I know we’ve been talking a lot about the “daily writing myth” on here lately. But I’ve been thinking a lot about habits in my quest to try forming some better ones, and the more I interact with others trying to better themselves, the more I realize how twisted some people’s views of habit-forming are — even if it’s no fault of their own.
Habits require consistent, long-term commitment. They either seek to correct something we wish to change or implement something we wish to experience or have.
The idea of writing every day to get better at writing is an exaggeration of the idea that spending more time with your craft will produce greater results. The idea itself is true. But the execution isn’t necessarily on point.
No, you don’t have to write every single day to succeed. You can, and many people do — and many of these same people find it beneficial for them personally.
But getting into the habit of writing consistently as a way to maintain a deep focus on your craft doesn’t mean you have to actually sit down and type words out onto a keyboard on a daily basis. Yes, you still must write often, and you must learn to make and stick to schedules and routines.
More important than daily writing, however, is doing something every day that improves your creativity, keeps your motivation above water, and forces you to constantly remind yourself not to give up too easily. Let me explain.
I recently started learning the violin. If you follow me anywhere online, you know this already, and you’re probably tired of hearing me talk about it. But it’s relevant to our topic today, so calm down — give me a minute.
Playing the violin for 15 to 30 minutes every day is, quite honestly, exhausting. It’s exciting, but there’s just something about the process of taking it out of its case, making sure the strings are tuned, and repeating the same partial scales (I only know some of the notes — it’s slow progress) that makes your brain just … shut down.
Whereas playing an instrument makes measuring progress a little easier — you can hear yourself improve, can feel yourself play through the same songs making fewer mistakes each time — measuring writing progress is extremely difficult and discouraging. You don’t know if your words “sound” any better today than they did yesterday. You can’t always tell just by reading it back.
So there are always going to be days you sit down and think, “I don’t know if I’m doing this right and it makes me not want to even try doing it at all.”
But the moment you step away from your work, that barrier to entry finds some of its strength again. It’s going to be harder to come back to it the next day — not because you’re somehow “worse” at writing, but because your brain has begun to recognize that if writing is challenging, you have the option to walk away. And it’s not easily going to forget that.
THIS, my friends, is exactly where the “daily writing myth” comes from. When we talk about habit-forming, we do so with the intention of encouraging yourself not to just say, “Eh, maybe tomorrow.” Daily habit trackers force you to ask yourself, “Did I practice today? Did I write? Did I do the work? Why? Why not?”
And this isn’t a bad thing … unless writing every day just isn’t something you are physically or mentally capable of. Or something you don’t WANT to be capable of.
Writing is hard. It’s extremely draining, and therefore, breaks are absolutely essential. But every time you decide to take a day off of writing, you really do risk raising that barrier a little bit again. I didn’t do it yesterday, so what’s one more day without it?
And here lies my theory, my practical suggestion: Don’t write every day. Don’t plan on writing every day, don’t set yourself up for disappointment or risk making it harder for yourself than it needs to be. Plan days off, at least one per week if possible, if not more.
But don’t take a day off from creative expression — and don’t lose your focus.
Back to my violin, for a moment, to demonstrate my point.
Doing something every day is hard. But regular practice is, still, essential.
So I committed to, at the very least, picking up my violin on a daily basis. Untucking it from its case, tuning its strings, listening to its gentle hum. Even if I didn’t pick up my bow and play, even if all I did was hold it, I made it a daily habit to spend time with it. Not because holding a violin magically teaches you how to play it better, but because staying in that mindset — this is my instrument, I care about this practice, I still want this even though it’s hard — is absolutely essential to ensure you keep coming back.
On days I don’t physically play my violin, I review my online lessons, reread passages from Violin for Dummies — sometimes I even give myself permission to “write” melodies in my head, sometimes recording them on my phone so I don’t forget. I don’t play them. I’m just messing around. But in all this, my mind is in the same place — I still want to get better at this, even on days I’m giving it a rest.
Writing should work the same way. Online classes, books, blog posts offering writing advice to the masses — in themselves, they won’t make you write better. But on days off, it still counts as progressive self-improvement. You are using supplementary material, in addition to your regular physical practice, to keep your mind on your prize.
- Reread what you’ve previously written, without the pressure of having to write (yet). Spend time with your “instrument.”
- Read books and consume other media materials that inspire you to continue working toward your goals.
- Mess around. Write nonsense. Write whatever, just for fun.
- Do other creative things that force you to think without forcing you to write, if you don’t want to.
- Review your goals — physically write out and read them out loud. Remind yourself what your target is and remind yourself why you’re doing all this.
Every day, do something that makes you want to write more, even if it’s not in your plan today. Sometimes when we spend time with our words and our ambitions and remain honest with ourselves, we stop feeling that pressure that so often holds us back. And that’s when we end up producing our best work — when it stops mattering if it’s “perfect” and seeks only to make us feel whole.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.