Write every day. It is my favorite piece of writing advice. The post “Should You Write Every Day? A Close Look at the Oldest Piece of Writing Advice,” by Nathaniel Tower on Juggling Writer made me re-think how I give it.
Reading the post, I realized Nathaniel and his followers do not know why, “Write every day,” is the oldest piece of writing advice.
Writers hear this advice a lot. It’s given so often without explanation that it has become a platitude that disappears into the background to be ignored. It should not be ignored because it is the single most important thing a writer can do.
The Once Novice
Thinking back to my early writer days, there was a time I did not understand this advice either. Like Nathaniel, I thought it was about dedication and discipline and suffering for your art. I made resolution after resolution to get up at 5 am every morning, including weekends, and write for two hours. When I couldn’t do it, I cried and thought I was not a writer; convinced I couldn’t be because I did not want to get up at 5 am and write. It was hard. If I were a real writer I’d jump out of bed and get right to it. The farther down that road I went, the harder it became to write at all. Every time I looked at my computer the guilt would come crashing down. I was focused on the quality of the writing and not the act of writing.
The few times I wrote at 5 am, and I’m not kidding about this, this is how it went:
She held herself together as if she were afraid she would split in two.
(That’s crap. Backspace, backspace, aggressive backspace…)
Cassie approached her house and paused on the doorstep holding herself together so they won’t see what she has done.
(Crap! Crap! Crap! Delete.)
I can’t even get the character in the house. I can’t do this for two hours!
(Slam the computer shut.)
I’d drive to work early thinking of nothing but what a terrible writer I am. No brainstorming, no thinking about character or putting myself in her place or the fact that it was raining when she was approaching her house. Nope. Just how terribly I write; bad, bad, and I can’t spell.
Today I Would Tell my Younger Self…
Ease up, kid. Be kind to yourself. No one can write being bombarded by bad bombs. You can say a hundred bad things to your self in a few minutes, but you can think a thousand. If you keep that up you won’t want to get out of bed much less write.
And that is what happened.
You write every day to invite inspiration, not to turn out perfect sentences.
Great writing is no accident, it is forged with fire, sweat and blood. It is like breaking rocks with your head and is reserved for final drafts. It is unlikely to occur at 5 am by a writer who stays up past midnight. No one in their right mind expects daily writing to be great. Great writing requires piles of raw material; in oder to build a log cabin, you have to plant the trees first, right? Are all the trees going to be perfect or even useable? I doubt it.
Daily writing plants the trees needed to build the cabin.
Once the trees are in the ground, you can start to plan the cabin or house or castle.
Stop reading every sentence after you write it and just write. No judgement. Write what ever comes to mind especially if your inner voice tells you not to. No one needs to see the crocked trees but you. It is not carved in stone.
“If no one is going to see it, why do it?” my young self insists.
You are writing to invite inspiration.
“What the Hell does that mean?” my young self would think, but not say.
Writers need to practice stringing words together in their chosen form of writing. The mechanics of it need to be smooth and without thought. It does not matter what you write—
Shhh, listen. As a writer, inspiration or brilliance or whatever you want to call it is most likely to strike while you are in the act of writing. Inspiration is rarer than a lightening strike and you want to give it as many opportunities as possible. You never know when circumstances or life or the creative mind are going to come together to create something wonderful. Your emotional state, brain chemistry, dreams, lighting in the room; one or all of these things could be the elusive spark of inspiration. If you don’t sit down and write that day, you could miss it.
“That’s so bleak.” Thinks my younger self.
“And shutting down all possibility of inspiration by not writing at all isn’t?” I counter. My younger self thinks about that one.
If you don’t write at all, inspiration will never happen. There is a comfort in knowing what is going to happen even when it is a negative outcome. Writing is scary and requires the courage of a mountain climber. You are fighting the battle of known vs. unknown. Courage is what separates the professional writer from the hobbyist. It is a momentous task to write so you need to give yourself a break once in a while.
When Inspiration Doesn’t Strike
The second reason to write every day is to practice your craft in order to write if inspiration never strikes. Many writers work without inspiration using only craft, curiosity and dogged persistence. Writing every day builds these skills, but it will not happen over night or in a week. You must build to it by practicing every day like an athlete preparing for a marathon. If a runner only runs during races, how well will they do?
It Is Okay Not to Be Inspired
Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but even when it does hit, it is only a moment. You cannot control it. Persistence and craft get the job done every time and are under your control. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel that spark. It is okay. There is nothing wrong with you. You have good ideas and good craft and you are sitting in your chair practicing a little each day.
Build the Writing Habit
Start small. Look at your life and create writing goals that fit your life style. If you have trouble getting up at 5 am, that’s probably not a good a choice. Set an achievable goal with a fixed end date so you know if you succeeded or not. You are more likely to form the writing habit if you are rewarded with the endorphins of accomplishment. Here’s an example of a starting goal:
I will write at least 300 words every other day for two weeks.
As you accomplish one goal analyze it and decide how you can improve it and still make it work with your life. You will be surprised how quickly you will be writing every day and looking forward to it. At some point you will have to push yourself, but don’t worry about that now.
If you take away only one thing from this post I hope it’s this.
Do not stop and read what you write as you write it. Lock your inner critic in a box and throw away the key. Wait at least a 24 hours before you read what you write.
If you miss a day, note why you missed it and than re-commit to the next day. Do not beat yourself up over it. Writing requires an act of bravery. It is okay to fail one day as long as you re-commit to it the next.
Forget and re-commit.
When you complete the goal take into account why it worked some days and not others and construct a new goal. Remember you want your writing goals to work with your life as much as possible.
(For more on goal setting see the post “Baby Steps” on this blog.)
A Professional Writer
Writing every day and learning to set small, achievable goals teaches you who you are as a writer. You need to know things like how long it takes you to write a chapter or an article. Are you on schedule or not?
What many new writers don’t think about is what happens when a publisher says yes?
You have to know what it takes for you to finish the project on time; not Stephen King, but you. Your life responsibilities will not magically go away because you have a deadline—they are likely to increase. You need to know how to write through them. It is to your peril to fail this on your first gig.
Professional writers know what they can and can’t do and how long it takes. They can balance the monetary gains with the physical and mental toll it will take on them. You only learn this by writing each day and pushing yourself a little.