Don’t Write Every Day

November 19, 2020 § 26 Comments

We hear it over and over again from famous, respected writers.

“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.” (Stephen King)

“I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.” (Peter De Vries)

“Just write every day of your life.” (Ray Bradbury)

Write every day. Build a habit. That’s the only way you’re ever going to finish a book. It doesn’t matter how many words as long as you’re regular. I have many times told the story of Andre Dubus III writing The House of Sand and Fog, 17 minutes at a time, sitting in his car in the cemetery, and I tell it again in my forthcoming book about how to finish a book.

I don’t write every day.

I don’t even write every week.

Very often, I’m neck-deep in someone else’s manuscript, or teaching a workshop (last week, in prison!), or leading a retreat. I love teaching and editing, and I value doing those things. You might have a job you enjoy, or students’ work to read, or be the primary keeper of your home life. And while we can half-ass the things we don’t value to make more time for writing, it’s harder to pull time and focus away from things we care about doing well.

But even when I have vast swathes of open time, I don’t usually write every day. My brain needs fallow time. I’m working on three books right now, and I’m not writing every day on any of them.

I used to feel lazy and fake, because of course a real writer would use that time better. They’d spring from their bed, rush to the laptop, and bang out their daily word count, just like a real job! And since I didn’t act like a “real job” I must not be a “real writer.”

My creative life improved dramatically when I finally realized I run on what I call the “theatrical model.”

  1. Think about the project for maybe six months or a year, gradually accumulating notes and ideas.
  2. Sign up for a hard, non-negotiable deadline imposed by an outside source (the publishing equivalent of Opening Night).
  3. Rush through the entire creative process in six weeks, the last two weeks being 12-hour days.
  4. Tweak and revise after the deadline until it’s perfect. If it’s not revise-able, move on, trusting that I won’t make the same mistakes in the next project.

I’m fortunate enough that I can sometimes go stay in a hotel for a few days. In a self-made retreat, I’ll look at the manuscript I haven’t touched in weeks and pour out 5-10K words a day until it’s done, often at the very last minute.

What makes this way of working possible?

I’m not starting from nothing. When I was a theatre director, I already knew the style of the play, or had thought through what the staging would look like, or planned the acting beats, before I walked into the rehearsal room. I’d personally cast the actors, so I had a sense of what they were capable of, and approved the set, costume and lighting design. I don’t touch my manuscripts every day, but I stay in touch with the practice of writing sentences on Twitter. Short essays on Instagram. On an eleventh-draft novel, ten pages once a month for my writing group. And guess what? I bang out those ten pages the day they’re due. Every time.

I write 95% of my Brevity blogs in the 60 minutes before they’re published. But I know the rhythm of a post and what makes a clicky headline. I keep a long list of blog post ideas. Every day on social media and in my email, I see what writers care about, what challenges they’re facing, and I think about what advice will help, making notes for when it’s time to write.

As you fit your writing process into your life, enjoy the things you value that take time. Notice how you work best, and work that way on purpose. Maybe you are a daily writer who loves the rhythm. Maybe you’re better at the last minute. You get to write on the schedule you want. Keeping in touch with your work isn’t always sitting down at the keyboard for your daily word count. Sometimes it’s thinking through ideas in the shower, building up your story in your head, making notes in your phone or your notebook. Sometimes writing looks like typing, and sometimes it looks like keeping in touch with your world.

There are plenty of “real jobs” that operate on the “have a baseline of skill and resources and then do it all at the last minute under pressure.” Surgeon. Firefighter. Pilot. And in my case (and maybe yours), Writer.

Moving through the middle? Join Allison for Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story Dec 14th and learn to revise, refine and shape an ugly-duckling draft into a beautiful book. Click here to register/more info.

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§ 26 Responses to Don’t Write Every Day

  • My blog posts are generally written in response to something else I have read. Today I am thinking about catalogues and pears. But the day before yesterday (theist time I wrote) I was feeling nostalgic about my mentally ill brother, so I wrote about his Rube Goldberg Machine contests.

    The only time I have written every single day to a word count was when I was doing NaNo, and I am not doing it this year.

  • Sharon Silver says:

    Love it. Endless discussion with my therapist on “Why do I need a deadline to get anything done?” Well, I do. Thanks, Ms. Williams, for your take. Doing something slow and steady every day is the key to accomplishment blah blah blah. It’s a slog. Last minute bursts of frantic activity are called a rush for a reason.

  • You do have a gift for clicky headlines! Yours often draw me in – and then I learn something valuable from you. Thanks for all of it.

  • Emily Huso says:

    Thank you for writing this. The imperative to “write every day or else you’re not a legitimate writer” causes me daily anxiety, guilt, and shame, as someone who had always been a “to-deadline” writer. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this.

  • Ann Turkle says:

    Wow. Yes! The theatrical parallel is very useful. I can feel it.

  • Gary Bullock says:

    What a wonderful essay. You give great encouragement to all of the struggling writers out here. We all have to find our own way through the writing process. That’s what sparks creativity and allows us to find our own unique voice in writing. The mental and subconscious preparation to write does so much to shape and refine the product that ends up on paper. I too seem to write best under pressure – but it is actually an accumulation of hours/days/weeks/months of mental and physical preparation, and examining my thoughts and ideas thoroughly. I’m sure my 37-year career as a firefighter has something to do with it.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Sounds a lot like the way Kerouac wrote!

    Every writer works differently.

  • stacyeholden says:

    Love it! We’ve all gotta figure out what works for us!

  • VirgSpeaks says:

    I think writers wrote differently before the age of social media. They had to hold themselves to a strict policy of writing every day in order to get their project done. Today we have so many ways to express our writing whether it’s writing a book, blog, assignment, work project, or even instructions for a friend or family member on, let’s say, hooking up the Internet or making great-grandmother’s mincemeat pie.

    I don’t write every day and can sit down on any given day and write about anything that pops into my head. But, I think that comes from the early years of journaling every day when I thought that’s what I needed to do to become a writer. And perhaps it was. But now, I’m much easier on myself. If I write a sentence or two that later feels out of place, I just remove them or put them in a paragraph that adds to its rhythm or value.

    I enjoyed this post and appreciate your sharing. It encourages me to continue on my journey of writing, blogging and encouraging others. So, thank you, Allison! 🙂

  • pegood59 says:

    Every writer has their own style and needs to follow it. Otherwise you spend more time feeling guilty. When I say you, I mean me. Thanks for the post.

  • Thanks for your post, It took a load of guilt off my shoulders.

  • As an author with Amazon, your words is true and truth is like a golden ring worn on the finger, you need no mirror to see it. Very inspiring and I look up to you.
    Dun Hills

  • I feel seen! I’m with you as a build-it-up-in-the-mind, first, sort of writer. This piece totally speaks to my writing style. Now, for those deadlines–need to make more of those!

  • […] down and bang out our word count for an hour every morning—or we should be. But not only do you not have to write every day, a lot of writers can’t write every day. They have families. Or they’re caregivers. Or […]

  • Lynn Haraldson says:

    Your post and the replies are helping me feel much better about my non-existent writing schedule that I keep telling myself should exist 🙂

  • […] When I wrote Seven Drafts, actually about half of it had already been created—in my blogs and Facebook comments, and in emails I had written to people about writing, and talks I had already given, and I put all that material in one place and figured out, okay, what else belongs in this book? Then I did two week-long stints in hotels where I wrote 40,000 words each time—because I just need that focused time, where there’s no laundry to do, and I can’t distract myself by picking up the vacuum cleaner. I think a lot of people are binge writers. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with daily writing either, but if you get stuck on, “Why don’t I write like this?” you’re kneecapping your own process. […]

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