To write every day or to not write every day — what’s the “right” thing to do?
I still see this question and debate floating around in writing circles all the time. It breaks my heart when genuinely curious people are told that writing every day determines how successful you will be. While it’s true that forming habits is important, there is no rule that says a habit has to be completed daily in order to make a difference in your life.
It’s true — you do not have to write every day to be a successful writer. But don’t take this advice to mean you should settle for writing whenever it’s convenient or whenever you “feel like it.” If you want to take your writing more seriously, you’re going to need a little bit more structure than this. Just a little.
Why does structure matter? It doesn’t if writing is just something you do casually and don’t have any interest in setting goals. But I automatically have to assume you clicked on this post/found this blog because you have ideas and are serious about wanting to put them into words. If I’m wrong, enlighten me.
Simply put, structure creates a healthy and sustainable environment for productivity. Structure prevents you from “just winging it and hoping for the best” and can even give you some reassurance when it comes to your writing progress.
Writing every day isn’t necessary, not even remotely so. But here’s how you can still set writing goals and make it possible to achieve them even if you can’t or don’t want to write daily.
Start by setting a weekly goal — and make it small. Hank Green said in a video a while back that he does not maintain a writing schedule, which makes sense, because it’s nearly impossible to maintain a writing schedule when you have a small child, let alone a major company specializing in online content where things can and do go wrong at a moment’s notice.
But even though Green doesn’t have a set schedule — some people do, but for others it’s just not feasible and/or it doesn’t work for them — he does aim to write 1,000 words of his book, minimum, each week. It’s clearly a strategy that has worked for him so far, having published a bestseller and all.
The point is: He got the first draft done, and then started another book, and then had to go back and revise/edit his first book because oh darn someone wanted to publish it! Despite his busy life and not being able to sit down and write at the same time every day, he set one small goal for the entire week and made it work. I don’t know anything about your life, but I can pretty much guarantee you’re not as busy as Hank Green, and if he can do it, you can do it.
If you don’t write every day, that’s fine. You’re not any less of a writer because you don’t yank words out of your brain and slap them onto paper on a daily basis (does writing ever feel like that to you? No? Just me?). Anyone who says you’re not a real writer for not writing daily isn’t worth listening to. It works for some people, but not for most people, I’ve heard.
But do have some kind of weekly goal — it doesn’t have to be a word count goal, not everyone is motivated by word count. You could count pages or chapters or minutes, though I do often recommend not judging by hours spent writing because not every minute in front of your laptop counts as active writing time. But if it works for you, go for it.
I suggest weekly goals because setting a monthly goal seems too risky to me. I am a chronic procrastinator and if I only set a monthly writing goal I would be doing all of that writing on the last day of the month and let’s be honest it would probably kill me.
You don’t want to wait too long between writing sessions because you run the risk of completely losing your immersion in a story, topic, or style. Many people begin to lose interest in their writing projects the longer they stay away from them. Try not to let that happen to you.
As for what your weekly goal should be, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s achievable. If you’re just starting to set goals like this, make it reachable, but don’t force yourself to stretch too much. There will be a time for expanding your creative comfort zone but it doesn’t have to happen right now. Just focus on that weekly goal, and if you can, try not to wait until Saturday night to start working on it … writing should be mostly enjoyable, not full-on painful.
Give yourself a hard deadline. Hard as in set in stone, not hard as in challenging, though there’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself a little bit in this regard.
Writers employed by clients and organizations operate based on deadlines. By the end of the day or week, they know exactly what they need to have completed and they typically structure their workflows in such a way that they can get their work done on time, if not ahead of schedule, while maintaining its quality.
Why can’t writers who are doing all this on their own follow the same practice? It turns out they can.
I get it, some people don’t like deadlines or structure. They want to feel “free” while writing and do it however and whenever they want. Deadlines, when you’re writing on your own time? What’s the point?
The point is, of course, that you don’t technically have to follow any of the advice you read on the internet. But if you are serious about your writing and you have specific career goals in mind, there is a time and a place for writing “when you feel like it,” and real talk, it’s usually never.
Do I write for fun? All the time! But there are also specific writing projects, like this blog, that I can’t just ignore when I don’t “feel like” writing. There has to be a balance. I want this blog to grow, to do that I must write. I’m also writing a book and don’t work on it every day and that’s fine, it’s not my priority.
Deadlines can and will change your writing life for the better. Let’s say you are writing a book and want to get it published, and it is a priority that you really want to focus on. Instead of just saying, “Maybe I’ll work on my book tonight and I’ll have it done by the end of the year,” aim to have a first draft done by November 1. A hard deadline. Something to work toward, regardless of how slowly you might inch toward it.
Don’t worry about whether or not you’ll stick to it — yet. Don’t worry about carefully planning out every writing session leading up to that deadline to make sure it gets done, unless that’s how you normally work and you prefer to do it that way.
For now, just focus on setting the deadline and generally figuring out how you’re going to get there. Do you need to record new episodes of Chopped on Tuesday nights until you’ve met your goal? Do you need to wake up 30 minutes earlier or go to bed 30 minutes later (or both) to give yourself a little more time? Are there certain things you can put on hold in order to easier prioritize your deadline?
The greatest benefit to doing this is that you’re automatically training yourself to take deadlines more seriously. If you ever do get a writing job or assignment or you’re publishing a book and someone is waiting on you for revisions, you need to be able to adhere to deadlines. Always. In the professional world — yes, even publishing — deadlines do matter. Take them seriously. Start now.
Know your creative barriers. When you experience “writer’s block” do you know what’s causing it? Many aspiring writers run into problems when they realize they’re having a hard time writing because their only response to “I’m having writer’s block” is, “Well, this means I can’t write today I guess. Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.” Do they try again tomorrow? Sometimes. But they often don’t.
When there’s a problem, you can’t just acknowledge that there is a problem and let it stand in your way. Well, okay, technically you CAN. But it’s not going to help you accomplish anything. And I’d hope that’s why you’re here. To learn how to accomplish something.
In those moments you consider writing or even try to write but don’t or can’t, it helps to do your best to understand why. I call these reasons for feeling stuck “creative barriers.” Barriers to creativity are the things that prevent you from doing the writing you want or have to do. And they’re usually purely psychological, such as experiencing self-doubt and being convinced your writing isn’t good enough. Feeling too tired to write isn’t writer’s block, it’s just you, a human, feeling tired.
The hardest creative barrier I’ve ever had to overcome was stress. When I feel stressed and overwhelmed, writing is extremely difficult. It’s pretty much a guarantee that I will not meet my writing goals on a high-stress day. So I now schedule my writing sessions based on when I know I’m going to experience more stress (a heavy workload at my job, for example) and when I’m most likely to experience little to no stress at all.
Be honest with yourself and admit the things that are standing in your way. Maybe your current problem is that you want to write but you’re too preoccupied with something else you can’t get off your mind. This should tell you that before you write, you should do your best to unload your mental baggage. Clear your head. For you, this is a necessary pre-writing activity.
Making yourself aware of your barriers is the first step to overcoming them. But even once you get over the initial hurdle and start actively trying to write for real, sometimes an extra kick of motivation doesn’t hurt.
Establish a reward system to keep you motivated. I am a completionist — the best way to describe this is that when I play a video game, I can’t finish it until I have completed 100 percent of the missions even if I complete the story. For me, the same mindset applies to writing. I want to get to 100 percent — whatever that means depending on the project.
So at the beginning of this year, I made myself a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet not only tracks my word count, but is set up to tell me how much of each weekly, monthly, and year-long goal I have completed. The other day I hit 100 percent on my June goal and this motivated me to continue writing.
This is the method that works for me. I need to be able to visualize progress toward a finish line and this is how I do it. Maybe you’re not motivated by word counts or percentages — there is nothing wrong with that. But some kind of reward system might help keep you motivated even on days you would rather skip your writing obligations for something else.
Psychologically, we need to feel rewarded, and that’s how we come to associate both positive and negative behaviors with pleasure. At this point in time coffee likely has little to no physical effect on me, but when I drink it, my brain recognizes that when I do this I feel energized, and so that is how I feel.
What should your reward system look like? That depends on what motivates you to follow through on a task. It could be as simple as being able to check something off of a to-do list or putting a sticker or mark on your calendar each day you write. And if you need a tangible reward for achieving these small bursts of adrenaline, keep your weekly goal in mind. When you complete it, have a pre-established plan for how you are going to celebrate. Don’t punish yourself for not meeting your goal — reward yourself with something awesome when you complete it.
Do you have to write every day to succeed in writing? Nope! But you do actually have to do work in order to succeed, and sometimes this means adding some structure to your life. It might seem scary or undesirable at first, but it might benefit you professionally in the long-term. You never know.
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.