The ‘Write Every Day’ Rule Is a Trap
Don’t underestimate the value of thinking
If your goal is to write an encyclopedia before you die, then maybe you should write every day. But creative writing isn’t about mass production, and imposing an assembly line type of discipline on it can be counterproductive.
Writers come in all shapes and sizes. So do their lives, and so do their processes.
Get Real About Your Life
Some writers are free to fully immerse themselves in creative work without many other responsibilities. Others have a day job — or two. Some have small children to mind, or elderly or disabled family members to care for. Some have people in their lives who need their counsel or companionship. Some choose to participate in volunteer activities, or to engage in political or social activism.
All writers should spend some time tending to their own mental and physical health. Thinking is essential to writing. Sometimes you need to lie in the hammock and listen to the wind chimes. You might want to water your roses, go for a bike ride, or walk around the block. Maybe there’s a day when you’d rather scrub 20 years of tarnish off your antique silver than write. It’s Ok. Go for it.
Real-world experiences enrich a writer’s life in and fuel creativity. But having them takes time. There may be days when you can barely hold the pieces together and get a solid four hours of sleep. The last thought running through your exhausted mind should not be, “I’ll never succeed. I didn’t write today.”
Be Creative About Your Process
There was a time when I was so overwhelmed with responsibilities that writing every day was about as realistic as climbing a mountain every day. I believed that my creative life was over, and all I could do was mourn the loss. Then someone challenged me to find one hour a week to write something — anything.
That was how I began what eventually became a 500-plus page novel. After a few weeks, I determined to find more minutes and hours.
My job at the time required a 50-mile commute each way. I had to be at my desk at 7am, and I often stayed there until 5 or 6pm. I won’t go into what awaited me when I finally got home, except to say it amounted to another daunting job.
I decided to create more writing time by taking the train to work. It meant getting up even earlier, driving a few miles to the station, riding for about an hour, and then driving the car I’d left overnight at the other station another 20 minutes to work. It cost me precious sleep and extended my commute — and both cars were vandalized in the station lots — but it gave me two solid hours a day to write.
In that way, I managed to complete a draft of my book. Still, even though I was focused and determined, I didn’t write every day. On some of those train rides I slept.
Find Your Rhythm
If you’re a writer like me, there will be times when nothing can stop you. You’ll ride the current of your creative energy like you’re shooting the rapids. When the rush subsides you may feel the way Thomas Wolfe did when he famously strolled down the streets of New York City crowing, “I wrote ten thousand words today!”
Unless you’re channeling a mystical inner genius (or perhaps madman), that’s not likely to happen with regularity. If you push yourself to write every day no matter what, you might end up fulfilling a less-famous Wolfe quotation, becoming a writer who “wads up three-hundred thousand words or so, hurls it at a blank page, puts covers on it and says, ‘Here’s my book!’” (For more about Wolfe, see Anne Trubek’s excellent article, “Fading From View.”)
Every writer works differently, and most serious writers develop a process that’s flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances.
You won’t accomplish your writing goals without discipline, but if you adopt an arbitrary rule, you may feel guilty, frustrated and defeated by what you’re not doing instead of growing in your self assurance and your craft. If you’re writing under duress, you may find that you’re generating a lot of words that aren’t very inspired.
Guidelines, Not Rules
Writing shouldn’t be forced labor, but it can’t be something you’ll get around to when the stars align either — not if you really want to publish. First, decide where writing lands on your priority list. If it’s one of the top five things you want to do in your life, make room for it.
Decide how much time you realistically can spend on your writing. Block out that time on your schedule and do your best to stick to it. If it doesn’t work at first, experiment with different time slots until you find your groove.
Choose a writing project that’s compatible with the time you can devote to it. I chose to start work on a novel during my meager one-hour-a-week phase only because I already had an old screenplay to use as a blueprint. If I’d had to start from scratch, a short story or an essay based on a personal experience might have made more sense.
Stick to your plan long enough to let it become a habit. Then look for ways to build out your writing time, or just keep on trucking if you’re happy with your progress.
Keep writing tools handy. Whether it’s a notebook and a pen or an email draft on your phone, have a place to jot down ideas when they occur to you, for fleshing out during your scheduled sessions.
Give yourself “writing” credit for all the tasks you must do to reach your audience. Your marketing hat may not sit as comfortably on your head as your writing hat, so maybe give yourself even more credit for time spent connecting with readers. Giving your work the best chance possible of making a mark in the world will allow you to approach your next writing project with more enthusiasm.
Finally, wherever you are in your career, think of yourself as a writer. It’s not something you want to be — it’s what you are. If you think “I’m a writer” every day, that affirmation alone will be much more valuable than a few limp paragraphs squeezed out before your head hits the pillow each night.
Don’t try to fit into anyone else’s writer mold. Break the rules — or make them up as you go. There’s never just one way.