The Myth of Writing Every Day
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
You would think the endless lockdowns and the shorter days of winter would mean silly sausages like me would have more time for reading, writing, editing, and generally sitting in the dark mulling over the beautiful words of my favourite authors as well as investing some much needed time in my own work.
But you'd be wrong, dear reader.
Call it brain-fog, pandemic fatigue, or just a fundamental inability to focus. I haven't been able to settle into reading new novels at all lately (as you can tell from the complete lack of reviews on the site over the last three months). Since November last year, I've tried to start five different books and have had to park them all. I'm sure I'm not alone, and it's nothing to do with the quality of the stories or the writing, but my wobbly attention span simply wasn't up to the task of giving other people's words the spotlight they deserved.
So it got me thinking, if I'm struggling this much to read, then surely it'll be even more challenging to write, especially under the myth that, to be a "successful author" (answers on a postcard for that one), then one should endeavour to write every day.
On the face of it, this makes sense. If you want writing to be your profession, then it's a job you should do each day in which you should want to improve your skills as much as possible. In that case, you need to practice regularly, practically pouring the same hours and rigour into writing as you would learning to play an instrument, or to code, or weld. The more you do it, the better you get. It all stands to reason.
At least that's the theory. Wanna be a writer? Write every day. Actual writing. Tap-tap-tap.
Or else you lose.
"But JP, you un-sheered sheep of woolly inspiration," I hear you say, "If you can't even bloody read every day, what chance has anyone got of writing every day? Especially in the middle of this horrific, global septic tank of despair we all find ourselves swimming in? Surely trying to churn out words ad nauseum is a sure-fire route to madness, dejection, and failure, you daft little Irish man."
And to that, I'd say, "You could have made the same point without bringing Ireland into this, you prickly git."
But if we stay on topic, I've found to my own surprise over the last three months that the idea of writing every day isn't the impossible feat I once thought it to be. In fact, I've come to believe the opposite. You can write every day, quite happily exercising all sorts of brain muscles and staving off that inexorable gremlin that twists the anxiety knobs at the back of every writer's brain, so long as you are kind to yourself on two fronts:
The length of time that qualifies as a "writing session"
The definition of "writing" itself
You might read those two points and think, "Come on JP, that's cheating, and you know it."
To which I say, "I don't make the rules, sunshine, and neither do you. In fact, nobody knows who made the rules. So bugger them."
The Writing Session
You'll probably know this already, but a writing session can range from a 20-hour marathon of creation spilling itself onto the page, as if the word-fairies themselves slipped some sort of performance-enhancing drug into your coffee and sent you on your merry way, to a simple 5-10 minute spell cranking out a few ideas, lines, or even random snippets of dialogue you're desperate not to forget.
For any of you masochistic souls that have subjected yourselves to the joys of the annual NaNoWriMo contest (that's National Novel Writing Month for the muggles) where writers are encouraged to squeeze a minimum of 50,000 words from their creative fruits within the short month of November, you'll know this process is akin to a Skesis strapping you to a chair and using the Dark Crystal to suck out the essence of your soul for reasons you don't fully understand, but it's started now, and you absolutely can't stop it (and if this reference is obscure to you, I must say, I have some concerns about your credentials, my good person).
To survive NaNoWriMo, there are often writer support groups where small teams of masochists challenge one another to short writing sprints. Nothing too damaging (at first), just 10 minutes here, 15 mins there, until they've hit their 1600 word target for the day (or their best offer).
The point is, this experience taught me a valuable lesson. If I wrote for 15 minutes, and even if my output was a steaming bag of piss, I still wrote today. I still made a little progress. Maintained a little momentum. I wrote. It counts.
You can write every day, and maybe not even touch a total of 90 mins worth of writing that week. But you'd still have written where you can and as well as you can. So don't be too unkind to yourself, dear reader. "A little" is infinitely more than "nothing".
Now onto the fun bit...
The Definition of Writing
I'm not going to mess around here - there isn't one. No, there isn't.
I don't make the rules, and neither do you.
The biggest lesson I've taken from the process I've endured over the last three months of finishing and polishing an existing WIP before outlining my next book is that variety is the spice of life. More importantly, variety is the spice of creativity, and staves off burnout like a Margherita on a white, sandy beach (remember beaches?).
Whether you're a poet, short-story curator, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, columnist, noodler, fan-ficker and anything else involving words and a page... I don't think your brain is built to simply put words to paper or a screen continuously, every day, whether you pansted it, plotted it, or something-in-betweened it.
I believe a creative mind needs a variety of exercise to stay healthy and unstrained. If that's true, it stands to reason that the notion of forging ahead with your story on paper and breaking ground constantly isn't something that can be done for too long without a pallet-cleanser. This sort of writing every day will for many lead to more frustration, crappier output, and more desperate time spent in editing and rewrites than you'd like. Or worse, it could cause talented writers, like you, to give up before your piece is finished altogether.
So my point is, in the long run, constant tap-tap-tap writing is terrible for you. But I'm here to argue it isn't the only option available on the menu to fulfil that "every day" ambition. In fact, below is a handy list of arguments that other types of writing exist which you could be doing instead, in this blogger's humble opinion.
The Writing sort of writing: We've talked about this one already. This is the one where you're adding new stuff to your project and splashing brand new words on a page. But without variety, this form of writing can be the end of even the most steadfast of "writing every day" enthusiasts.
The Outline sort of writing: There are a fair few of you pantsers that will hiss at this one like an Irishman hisses at the last orders bell, but would you believe working on an outline counts as writing? Coming up with chapter summaries? That's writing. Organising your plot structure? That's writing too. Mapping out character arcs and critical events? Writing. Not only that, but this sort of work exercises a different kind of thinky muscle than the previous kind of writing and lets you flex your big picture biceps instead. And it all counts.
The Notebook, Voice memo, Lore-building sort of writing: Ever find yourself doing another job and suddenly a pleasant little dialogue exchange for a new scene pops into your head? Ever record a quick voice memo idea for your project or jot it down on paper for later? Ever come up with a cool character name, a bit of backstory, or word for a fictional language and stick it on a post-it note? Guess what, sunshine. You've just done some writing. Anything that adds depth, content, or context to your project: that's writing.
The Thinky-pain sort of writing: Bit abstract, this one. Stay with me. Ever get stuck in a project? Have you ever had to go away and think about a plot hole, a character's voice, or a line that just isn't working? And then you solve it in your head? Well done, you just did some thinky sort of writing.
The Editing sort of writing: Now this is one that even I had trouble getting my head around. I was once of the school that editing and writing are forever separate things, like baked beans and pizza, or the Gallagher brothers, and should never be considered part of the same being ever again. The argument being that writing is a strictly creative process, fresh and full of possibilities. In contrast, editing is academic, corrective, and critical. And while these things are true, editing can also involve complete rewrites, new sections or chapters, restructure of plot and story, removal of characters, adjustment of tense and POV, choosing better words, improving clarity and consistency, and basically making your project a more robust version of itself. If we're going to count outlines, notes, and even thought itself as part of writing, then I guess the polish job should be in there too, even if in your own head, they're not the same thing. Suppose you can't bring yourself to write something new, due to exhaustion or brain fog. In that case, I bet you can still run a spell-check, or throw a section into Grammarly or ProwritingAid, or do a quick proofread of a finished chapter. It all counts. It's all in service of writing.
And now, ironically, I'm a little burnt out from all this writing about writing every day. And to be honest, I'm 10,000 words into my new book, and it needs some words today.
But perhaps I'll take my own advice. Instead of staring in horror at the screen, the cursor flashing me provocatively, daring me to produce something worthwhile, I'll do a quick spell-check, or noodle out a voice-memo, or have a glance at my outline and tweak things here or there.
And in doing so I will have fulfilled my writing for today. And tonight, I shall drink my reward.
There are many ways to beat a project into shape, to make progress and crack those stubborn plotty nuts and character shells. So give your brain a break from the writing sort of writing and exercise those other muscles if you need to. And if someone tries to tell you, "No, that's not writing. That's the wrong sort of writing. It doesn't count!", ask yourself first on all, "Oh... who's this healthy person?" before remembering that you can ignore them, because they didn't write the rules and probably don't know who did.
So, good luck to the rest of you on your journeys, dear reader, and don't be too hard on yourself.
May the words forever be in your favour.