best way to build skills. For reasons I’ll get into soon, I hate the phrase “practice makes perfect.” But practice certainly does make proficient.

Still, while I recommend writing each day, that’s only half the story. No matter how often we write, or for how long, we need to set realistic expectations for ourselves. Because if we write every day, but we expect too much out of those writing sessions, we can do more damage than good.

I’ve said this before and I will continue to say it until people stop listening (you are listening, right?): writing is hard. The writing itself — plotting, character work, pacing, prose, etc. — is all difficult enough. But then we have the emotional challenges: working in isolation, dealing with impostor syndrome, enduring rejections and setbacks and those days when we can’t seem to find the right word for anything. It’s hard.

And nothing makes it more difficult than when we let ourselves down. It would be great if every one of us could write three thousand words a day, seven days a week, and thus finish a book in a month or so. I know I can’t, though, and I doubt that many of you can. That’s okay. It’s only a problem if we expect ourselves to do something that lies beyond our capabilities.

Let me go back to an analogy I used in my last post: We wouldn’t start an exercise regimen by expecting ourselves to run ten miles right off the bat. I don’t know about you, but that would kill me. Instead, we start out with more modest expectations and build up to those bigger goals. In the same way, if you have never written more than a few hundred words in a day, you probably shouldn’t start a new project and suddenly expect yourself to write 2,000. You’d be setting yourself up for failure, and that’s a surefire way to break your own spirit. Discouragement and disappointment are the enemies of success. The writing profession throws plenty of trials our way; we shouldn’t pile on with unrealistic goals that we can’t possibly meet.

And the great thing about making writing a part of your regular routine is that you don’t have to set unreachable goals in order to accomplish great things. (Here’s the math part.) Say your pace is more along the lines of 500 words per day. That’s two manuscript pages. A good book length for today’s market is about 100,000 words, or 400 pages. So in 200 days, or about ten months, writing five days a week, you’ll have a book written. Pretty cool. If you can write a little faster than that, you can cut the time. But the point is you don’t have to be fast to be productive.

The other thing to remember is that even if you write all the time, and even if you hone your craft for twenty years, as I have, you’re not going to churn out a perfect manuscript. This is what I meant before: In writing, practice doesn’t make perfect. Nothing does. We are human, and, as I’ve said in the past, writing is the most human of endeavors. There is no perfection. Every manuscript needs editing and revision. Every writer can get better. I know I can, and I promise you I’ve never written a perfect manuscript.

Recognizing the flaws in our own work is not a sign that our work is in some way inadequate. Rather, it means that we’re learning to edit ourselves, which is a really good thing.

I didn’t mean to suggest two weeks ago that writing every day was some sort of panacea, nor did I mean to suggest that writing regularly should be an end in and of itself. By all means, set word count goals. But keep them reasonable, and set them on a weekly basis, so that if you have one bad session you can make up for it the next day. Regard your work with a critical eye, but don’t beat yourself up too much; you’re still learning this craft. We all are.

Writing needs to be a habit. But we need to approach it with realistic expectations for how and what we write. This business is challenging enough without us making it harder on ourselves.

Keep writing!

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