“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.” Jane Yolen (author and editor)
There are two schools of thought on how to progress with a piece of writing. The first is to write everyday either for a set amount of time (the minimum being 15 minutes) or for a set length (say 500 words or to the end of a computer screen). The second is to wait for inspiration and then write for hours on end.
Both are, in point of fact, good techniques. Additionally, the two are interrelated. We tend to have more shocks of inspiration when we write everyday and the inspiration makes us want to write more often. It can be hard, admittedly, to keep up the writing momentum between flashes of insight, but writing everyday offers several benefits that tide us over from one moment of inspiration to the next.
The first benefit is the most obvious: we produce a lot. Undeniably, it’s not all brilliant, but we come closer to writing a dissertation or a novel or a collection of poems if we’re constantly moving forward in our writing than waiting to write something perfect. Indeed, very few authors are like C.S. Lewis, who was able to write material that needed little to no editing. At the same time, many writers can be like Lewis, who wrote every single day, generating a large body of letters, works of fiction, literary criticisms, and apologetics.
Incidentally, in writing everyday we form a habit that insures constant practice in the craft, which transforms us into better writers who need to spend less time editing. This point can be evidenced if one reads the first drafts of professional authors’ writing, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Islands of Chaldea. She spent two years on every novel she wrote, but this particular work was unfinished at the time of her death—and it shows. However, it doesn’t show very much. Jones had been writing for fun since childhood and professionally since the late sixties, so her first draft is actually quite polished. There are definite flaws, and the novel isn’t as fascinating as her previous novels, but it’s still a well-constructed story.
Additionally, writing everyday means it takes less time to get started. Instead of fidgeting or re-reading everything we wrote before because it’s been a week or more since we last wrote, we can instead jump right into the writing. This, in turn, becomes a type of reward that keeps us wanting to write while also bolstering our confidence in our writing abilities.
The best way to begin writing everyday is to set realistic writing goals that fit our schedules. Say, I always have 30 minutes before dinner where I don’t quite know what to do with myself. During this time, I can schedule in 15-20 minutes of writing, leaving room for completing other pre-dinner tasks as needed.
The schedule, however, should be flexible enough that it can morph with the different demands on our lives. There will be days where we just can’t get to our writing, and these moments of falling off the bandwagon tempt us to give up on our schedules. For instance, maybe I have to cook dinner one night, watch a sick baby the next, and then decide to go to dinner with friends the night after. Then, due to the busyness of my work schedule, I can’t write for another two days. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure, just that my schedule changed suddenly and I need to adjust accordingly. We shouldn’t let guilt shame us out of picking up where we left off.
Actually, instead of my punishing myself when I slip up, I need to reward myself for following through with my writing goals. Instead of saying I can’t watch that TV episode on Netflix or go out with my friends for two weeks, I actually can—as soon as I’ve finished my 15 minutes of writing. In fact, these things are my reward for sticking to my writing goal. So write for a set amount of time or a set length, and then go and celebrate by eating a banana split or a cupcake (not that I recommend doing that every single day… no matter how tasty that would be).
It’s also important to write with accountability partners. This technique is preached more often than not in grad school, but it really helps with all types of writing. An accountability partner is someone, or someones, with whom you share writing goals. They tell you theirs and you tell them yours, and then you agree to check-in on each other or meet as frequently as you deem necessary to discuss triumphs, cry over failures, and sometimes to exchange what you’ve written.
Lastly, we need to define what we mean by writing everyday. Is it writing another two paragraphs, reading or synthesizing research, or editing/rewriting? When we open up the idea of what writing means, we don’t feel a sense of dread upon realizing that we not only need to find time to write, but to find time for these other activities. This, in turn, makes our writing times more productive and less dull.
So, in between bursts of inspiration, write everyday and enjoy the rewards.
Next Week: Cutting Out Distractions
Note: If you chose to read Jones’ Islands of Chaldea, I encourage you to pick up one of her other books as well, like Dogsbody or Year of the Griffin. This way you’ll have something to compare Islands to, and she was one of the greatest, most imaginative writers of the contemporary period. Which Neil Gaiman agrees with, so you don’t just have to take my word for it.