You can find a lot of bad advice in the publishing world. You can also find a lot of well-intentioned advice that has been taken badly by writers over the years. One of the most damaging pieces of advice I come across often is “write every day.”
Those giving this advice seem to fall into two camps: those who do, in fact, mean this literally and those who don’t.
We’re not going to talk about that first camp. I place myself in the second camp because—while I DO make it a priority to write six days out of seven—I don’t think it’s the end of the world if a writer doesn’t, or can’t, make every day work for them. There have been plenty of times when I have been this writer. (The time I went to college while working full time? The time I enjoyed it so much, I continued through GRAD SCHOOL while working full time? Yeah. There were a lot of non-writing days in there!)
For me, writing every day isn’t the goal. For me, the goal is to develop a writing practice that fits my current circumstances and commit to following the plan every day—even if that doesn’t always mean words on the page.
Wait, back up. What is a writing practice?
Simply put, a writing practice is two things: a commitment and a plan. When developing a writing practice, you commit to being a writer and putting words on the page, then you make regular time in your schedule to do just that. It might not be every day, it might even be only an hour or two a week. But books can be written this way! And many are.
This is not a new idea, but I first came across it almost two years ago when I read A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE by Jordan Rosenfelt. Since then, I’ve started really critically looking at how I spend my time, and looking for those places where I can scoop out little chunks of page time. In the early days, I was lucky to get in a couple hours per week. Now, I get between an hour or two each day.
Why is a writing practice important?
Why does this matter? A few reasons, actually. First, writing is a craft: it’s an action. It requires time and space. It requires dedication and perseverance. Writing is like a muscle, and you need to put in the work to develop the muscle memory so that you can perform at your best when it counts. Writing regularly will help you build this muscle, and improve your craft skills in the process.
Second—and I don’t know if anyone’s told you this yet—but writing is hard. And hard things, even things we care deeply about, are easy to put off. You’ll feel tempted to wait until you have a nice big chunk of time to spend on a piece or until you’re struck by “inspiration.” Godspeed on both counts, friend. The truth is you could wait around a long time for those things to happen… or you could just get to work. Having a writing practice ensures you have the time and space you need to do that work.
Ok, I need a writing practice. How do I make one?
A writing practice requires three things: time, space, and attention. So the first thing you need to think about is WHEN you can carve those moments from your schedule. Can you wake up an hour earlier? Sacrifice an hour of TV time at night? Can you write on your lunch breaks, or while waiting to pick up your child from an activity? Can you claim an hour or two every weekend for the purpose?
Each writer’s needs and availability will be different, and your own needs and availability will change over the course of the year. Maybe you can’t write on Saturday afternoons now, but when soccer season is over you’ll have more time. Maybe you’re taking night classes and can only spare an hour a week until they’re done. Situations vary, but chances are you can find 15-30 minutes each week to get some words on the page. Even this small amount makes a difference!
The next thing you want to think about is WHERE you’ll do your writing. Maybe you’ve got the house to yourself during the afternoons, or you have an office you can shut yourself away in for an hour or so each night while your household watches television. Maybe you can’t get anything done at home at all, and need to rely on a café or library for some peace and quiet. Think about what will work for you during your available writing time and then make a plan to be there, writing implements in hand, when that time comes.
The last component is, of course, your attention. For me, this was a real sticking point. Because I’m at the day job for nine hours a day, I come home exhausted and just totally spent in terms of energy and emotion. For me, writing after work just wasn’t happening, even though my calendar said it was my best chance at finding a free hour or so during the week. Since this didn’t work, I adjusted my schedule so that I was going to bed and waking up earlier, and writing in the mornings. Now, I AM NOT a morning person, so this was definitely an adjustment for me. But I made the commitment to show up each morning, and after a few weeks it grew easier. (I’m not going to lie… I still hate mornings. But I’ve made them work for me and my writing practice.)
Ok, fine. Now what?
You’ve made the time and space, focused your attention, and now you’re confronted with a blank screen and a blinking cursor (the mockery!). So what’s next? This is where the second part of the writing practice comes in: having a plan.
It’s AMAZING how much “dedicated writing time” you can waste staring at all your materials and trying to figure out where to start. So, don’t do that. Instead, have a plan. With a plan in place, you can quickly orient yourself each time you sit down at the keyboard.
What might a “writing plan” look like? That depends on what you’re working on. If you’re drafting a book and you know what scene is coming next, have the material ready and at hand when you sit down to type. Better yet, have a few notes about what, specifically, you want to accomplish. If you’ve finished a scene and you already know what comes next, jot a few bullet notes down—you might include which characters are present, what the scenery looks like, maybe even a line or two of dialogue you have in mind. Having these ideas in place the next time you sit down to write will give you a starting point and allow you to jump back into the flow without spending too much time dithering about how to spend your time (common trap, that).
I’ve been through a couple iterations of the writing practice at this point. My current practice involves waking up early Monday-Saturday and spending two hours writing before I tackle the rest of my day. Some days the words flow like honey and some days it feels like pulling rotten teeth, but in the end that’s not what matters. What matters is showing up and putting in the work. If I show up and put in the work, I will have written. And having written, I am a writer.