Write Every Day – Or Don’t

I haven’t written anything in months, and I think that puts me in the perfect position to hand out writing advice, and to dictate the do’s and don’ts of the craft. I’d like to talk about a phrase that gets passed around a lot in writers’ circles and is often mistakenly taken literally:

Write every day.

Did you hear that? It was the sound of all the world’s hypocrites collectively sighing in the relief that at least they’re not the most hypocritical. ‘Write every day’ is a mantra that’s been chanted by the likes of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Ray Bradbury (and I’m pretty sure it appears in the Bible somewhere).

And it’s good advice. If you want to be good at writing it’s a good idea to write every day. Or most days. Or once a week. Or, like, twice a month or something. Who cares? You do you. Write infrequently, fold pages, put live seagulls in your sandwiches – be rebellious. I won’t judge you. So long as you don’t put live seagulls in my sandwiches.

The point is that not even the biggest names write every day. Stephen King recommends writing five days a week; in Neil Gaiman’s book The View from the Cheap Seats, he says how he used to be the kind of person to put off work until the last minute; and who knows what the fuck George Martin gets up to instead of writing?

(Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, claims to have written every day from when he was twelve right up until he died, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to call bullshit on that.)

But writing every most days is hard. Why would I sit down and write my story when instead I could lie down and imagine signing books for my bajillion adoring fans who’ve already read it?

For a lot of people (myself included) motivation is the problem. I thought I’d share a technique that’s worked for me for a long time.

Step 1: Print a calendar. You could buy a calendar; that works too. But I prefer to print one because then you can arrange it in such a way that you can see all the months at once. Also, I’m stingy.

Step 2: Stick it up somewhere where you will see it every day – by your desk or bed, for example.

Step 3: Whenever you write something, make a note on the calendar of how many words you wrote, or how long you wrote for, or some metric of your own devising, like how many times you broke the rule ‘i before e except after c’.

The idea behind this is that if you see that you’ve got a streak of high word counts you’re more likely to think, ‘Damn, I’m on a roll. I should write some more today,’ and if you have a streak of blank cells you may think, ‘Hrrm, I haven’t written in a while. I should change that.’ After a while, it should be painful to leave a tile blank. And that’s good, that means it’s working.

You can’t get away from the fact that you’re a writer if you do this. Every time you slack off when you should have been writing, it goes on the record. Unless you can fill it in. Go on, you still have nine minutes and thirty-two seconds before midnight.

This is something that’s worked for me for a very long time (well, up until I stopped writing completely a few months ago. But the tip’s there. Take it or leave it). I must have been fifteen or sixteen the first time I used this technique, and I remember adding up all the daily word counts at the end of the year and getting a total of almost a hundred and sixty thousand – more than two novels’ worth!

Even remembering that moment motivates me to sit myself down and power out a short story or two, and I think that’s the real power of this technique: by recording your past achievements, you motivate yourself to go and achieve something again.

I’m going to go and buy a calendar now. I don’t yet have one for 2018, and I’d like to get the same word count this month as I had last December.

by Thomas James

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