M.J. here. Maybe it’s weird to say this at 40, with four novels and years of semi-pro writing experience under my belt, but sometimes I still feel like a freshman writer. In part this is because there are some professional habits I have yet to fully pick up. The simplest (and by far the hardest) of these: write every day.
Early in my writing career, whenever I read an interview or article with a real professional writer, nearly every single one of them started with the axiom, “Write every day. No matter what.”
This sounds simple. And it is. This is the writing equivalent of “to lose weight, burn more calories than you eat.” But as anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows, simple doesn’t always mean easy.
As someone who (a) is extremely busy with things other than writing each day and (b) doesn’t naturally excel at self-discipline or regular routines, I usually rolled my eyes and skipped this part of the writing advice. I moved on to shinier objects like the author’s plotting system or their daily yoga practice (yet another thing that would benefit me tremendously) or some other more glamorous advice.
I always thought I could write in long spurts when time was available, and spend the interim “planning” or “mulling.” If I was good enough, and creative enough, there had to be a way around the whole “writing every day” thing, right?
I’ll be totally honest with you here, I’ve done the research firsthand. No matter what I tell myself about my “process” or how many good excuses I have to not write every day (and believe me, life gives us all plenty of excuses and most of them are legit); the fact remains: I am a more successful writer when I write every day. Way more. Much to my annoyance.
Even when the kids are sick and the dishes are piling up and my day job is crazy and I haven’t had a minute of exercise in two weeks and the dog needs to go in and out every fourteen seconds. Even at the beach. Even when I have Life Drama, or concert tickets. Even then.
So with all my added chagrin, here’s why writing every day is so critical (dammit), and why people who make a living with their writing do this no matter what kind of day they’re having. (And did, for the most part, even when they had their day jobs and their kids, and etc.)
- Writing daily keeps you moving with your WIP. Even 200 shitty words are better than 0 perfect words, if it keeps your momentum going and the story fresh in your mind.
- Writing daily prevents the shame spiral. So often we pause in our writing at a point when we’re struggling or bored or confused or don’t know what to write next. Don’t give yourself time to obsess about how stuck you are; write until you’re not stuck any more.
- Writing daily builds muscle. Just like that yoga practice or your morning jog, the more often you write, the better you are at it. You and your writing get stronger and more efficient with every hour you spend at the keyboard. Each day you can go farther on less creative fuel.
- You can’t write for eight hours on the weekend anyway. There are few who can, and those who do have been at this for a loooong time. The eight-hour writing day is a marathon. A few minutes on your lunch break is a solid lap around the track. You must do one before the other. So many writers are handicapped by the belief that if we just wait for an open Saturday, we can churn out 10,000 words cold. Not without pulling something, my friend.
- Procrastination spreads like poison ivy. The hardest thing to write each day is the first word. The longer it’s been since you wrote last, the harder that first word becomes. Miss a day, and you’re more likely to miss a week; and then suddenly it’s been a month, and it takes something really special to get you to the keyboard. And you probably took a break because it wasn’t feeling special to begin with (see #2), so the procrastination continues.
- Experience is the best teacher. No matter how much you read or study or ponder, nothing teaches you how to write like doing it. And, frankly, screwing it up quite a bit at the beginning. There are no shortcuts around the painful lessons of being an early writer, but the more consistently you work at it, the faster you can get through them and make it to the next level.
- Writing daily creates compound interest. Let’s move from the fitness analogy to a financial one. We all know that saving for retirement means putting in whatever we can, as early as we can, so that the benefits of our investment build on each other. You (hopefully) wouldn’t wait until age 60 to start saving for retirement, so why wait for life, or your ideas, to be perfect to write that book? Every day you write is a day you build your skills, add words to the page, and solve problems with your story. That progress builds on itself with daily practice. In six months, you could be halfway done and have learned some incredible lessons; or you could still be waiting for the time to get started.
So. Write daily. And know that as you struggle with this, I am struggling with you. As I said at the opening, this has been one of the hardest habits to cultivate for myself; but the longer I am in this vocation and the more I take myself seriously as a writer, the more I recognize the need for daily writing practice. I’ve made a commitment to myself to write daily more often, and to get back on the horse faster when I do miss a day.
Want encouragement and accountability for your daily writing practice? Consider joining The Draft House program, led by M.J. Pullen (that’s me!) and fellow author Emily Carpenter. Applications are due August 1, and the program hits the ground running August 7th!