They say the more you practice, the better you’ll get. But what does that actually look like?
The reason this question is so hard to answer is that every single writer has different goals, routines, strengths, weaknesses, barriers, and so on.
Some people can write every day, and significantly benefit from that. Some do all their writing on the weekends and they’re happy with that choice.
While I understand those who start out writing “when they feel like writing” — when inspiration “hits,” for example — this isn’t a good strategy if you really want to get serious about taking your writing somewhere. Consistency is the only way to make steady progress toward an end point, and if you don’t schedule out time specifically for Making Writing Happen, you’re going to start wondering why you haven’t accomplished anything yet. It’s because — and this is my no-nonsense self talking — you’re not trying!
TO BE CLEAR, YOU DO NOT — NOT!! — HAVE TO WRITE EVERY DAY TO BE SUCCESSFUL OR TO EARN THE TITLE OF “WRITER.”
The only reason I recommend daily word count goals for beginners is so they get into the habit of Making Writing Happen and figure out when they can and can’t fit writing into their schedule. This is the extreme, and most people can’t daily write, and that is fine. Please don’t overwork yourself or get discouraged if this isn’t your “thing.”
It’s tough to measure writing progress by hours spent working. Just because you sat at your laptop for three hours last night with your draft open doesn’t mean you actually wrote for three full hours. We stop to think, we get distracted, we get hungry. Our 45-pound dogs attempt to jump up onto our desks so they can show us the awesome toy we provided to distract them earlier, as if we’ve never seen it before. (GET YOUR PAWS OFF MY KEYBOARD YOU FUZZY DEMON.)
I prefer to measure writing progress by word count. For me, the first 250 to 300 words are always kind of “eh.” And the rest gets progressively better as I keep typing. So if I stop at 500 words, I know I’ve at least made an attempt at something. If I write 2,000 words, I know I’ve gotten down plenty I can work with later, and that tells me I’ve put in the time I needed to for the day.
You don’t have to do it that way. You can block out a few hours a few nights a week and be proud of whatever you get written in that time. But the key to practice time is actually to, you know, practice. It’s kind of like when I was in middle school and my mom would tell me I needed to practice the piano for 20 minutes before dinner. I spent as much of that time slowly getting out my song book, positioning it just right, finding the perfect song, doing scales … there’s a reason I stopped playing after high school. Anyway.
To get better at writing, you have to write. And if you’re blocking out the time, but not taking full advantage of it, that’s not helping anyone. Measure progress however you want, but make sure it’s quality progress.
Will practicing more often improve your writing skills faster? That’s debatable. Let’s be careful not to generalize a writer’s timeline by saying things like, “If you write for five hours every day, you’ll have a book published within two years!” That’s not really how this works.
Instead, I’m going to offer some suggestions for how you might go about learning how much writing you need to do in a week to make stready progress toward whatever your ultimate writing goals are.
Start with a tiny, daily goal and stick with it for two weeks. I personally recommend starting small and working your way up to a large goal slowly. Yes — even “practice time” should have a milestone. While your overall goal might be to finish the first draft of a book, for example, you can’t just write 100,000 words in a few weeks and call yourself a “master.” It could be as small as 250 words. It could be 500, or 750, or 1,000. Pick a number that seems like it will be easy to reach. Don’t worry — you’ll get around to challenging yourself. Just not yet.
Keep track of when you’re in the best state to practice. I am the most productive writing-wise after I’ve had my second cup of coffee and my puppy is taking her morning snooze. I’m awake, I’m caffeinated, I’m usually not totally stressed out yet, and I’m excited to get going. This is not how I feel 12 hours later. At that point, I’m tired, I’m distracted, and I’m not completely focused on what I’m writing. I am not a night writer, even when I’m just writing for myself (not for a client or anyone who’s going to read my words in the state they’re in). If my schedule determines I need to write at night, I will make it work. But I won’t know that until I try practicing at different times of the day.
Decide if your goal needs to change. After two weeks of keeping the same goal (whether it’s 500 words or 90 minutes, for example), try increasing it. Try writing 1,000 words every day, or write for three hours instead of an hour and a half. Can you do it? Is it challenging, but fulfilling? Or does it cause too much stress? For many people, writing can only happen within a very small window, and they don’t technically get much done. But they still do it, and take very small steps toward their goal — and they keep doing that until they reach it, no matter how long it takes. It’s all about what works for you and what you can handle.
Don’t worry about how fast you go. I used to launch myself into a panic because I thought I would be considered a failure if I didn’t publish a book by the time I was 22. I had some reasons for wanting to hit that deadline, but in reality, I focused way too much on rushing through every writing session to try and make things happen faster. That’s not how writing works! The best writers take their time. They don’t worry about how long it’s taking to write their book, they just keep chipping away at it as often as they can. Never measure your progress by someone else’s timeline. Your journey is your own, and you need to OWN it. It doesn’t matter if it takes you 10 years to write your first book. It just better be a really good book! (I’m kidding.)
How much writing practice do you need? As much as it takes. In the end, it’s really not about hours spent or words written. It’s about what you’re learning, whether or not you’re satisfied with the work you’re doing, and how it impacts your mission as a human being.
Practice makes better. Keep practicing, as much as you can. It never stops. Even professionals still practice. Write terribly. Write well. Most importantly, never stop writing.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.