Well, here it is. Finally. After all these years.
Yes, "write every day" might be the single most useful nugget of distilled wisdom for a writer with the ambition to make money smithing words, and yes, it is shockingly ubiquitous––bordering on universal––among the household names of authors whose careers most want to emulate. (Unsurprisingly it is aggressively denounced most and loudest by a scrum of writers you're far less likely to have ever heard of or read.) It is as close to panacea as writing advice gets for the frustrated careerist who can't seem join the fhqwhgads in taking it to the limit.
But there is nuance, there are caveats, and addendums exist. So here are a few, particularly for those of you who have been salivating for years trying to come up with any reason you can imagine to NOT write every day.
1) Most writers don't actually mean EVERY day.
Rare is the day I write nothing at all, but almost every weekend I limit myself to a couple of hours. We all need time off to recharge our neurotransmitters. Even Stephen King, who put out his latest novel in toto during the time I was writing this article's introduction, suggests that a "Very Serious Writer™" could do six days a week.
"Every day" is metonymy. It's a shorthand for saying "six days a week and maybe an hour on the seventh" or "every day unless you're working 12 hours at the restaurant because that's ridonkulous." Or whatever.
Most writers are talking about the expectation of achieving career caliber results with career caliber effort. You wouldn't expect to be a world famous surgeon if you came in to work a couple of days a month when the spirit moved you. You wouldn't expect to be a professional athlete if you only came to practice twice a week and didn't like being harangued about the days you missed. You wouldn't expect to be in a professional orchestra if you didn't come to rehearsal when you weren't feeling it because it "made it feel like work." But no one expects you to work 70-hour weeks or never ever take a day off. Most writers probably mean a five day work week. Or maybe they mean six days. Or they might mean seven days a week, but not eight hour days. But almost all of them know that humans need to rest to achieve peak performance.
Except Stephen King. That guy's off the hook.
2) Writing every day isn't necessary for most writing bellwethers.
Want to be a writer? Write. Earn your er. There is no set amount of time you have to be writing every day and no one is the arbiter of who gets to be a writer. No one will tap your shoulders with a sword and knight you with legitimacy.
Want to make money? Start small. Write some short stories and start flinging them out at paid venues. Listen to the crit you get back with rejections and don't be too good to make those changes. Might take a few years and it might only be your cell phone bill worth of payment, but eventually something will probably stick.
Want to be published? Easy peasy. Finish your shit. Edit it. (Please for the love of God, edit it.) Publish it through any number of self publishing routes. Hold it up in triumph. You might even sell a few copies if you are willing to market.
Want readers? Start a blog. Do fanfiction. Write thoughtful posts on Facebook or Tumblr about topics that excite you or answer questions on Quora. Gain global readership, probably in only a few months.
Want a book deal? You're in murkier water, but it can still be done, especially if you're not expecting a big five contract for your first novel. There are a lot of traditionally-published authors out there who don't write every day. Maybe they have a day job, only one or two titles on the shelf, and have to promote almost every weekend at local conventions as part of their contract, but they get to sit on panels and hold up their books for the world to see. You'll probably need a few more drafts and some heavier editing, and you might need to break down and work at least a part-time schedule. But it can be done.
Now, if you want to quit your day job or be famous or rich...you might have to think about writing every day (or at least most days), but most things writers say they want out of their writing (readers, money, to make a difference in just ONE reader's life) don't actually require daily writing to achieve.
3) You have to consider your limitations.
Not everyone has the ability to write every day. And it is straight up ableist to fail to recognize those factors, and can be detrimental to one's own health to try to ignore them. Don't make your life worse because some writing advice is trying to be Mickey Goldmill/catch-the-chicken about telling you the One True Way™ to "make it." You've got better things to do with your time....like rearrange your sock drawer.
While the writer so harried that they can't yield up fifteen minutes for a dab at some writing might be rare, not only does it exist, but other limitations do as well. Physical and mental health can prevent the would-be-everyday writer from getting their prose on. That's okay as long as a writer is devastatingly honest about not letting their limitations become their excuses. They may have to manage their expectations and work smarter, but it can be done.
4) Writing every day doesn't necessarily mean writing a lot.
If you want to get a novel published in fewer than thirty years, you probably need to put in some solid hours pumping those words out, but every day doesn't have to be 2500 words or ten pages or eight hours or some other Herculean bellwether that would daunt all but the King (the STEPHEN King). The primary reason I don't like Nanowrimo isn't because it encourages daily writing; it's because 1667 words a day for a month is fucking bananapants outrageous. (And don't think my irony lobe didn't notice that it's some of the exact same people so pissed off that I don't like Nano who are so pissed off I want them to write every day.)
The purpose of writing every day (especially at the same time every day) is to establish a habit of creativity and a routine of writing. There are a lot of imperfect metaphors (inspiration is a habit, a muscle, a Fox who likes roses...), but the brass tacks of this shit is that if you write every day for a while, you'll start generating ideas more easily when it's writing time. The writers beleaguered by writing blocks and inspiration exoduses are most often allowing their "muse" (if you'll permit the conceit) to control them instead of learning how to work the other way around. The reason so much advice is about simply sitting down and getting to work is because when your brain (the slippery jerk it is) knows it can get out of legitimate hard work simply by telling you "Yeah...I'm just not feeling it today, boss," it's shockingly going to not feel like it MOST of the time. When it knows work time is when it gets to work whether it likes it or not, it starts to play nice and work well with...well, YOU.
As little as twenty minutes a day can achieve this routine of creativity. And if you're doing a few hours five or six days a week, you can easily have "placeholder" sessions on the weekend that are only a few minutes of work, just to keep the habit strong.
|Tomorrow we just do a few sit ups, kay?|
Say five hundred?
Write a letter or an email and take an extra minute to think about your word choice. Do a post for Tumblr and give it the ol' razzle-dazzle. Spend an extra ten minutes punching up the language on that thing for work. ("Dearest boss. Forsooth has thy wont of a performance review gained favor in thine heart?" Okay, maybe not that much.) Compose a poignant thought in so few words that you still get to use a Facebook background even though it's hella deep. Write your grocery list as a sex poem to your partner. (Hint: eggs rhymes with legs...just sayin.) Drop a page or two into your journal that no one will ever read. Reply to a comment on another blog with a truly thoughtful reply. Options are limitless for how to do some writing in a given day without necessarily opening up your WIP and pounding out five pages like you are Sasquatch from Animal Mechanicals*.
*Look, I watch TV with a 4-year-old, okay?
You probably don't want to leave something you're working on for too long or it will start to get stale inside your head, but a little bit of time away won't hurt, and may even make the heart grow fonder.
6) Some days are like a jog to stay sharp.
See, that's a simile since it uses "like" or "as"...
In a lot of ways, I was probably fortunate to have been in band for middle school and high school (and later, choir as well). I learned a lot about how to achieve the artistic results one desires and the effort it takes to get from here to there in terms of hours, days, weeks, months, and years of dedicated effort.
Sure, you don't practice every single day. But if you want to be the first chair (which let's face it, the published authors are totally the first chairs of the writing world) you better plan on practicing for most of them. And if you don't practice a little over summer vacation, you actually kind of suck when you get back--you spend all of September just getting your mad skillz to where you were before you left. You can't stop honing the pragmatic skill of writing or you'll actually get worse. You'll go backwards. Your edge will blunt. Your skills will atrophy. Your prose will funktify.
And if you want to be Yo-Yo Ma or play with the (Insert Big City) Philharmonic, you bet your ass you practice a LOT most days, and a little almost every single day of your life. Fortify and stay thirsty, my friends.
However, just like the athlete who does some jogging and cardio during that off-season month when they're not practicing six hours a day, or the musician who plays scales and arpeggios to hang onto their muscle memory when they've got a few days off before the rehearsals kick off for the next show, the day may come where you might not work on some major thing. Maybe you just want to not lose your edge. So maybe you do a half an hour of writing instead of four hours or you just write a few paragraphs instead of five pages.
You're just trying to keep fit. (See, it's a metaphor there since there's no "like" or "as"....)
|You're about to pay serious money to see us because we practice even on the days if feels like work.|
7) There's no reason to do any of this more than you want to.
Doing art should fulfil you. It should bring you, if not overarching joy, at least a sense of catharsis.
If you don't want to write, put down your pen or computer and STOP WRITING. Seriously. That's all you have to do. No one is going to judge you. (If anything, they judge you for trying TO write most of the time.) No one will be disappointed. The rest of this is just you getting defensive that the world will not deem you A Really Real Writer™, and that's fucking crap anyway. Write exactly as much (or as little) as you want to––as brings you joy and fulfillment in this life.
I wrote a whole series of articles about how you really don't have to write. You don't have to BE a writer. You don't have to write for money. And you don't have to write for your day job. You decide your own level of involvement. And if that isn't daily writing, more power to you.
There are more reliable ways to get rich. Faster ways to get famous. Easier ways to have fans. The only reason you should be writing is because you love writing. If you're working hard to find reasons not to write, then just don't worry about it. Go have a great life playing first-person shooters and binge-watching Marvel shows on Netflix. If that's what brings you the real joy why are you mucking around with something that makes you miserable and you'd rather avoid? Most of the working writers around you are treating writing like the highest priority of any given day. One of my partners calls writing my "primary relationship." These writers are looking for the ways to work some wordsmithing in. They're trying to find excuses TO write.
The reason you hear the daily writing advice so often is because it comes immediately after someone, usually in a Q&A, speaks with purple prose about their deep and abiding love for writing and asks "But HOW do I get all these things you have?" of a writer with a career. And these authors they demand the secrets from answer honestly, in the only way they know how. Writers who want to "make it" (usually without having a real sense of what that is for them) want to have writing careers, and then expend an extraordinary amount of effort attempting not to treat writing as if it were a career. If that's not what you want, find your own path and do it just exactly as much as brings you bliss*.
(*Just know that you'll probably be right back in the same place if you get pissed off that you're not a famous novelist in five or ten years.)
8) The "Be a writer" trick.
Okay, here's a trick you can use, but you have to use it sparingly. It's like trying to get in shape but doing a handful of pushups instead of your whole exercise routine. If you do this every day for two months, your triceps might be swol, but the rest of you is going to function about the same. Similarly if you try to "be a writer" instead of actually writing more days than you don't, eventually you're just going to be really good at thinking about writing and not at actually doing it.
But every once in a while...you don't actually have to put ink to paper. You can think about a character or how you would convert a scene into language (consider the specific words you would employ). You can think deeply about your story and ponder. You can BE a writer.
This is not the kind of thinking you do in the movie theater between the trailers. This is deep and profound introspection, and while it isn't as good as a writing session, sometimes that'll do, Donkey. That'll do.
9) Hang the advice, be brutally honest, but always do what works
Imagine if you showed up at the track and everyone who could run as fast and long as you wanted to be able to run gave you the same advice about how to warm up and how to train and that you wanted to do some resistance training. But then there was this group of out-of-shape people who got winded walking half a mile at even a brisk pace, but who had no end of things to say about the THEORY of running versus strolling that went against those runners who were already doing what you wanted to be doing, and happened to be exactly the advice that kept them from ever really working up a sweat (or improving).
Are you following my fantastically-difficult-to-decode metaphor so far?
You should always do whatever works, even if that has you ignoring the can't-fucking-fail advice like Write Every Day™. But you should also be brutally honest with yourself about whether advice doesn't work or you don't WANT it to work.
You're a human. One of your design features is to be able to talk yourself into pretty much anything if you want it badly enough. You WILL lie to yourself to rationalize playing more Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus instead of sitting down to work. And if you aren't ready to deal with your lying little liar self, you'll be totally fooled.
People who don't want to write every day come up with a shitton of reasons that "Write Every Day" is not good or practical advice, but when you check back in on them ten years later, most are still still on that same novel (maybe even the same chapter) and telling you that the published authors don't know what they're talking about.
But, seriously, you do you.
If you work better doing 16-hour weekends, sally forth and tally ho.
If you work better writing every other day, kick ass and take names.
If you work better in sporadic fits and starts, rock out with your....well whatever you have, out.
The only real rule here is can you get away with it?
Though for the sake of that writing career, which perhaps you are frustrated isn't further along, you might try checking to see if those ideas (of how much better you work) are accurate. Because most people who say "I work better when I blah blah blah blah" have not ever really tried anything different. What they are telling you isn't what makes them most productive. What they are telling you is what makes them most comfortable.
Which leads me to my last point.
10) And when you're done with all that shit, try giving it a try.
Here's a suggestion.
Give it a year. Shit, give it six months.
Write every day (or six days a week). See what happens. Set aside a time and unless blood is fountaining out of your body, sit down and write for an hour.
Or a half-hour.
Or do one of the things on this list but with conscious deliberate mindfulness of writing. But mostly try to do some writing every day. Don't make it too easy.
And see how that changes the landscape in just a few months.
Maybe you notice that you're getting better. That your creativity is flowing more naturally. Maybe you notice the quality of your prose improve. That slow days when you used to be unable to craft a single word start turning into merely disappointing low-word-count days of not great but some productivity, and the rare gushes that come bursting out of you from time to time, you are better able to harness, yoke, and channel for a week or more. Maybe you notice that you are better able to metabolize your thoughts into language and writing is just becoming easier for you. Maybe people stop taking your work with a resigned sigh and say "When's your next chapter going to be done?" Maybe you notice that you are accumulating a whole lot of work and some of it isn't half bad. Maybe you notice that novel....well, you kind of finally made some progress on it.
Chances are you work like every other creative person (spoiler: we're pretty much all creative people). Chances are you get better at things by doing them (rather than by NOT doing them). Chances are that routine and habit will work on you the way they do most other writers and artists. Chances are you are not the special snowflake who works so differently that you must be an anomaly of nature. Chances are if you do what every other artist has since the dawn of time when they get to work, you're probably going to get pretty similar results.
But hey....maybe you were right all along and you just work better when you don't write every day. Maybe the writing world with its sodding advice owes you a coke. Still, how will you EVER know, if you don't give it an authentic, legitimate, sincere try?