It is one of the most commonly repeated pieces of writing advice that you will hear: To finish your book, you need to write every single day without fail.
Writing does require discipline, so it seems like sensible advice, but the idea of writing every single day might seem daunting. Stephen King is able to write 2,000 words a day and complete a draft in three months, but he is a genre-defining bestseller who is financially able to stay at home and write every day. Chances are, like most writers, you are eking out writing time whenever you can fit it in between work and family commitments.
So do all authors need to commit to a certain amount of writing every day, regardless of other circumstances? Is it really possible to finish a writing project without maintaining the same schedule as the bestselling authors?
Some authors find the most success by committing to writing every day, and there are many articles online about the daily schedules and word count goals of famous authors. Daily writing is frequently compared to practicing a sport. Professional athletes need to work out and train every day, otherwise they will fall behind the competition. You’re probably not a professional athlete, but the mental workout will work the same for you.
Writing daily establishes a regular habit and keeps the “writing muscles” of your brain fired up and continuously working. If neglected, they will sag, and daily practice will become harder to pick up again.
But as mentioned, not everybody has the time and energy to keep up a daily writing practice. Writing may be important, but work, family, and chores still need to come first. Even the most famous authors had to start out by juggling their writing with work and family. J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book as a single parent and while battling clinical depression. King started out as a teacher, and it’s highly doubtful that he was able to write 2,000 words a day while teaching.
These successful authors claim that no matter how busy you are, you can always find at least a little time for writing every day, even if it’s only a few sentences. Even this is better than no writing at all, they argue, and can give you a sense of accomplishment. But as many other authors have found, this isn’t the only way to complete a writing project, and sometimes isn’t even the most ideal. Every author has their own method of meeting their deadlines based upon what works best for them.
Due to the strong work ethic needed to complete an entire writing project, many authors find that daily word count goals are great motivators. Jennifer Ellis, for one, says that a daily goal of 2,000 words means she can potentially finish a draft in 40 days. Yet even she admits that her real word count differs each day and that a reasonable word count is different for every author.
If 2,000 words is too much of a stretch for you, you could start off with only 200 words per day as a bare minimum. When you reach those 200 words, you can either keep writing or go and do something else.
The more you keep up this daily goal, the more likely you’ll find yourself not only meeting, but beating it every day.
However, this doesn’t work for everyone.
Cal Newport claims that setting a daily word count for his writing project resulted in burnout. The reason was the same one that explains why many authors fail at their NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) goals: it is impossible for anyone to write the same amount of words each day consistently.
Daily schedules and commitments differ from one day to the next. Things come up, go wrong, or take longer than expected. You might be beating your word count goal on one day, but the next you have a work deadline and can’t write for several days. Falling behind your goal like this can be a highly demotivating factor to some writers.
Instead, Newport offers a much more manageable solution. He makes up his writing schedule each week based upon how many other commitments he has to work around, and sticks to that schedule to write as much as possible. This means less writing in some weeks than others, but still results in projects completed to deadline.
Many argue it is essential, but not always tied to a set word count. Henry Miller, for one, managed to write daily, but based only upon how he felt on each given day. In the mornings, he would write only if he was “in fine fettle” — if he was still groggy, he would just use the time to make notes. He would do his main bulk of writing in the afternoon when he had more energy, and worked on only one section at a time. In the evenings, he would make notes or plans, and continue writing only if he still felt in the mood. His schedule also left time for “inspirational” activities or research, such as visiting museums or going to the library for references.
Even for those who aren’t able to commit to writing full-time, daily writing can be turned into a habit that helps them complete their projects in small chunks. Goins, Writer argues that half an hour of writing every day is much more productive than five hours of writing on a Saturday, and completes a project much faster.
However, others claim that daily writing is doomed to fail, as slip-ups are inevitable, which will result in guilt spirals. Making writing a regular part of the day can also become more like a chore over time, rather than an enjoyable hobby. The rush to meet the word count each day can also lead to sloppy writing, which is harder to edit when you go back to it later on. Writing can become about completing a certain number of words, not about telling the story you want to tell.
Some authors feel they do better by binge writing when they can get into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” You might have experienced times when you were so into writing that you didn’t realize how much time had passed or forgot about sleeping or eating. Being able to focus fully on your craft like this, without worrying about other commitments, is one of the best feelings you can have as an author.
Garrett Calcaterra says on Bookfox that instead of writing every day, he pushes himself for seven- to 10-hour writing sessions whenever he is able, the longest of which was 27 hours. This strategy won’t work for everyone, but it can be useful if you’re having trouble carving out regular writing time.
If you want to try this method, look for large blocks of free time in your schedule that you can commit to nothing but writing. Ensure that there will be no other distractions to keep you from writing, turning off your phone or email if you need to. You will still need to take breaks, so ensure you have plenty of your pick-me-up of choice, or perhaps pre-cook a meal that can be easily heated up. You may also want to take breaks of an hour or two during these marathons to recharge — maybe to read a book or go for a walk. These strategies are fine if they help you, but if you really get into the “flow,” then you might not need them.
Obviously, this method of writing cannot work for everyone, as it has its flaws. Writing in the heat of flow may create a lot of writing, but not all of it may be the best quality, and it could be difficult to revise later on — even if you can find time for revision.
Taking all of these considerations into account, think about how you can make up your own writing schedule, one that will allow you to get in as much writing time as you can. The best way to do this is to look at your regular schedule and see how many unavoidable tasks you already have, whether these are related to work, family, chores, or volunteering.
Use this to see how much time you can dedicate each week to writing. If you can find time every day, even if it’s in short bursts such as during lunch breaks, then put it into your schedule and stick to it. If you’re only free to write during the weekends, then make that your scheduled writing time.
As in Newport’s example, you might well find that the amount of free writing time you have will differ from week to week. Or you might only find occasional free spots for writing, so writing marathons will work best for you. If this is true for you, make up a new writing schedule at the beginning of each week or month instead.
There is no need to feel guilty if you go for several weeks, or even several months, with barely any writing time, as you will be able to make it up when your schedule is more open.
Don’t forget about the other important writing tasks: editing, research, and marketing. Most of these won’t be as essential until you are closer to completing your book, but it is worth thinking about how much time you can commit to them as well.
Don’t forget also to consider your own energy. Even if you have to give up some of your free time for writing, this doesn’t mean you should overexert yourself in ways that cause burnout. This only results in sloppy writing. Finally, remember it’s best to keep your schedule flexible. Unexpected things will crop up, which will interrupt your scheduled writing; on some days, you might just be more exhausted than you expected. In these circumstances, it’s fine to take a break and re-work your schedule to fit in your writing at another time.
While it’s better if you can write every day, no matter how much or how little, it is not always essential. There is no need to feel guilty if you are too tired or busy to write on some days, or want to spend time with family or on hobbies instead.
No matter what you do, the most important thing is to find a writing routine that works for you, stick to that strictly, and write as much and as often as you are able.
Jessica is a British freelance arts and culture writer with a degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and now living and working in Finland with her husband, who is also a writer. She has previously had work published in The Bath Chronicle, Fan/Slash Fic, and Blueink Review and is currently a contributing writer for The Culture Trip. You can see more of her work at woodthewriter.com.