If you want to be a writer you need to write every day. That’s the advice you’ll hear again and again from authors in all genres and at all stages of their careers. While I’m not about to disagree with far more experienced and successful writers than myself, I do want to address what it means if you simply can’t do it.
Daily writing is the target to aim for, absolutely, but the practical reality is often very different. To misquote Ian Malcolm, life gets in the way. My concern is that this is often presented as a black-and-white, unbreakable rule, the implication being that if you’re not writing every day then you’re not a real writer.
I talked to writer Tim Clare about this on the Writers’ Centre Norwich podcast earlier in the year:
Chasing after that pure ideal of monkish dedication to the craft is admirable in some ways but it introduces a pressure which can easily lead to a sense of failure and resignation, especially for new writers who have barely begun their writing journey.
What’s being expressed by the “write every day!” mantra is the importance of developing a writing habit. Writing consistently is crucial if you’re going to progress as a writer. The frequency of that writing has a certain flex, though – whether you’re writing daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly doesn’t matter as long as you maintain it.
The benefits of not writing every day
An unexplored advantage of writing on a less frequent schedule is the extra time it affords you to develop and explore your themes. Writing every day forces the word count along but it also means you’re laying the tracks just in front of the train and you never have time to consider where you’re going.
As a full time writer, where writing comprises a substantial part of your day, this is fine. You can write for a few hours a day, then spend the rest editing, adjusting the plot, enhancing characters etc. For writers on a more complicated schedule, an hour or two of writing a day is a tiny moment in a day full of family time, day job, cooking, washing, relaxing, exercising and so on. It leaves no space in your brain.
Writing to a less pressured schedule, such as once a week, builds in time for reflection. In-between those writing sessions your brain will still be processing your story and themes will be percolating through your synapses. When you sit down to write the following week, your understanding of the work will have dramatically increased. Many of my best ideas come in-between writing sessions, subtly shifting the direction of the writing, so having that breathing space is essential to the quality of my stories.
Writing is incredibly difficult. When you’re just starting out, trying to commit to a daily schedule adds an additional element of stress which can be counter-productive. You can spend more time worrying about how you’re going to force some writing into your day than focusing on the quality of the writing itself. Writing is a muscle which needs to be exercised, sure, but it’s not the same as going to the gym, where you can put on some music, switch off for an hour and let your body do the work. Writing is an activity which requires complete concentration and active participation.
The other side to this argument is the impact that writing can have on those around you. Even if you manage to write every day, be cognisant of how it affects your friends and family. If you’re skimping on childcare duties because you’re disappearing to write 500 words, then something’s gone wrong. That imbalance will generate stress which will eventually lead to distraction and the collapse of either your writing habit or your family.
The idea that writing comes before everything, including relationships, is irresponsible. If your writing career is going to work, it has to fit into your life, not bludgeon it into submission.
If you commit to daily writing and then don’t achieve it, it can produce a spiralling failure loop which has nothing to do with the quality of your work.
Minimum viable product
Don’t try and be the perfect writer right out of the gate. It’s going to take a while to get up to full speed. Try to run too fast at the beginning and you’ll likely stumble and fall.
Instead, find a routine which fits naturally into your lifestyle. Figure out how much time you can afford your writing without sabotaging your home life or work life, and start there. You might need to shuffle things around and reduce time spent on non-productive activities, but keep your ambitions small and achievable.
Once you’ve nailed that routine – whatever it happens to be – you can then start to ramp it up, increasing the frequency of your writing as you become more comfortable with your skills. Daily writing can still be the end goal and you’re more likely to get there if you scale up over time.
How I write
I was a dabbling writer for many years. I’d have bursts of enthusiasm an activity, where I’d write every day for a month or two. But then life would get in the way – I’d get ill, or go on holiday, or be busy at work, or think of a new idea – and I’d get distracted. Months would go by without me writing at all.
It clearly wasn’t working.
Then I switched to a weekly writing schedule. Once a week, on a specified day, I would write at least 1,200 words. It wasn’t a huge commitment but it was entirely doable. I kept to the schedule, consistently, and over the course of a year and a half wrote a book.
The creation of A Day of Faces wasn’t fast but it was consistent. For the first time, I started and finished a complete book, never missing a weekly writing session. The book went on to win an award, positive reviews and has had over 140,000 reads over on Wattpad. None of that would have happened if I’d tried to force myself into a faster writing habit and had burned out halfway through.
I’m now writing more than one day a week, though I haven’t quite cracked the daily target yet. I’m entirely comfortable with that,. My writing habit is strong and assured and I know that I’m making progress on my novel every week.
The critical thing is to judge yourself by your work, rather than trying to measure up against other writers who will inevitably be in very different situations. I might not be the fastest writer but I’m still a writer.