Writing Habits


National Novel Writing Month logo

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is one of the most well-known writing events out there. Every November, NaNoWriMo challenges you to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. People hold local write-ins in their communities, meet other local writers, and write like crazy.

And it’s hugely popular. Every November, every author community becomes NaNo central. Heck, I’ve had people who aren’t writers at all ask me if I’ve done “that NaNo thing.”

Despite this, I’ve never seriously considered doing it. I tried once–half-heartedly, for a week–during NaNo 2002, but it really wasn’t for me. And why is that?

Well, it depends on what your goals are.

When I didn’t know how to write a novel, NaNoWriMo was really stressful.

NaNoWriMo is a trial by fire. That’s the whole point of it. Hitting 50K in 30 days means you have to average 1,667 words a day every day of the month, without stopping. It’s not an impossible number, but it’s relentless, and missing just a few days can leave you struggling to catch up.

But when I was new to writing, NaNo was… agonizing.

I didn’t outline. I had never finished a book. I didn’t know story structure. I did write then, but I was all over the place–“writing,” to me, meant coming up with a half-cool concept and immediately starting on Chapter 1. I didn’t plan anything.

Consequently, I had no coping mechanisms:

  • How do you know what comes next?
  • What do you do when you run out of ideas?
  • What’s the difference between fluff and meaningful story development?
  • How do you break a big idea into a smaller, linear sequence of events?
  • How do you write the middle of a book without it dragging?
  • How do you finish a book? (Not like I ever finished anything back then.)
  • For that matter, how do you start a book?

For NaNo 2002, I did what I always did: I wrote 3 chapters, didn’t know what to do next, and quit.

NaNoWriMo is promoted as a great way to force yourself to write a novel if you–like so many people in the world–have an idea you want to write, but have never gotten around to doing it. It forces you to put in the hours and time to learn the process.

For some people, this is a great way to finally get their butts in a seat and learn this thing they’ve been putting off forever. It’s hard, and they struggle, but it makes it all the cooler when they finish.

But I’m not a “learn on a deadline” kind of person. If I don’t know how to do something and you give me a deadline, I panic. NaNo felt like failure to me. It was a great, big, glowing reminder that I had no clue what I was doing.

I needed to learn how to write every day, forever.

What helped me the most was creating a regular writing habit.

NaNo is not sustainable (at least for most people.) 12,500 words a week is a pretty high number for someone who doesn’t write for a living. But since I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to make writing part of my life, I needed a schedule that I could do forever. Every day. For the rest of my life.

And that was much, much less than 12,500 a week. Heck, even now I average somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 a week. When I started, it was closer to 3-4K.

Almost immediately, I started finishing novels. And since I didn’t have a deadline, so I couldn’t “fail.” I could take all the time I needed to learn.

This scheduled worked out so well that I didn’t feel like I needed NaNo. I usually finish an 80K to 100K novel in 4 months. Four months! That’s not terrible at all! And since NaNoWriMo pushes you to do 50K in a month, which isn’t even a full-length novel for most genres, I could win NaNo and still not finish a novel. I’d have to keep going another month.

So I’d be doing a 4 month project in 2 months. In exchange, I’d be stressing myself out. Was that actually worth it?

For a long time, it wasn’t.

But now that I have several projects under my belt, it seems like an interesting idea.

I’m in a very different place than I was 15 years ago. I’ve written several novels and have one published. And now that I actually know how to write a novel semi-quickly, there are some actual benefits to NaNo:

  • I have too many projects I want to do right now. This is the big one. I’m almost ready to query a novel (which could potentially have sequels), I have a new series bouncing around in my head, and… of course, there’s the book I already have out. Which ends on a cliffhanger. Oof. Too many books! If I wrote these all at my normal pace, I’d be done with all three books in 2021. Ahh!
  • I could make some local friends!
  • Since I already have a strong writing habit, writing 12.5K a week is less of a life-changing sacrifice and more of a manageable increase in my workload.
  • And, most importantly… since my next novel is going to be at least 80,000 words, I don’t honestly care if I win NaNo or not, since this project would take at least 2 months anyway. If I hit 40K and got halfway done, that’d still be twice what I do in a normal month.

So here’s what I’m doing this month.

I’m writing a sequel to Justice Unending. So, uh, all you people who keep writing reviews that include the phrase “I’m looking forward to the sequel”? It’s in the works.

My goal is to get at least 40,000 words into it, which’d put me in an excellent position to finish a first draft in December. If I actually hit 50K? Sweet. But I’m not going to kill myself.

My main goal is to actually meet writers in the area. I’m capable of writing a novel already, but I am absolutely abysmal at getting out of the house. So that’s one of my main goals! I’m going to go to at least one write-in, and preferably more.

Because of this, blog posts will be few and far between this month. But I’ll toss in an update every now and then, even if it’s just on Twitter.

And if you’re doing NaNo this month, good luck and have fun!

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Yes.

Post’s over! You can all go home now, guys. You–…what? I need to write a little more than that?

Honestly, this is one of those questions I’ve never understood. “The best writers are avid readers” appears in every “Advice for Writers” forum, book, and blog ever written. But writing communities are full of posts asking, “Do you have to read if you want to write?”

The short answer is yes. The long answer is the rest of this post.

Yes, because you must actually like books if you want to write one.

You know what just baffles me? Some of the people who ask “Hey, I want to write. But do I have to read books?” are actually trying to say, “Hey, I don’t actually like reading, but I do want to write a novel! So, uh, what about that?”

And that’s… hm. That’s a problem. Let’s take this question and apply it to other creative arts:

  • I’m creating my own videogame! What’s my favorite genre? Oh, uh, I don’t play games. They’re wastes of time. I really prefer movies, honestly.
  • My dream is to create my own movie! What do I watch? Oh, nothing. I can’t stand sitting down for that long and just watching something for that long. I just wanted to see my name on the screen, you know?
  • I’m learning to compose! But I hate music, and…

Okay, okay, you get the point. This is silly, right? Why would these imaginary people invest hundreds of hours of work into a medium where it’s hard to make something, harder to get it in front of people, and nearly impossible to make money off of? And why would they do it when they don’t even enjoy this thing?

Unfortunately, writing is seen as a low-skill task that anyone can do, so you actually do encounter people who hate books but also want to be a famous author.

So, yes. If you don’t like books, creating one will be especially difficult for you.

Yes, because it helps you learn how to analyze and dissect writing.

OK! So let’s say that you do like reading, and you do read for fun. But, you might wonder, does reading a lot actually help you write better in any appreciable way?

And yes! It does. Here’s reason #1: the more you read, the more you can practice reading critically.

It’s fine to read passively for pleasure, especially if this is how you decompress. I do that, too! But reading without thinking doesn’t teach you anything. To figure out what makes a book work, you have to really peel it apart and analyze it.

And if you’re a writer, this is an invaluable skill to have. When you write a novel, you run into all sorts of problems. How can you make this section less boring? How can you make your characters more interesting? Why is your dialogue so ineffective? These are big, scary questions. And where can you get the answers?

Well, you can get a lot of them from reading! Good books are repositories of successful techniques. If you find a book with really good characters, you can pick them apart. How does that author make them seem real? What made the dialogue good? How did they grow? If you find a really fast-paced, exciting novel, you can study its pacing. How did it keep the action going?

Reading books teaches you how to identify problems, too. Even the most popular, most successful books will probably have a few… iffy choices. And that’s great! Learning how to identify those problems, describe them, and clearly articulate why they didn’t work will help you do the same to your own books.

Yes, because you need to know your genre.

It’s also good to know the genre you write in. Then you can learn:

  • What does a book in your genre look like?
  • What cliches are common?
  • What themes are popular right now?
  • What are the big names in your genre?
  • What are the most anticipated books of this year?
  • How does my book stand out from what’s out there already?

And so on, so forth.

I know people hate rules. But if you are writing a book in a particular genre, there are a few things you have to do for your book to function within that genre (even if it’s just “fantasy books have to include fantastic elements.”) The more you know what a book in your genre looks like, the more you can innovate–because you can point to what other people are doing and explain how your book’s unique.

Also, do you want to sell that thing? Do you want an agent? Then this is really good market research, because it helps you learn what already exists and what’s currently selling.

Finally, if you find novels that are similar to yours, that’s great! You can list them in your query letter as comps, and say “My novel’s like [this successful book], but [different in this way]!”

Yes, because it might help fill your creative well.

And, finally, reading can be important for writers because… well, if you like reading, then you’ll enjoy it, right?

Whenever I can’t write, I read. It always helps. What if I find a book I like? That’s amazing! I can spend days thinking about the things I liked and picking through why I liked it–was it the description? The tone? The way the information was delivered? “Could I do something like this?” I wonder. “It seems like so much fun!”

Or maybe I hate it! That actually helps, too! I can’t imagine how many times I’ve said, “I HATE THIS PARTICULAR TROPE” and then rage-outlined a story that inverts it.

But most of all, reading is relaxing, it’s fun, and it helps me remember the things I genuinely love. And if I’m neck-deep in a story I can’t figure out, which is driving me crazy and making me ragey, remembering that I do actually love this stuff–and that I can do it, too!–helps a ton.

So yes. If you’re writing, yes. You should read often.

This isn’t a judgey thing. You don’t have to be obsessed with reading. You don’t have to feel bad for not reading as much as you’d like to. If you like books and also like reading, you’re golden.

But if you want to be an author, you really should enjoy reading, at all, period, end sentence. That does make sense, right?

Yeah. I really could have ended this post after the first word.

 

First thing’s first: want a free copy of Justice Unending? Then check out my Goodreads giveaway! It’s running from Sept. 25 to Oct. 21 and is available to everyone in the U.S. and Canada (sorry, everyone else! Shipping is expensive.) Good luck!

Cover of Minset: The New Psychology of Success.

Image originally from Goodreads.

And now, on to the post! About a year or so ago, I read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the book itself, but I absolutely friggin’ LOVE the core premise.

Essentially, it argues that people approach failure and success from two mindsets: fixed and growth.

People with fixed mindsets assume their skills are unchangable. When they fail at something, it’s because they’re “bad” at it. They just don’t have the natural aptitude for it. They blame failure on their fundamental shortcomings and focus on things that they have immediate success with–the things they’re “good” at.

People with growth mindsets are focused on hard work and self-improvement. If they fail at something, they believe that they can work hard, get better at it, and eventually improve their skills. Failure doesn’t mean they are a failure, or that they’ll always fail–it means they have to work harder.

Is this simplistic? Sure. But as a way to analyze how we look at success and failure? Oh, man. It’s amazing.

In fact, I see examples of fixed mindsets everywhere in the writing community. I have seen so many people who believe that you’re either a natural writer or you’re not. And so many people expect immediate success, then throw themselves in the pit of “I guess I’m just not a writer after all!!!!” when they struggle to write, or query, or sell their first novel.

It’s not good, it’s not helpful, and it’s self-defeating. And that’s why I think everyone should be aware of how they approach success, challenge their own assumptions, and try really hard to be growth oriented.

But let’s start with me. Because I had a fixed mindset for years.

For me, a fixed mindset was an excuse to say publishing was something I’d never accomplish.

As a kid, I did well at school. My parents praised the daylights out of me: “Oh, you’re so smart! Look how easily these things come to you! The other kids have to work, but not you–you’re brilliant!”

They meant well, I know. But I took a terrible lesson out of this: if you are good at something, you don’t have to work at it. It’ll just happen–naturally, immediately, easily–because you’re talented!

So when I set off in the world, I avoided anything that challenged me. If I found a subject in school I had to work to understand, it terrified me–because if not everything is easy, I must not be that smart, right? When I went into the workforce, I avoided everything I wasn’t a natural at (instead of, you know, ever pushing my comfort zone. Goodness forbid I ever try something new! I might fail at it!)

This absolutely hobbled me. It also completely destroyed my confidence in writing. You see, it was always my dream to publish a book. And I finally wrote my first one when I was a university student.

It was garbage.

It took me four years to write what was, according to my outline, “half” of the novel. That “half” was a more than 120,000-word long series of 10K to 15K-long “episodes.” It was ridiculously paced and ended abruptly.

It wasn’t good, and I knew it wasn’t good. But that’s all right! I had a dialogue for this, too.

“Well, that’s… not really surprising,” I told myself. “Lots of people want to publish books. But most people can never get an agent. That means that publishing is an impossible dream, which only the most brilliant and talented people can ever hope to accomplish. So it’s not surprising that I can’t do it. I’m okay at writing… but not good enough.”

And since this was before self-publishing was a big thing, that was it. No agent = no publishing.

I didn’t write for two years.

I still wanted to write, though. I wrote as part of my hobby. I wrote as part of my job. I still dreamed of being a novelist, even with the little whisper of “you tried and you failed.”

Eventually, I got tired of this. Why was I not doing something I wanted to do? It was still my dream! So I faced that assumption head-on. I was going to write, on a schedule, every day. I was going to put in hard work and practice. I was going to write novel after novel until I got better.

And guess what? I actually did get better. And I did eventually publish!

The fixed mindset is absolutely everywhere in the writing world.

Go to a writing forum and read for a while. You’ll find examples of fixed mindsets everywhere. I have read countless threads like these:

  • They write their first book. It’s not perfect. “I guess I’m not really a writer,” they lament. “I’m just going to give up. I’ll never achieve my dream.”
  • They are terrified of failure and refuse to attempt projects that they might not succeed at. “I’m waiting to write a book. I want to make sure I study and read enough beforehand, so I can ensure my first book is good enough to publish.”
  • They refuse to put work into writing unless they can guarantee that the first book they write will be a complete success. “My first book has to get an agent or I’ll never write again. Writing takes too much time for me to invest time and energy into it–I have to take off right from the start.”
  • Their identity hinges on the assumption that they’re a naturally good writer, and they get extremely scared whenever everything isn’t easy. “I thought I was good at writing, but I just hit a terrible roadblock in this story and I… can’t do it. I can’t come up with any way to fix it. So now my entire identity is thrown into question. Am I NOT a writer? Should I give up?”

And all of these have one thing in common: they don’t want to struggle. They want to be good at writing, immediately. And sometimes, they’re so so so so so very scared of failure that they quit the moment they don’t succeed–or come up with reasons to never try at all.

You can’t fail at anything if you never try, right?

So keep an eye out for fixed mindsets. And challenge them.

A fixed mindset is never helpful–and it’s definitely not helpful when you’re struggling. If you’re “not good enough,” then there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no solution. There’s no exit. You’re bad, you can’t do it. Give up.

And you’ve probably heard that gung-ho stuff, right? That a writer is just someone who never gives up? That’s a growth mindset.

So keep an eye out for how you–and those around you–face success and failure. It’s always helpful to challenge your own mindset and to wonder if you aren’t making things harder for yourself than you need to.

After years of writing, I’ve learned a very strange thing about myself: when I feel like garbage, a story isn’t working, and I know it needs a lot of work before it’s “done,” the absolute worst, most demoralizing thing I can think is “but imagine what it’ll be like when it’s published!”

Yes, demoralizing. It makes me want to quit. It makes me want to wallow. It is the most depressing, most frustrating, most upsetting thing I can think of.

Why? Well, let’s dive into my psyche. I might just be hyper-sensitive and neurotic (I probably am, actually), but hey! Maybe you work the same way.

The problem with focusing on big successes is that they don’t always happen.

Here’s the long and short of it: when I’m depressed about writing, dreaming about a wonderful future where I’m a successful author doesn’t help, because:

  • That success is far away.
  • Achieving that success requires me to not be depressed.
  • I still have to put in dozens (or hundreds!) of hours of work to get to that point.
  • It’s extremely common to write something and have it never sell anywhere, or never find an agent, or never find a publisher.
  • Even if you self-publish, it’s extremely common for you to put out a book and have it receive middling-to-non-existant sales.

Which means that if I’m anxious or depressed, dreaming about eventual success is poison. I can guarantee you that my mind is not going to say “Don’t worry! You’re worried now, but you’re going to feel great when you succeed!”

No. My mind is a jerk. It thinks evil things. It’s going to say, “Imagine what it’ll be like if you never publish this story at all, and the 6 months of work you put into this was wasted because you got stuck right now and you never got over it!”

So, uh, that’s bad.

The solution: focus on very, very small wins.

So what does work when I’m deep in a pit? Celebrating small successes like:

  • You wrote today! You haven’t written for a week or so, so THIS IS GREAT. Hurray!
  • You wrote 1,000 words! That’s super fantastic!
  • You accomplished something! Accomplishing something feels good, right? Don’t you want to feel like this a lot? Remember this feeling!
  • Write a to-do list, where the task for every single day is “Just write anything.” Cross off today! CROSSING OFF STUFF FEELS GREAT
  • Good golly, did you finish a chapter?! One down! WOO!
  • You sent a query! Cross that off your QueryTracker list! Who cares if they ever respond? You did your side of the work, which is writing a good query and sending it out. DONE. YOU SUCCEEDED. HURRAY.

OK, so these sound cheesy. They are, really. Believe me, I know. I can’t sincerely throw myself a party for writing 1,000 words, either.

But I do feel genuinely content when I finish something. So that’s what I focus on: the small, nice feeling of accomplishing anything.

So here’s my takeaway: when I’m most depressed, I need to accomplish something.

That’s basically it.

“Hey, maybe you’ll sell this book someday” is not something that I can do in a weekend to snap me out of my slump. But I can do a tiny bit of work.

This stuff is not easy for me. When I feel bad, I want to second guess my accomplishments. “Yes, I wrote 1,000 words, but are they objectively good ones? Because maybe I’ll just have to write those words over again later, and this time was wasted!” or “I wrote a chapter, but there are 27 in this novel, so at this rate it’s still going to take me 3 months to finish this thing, at best!” I’m realllly not a very positive person, usually.

But you know what feels good? Accomplishing something. Accomplishing anything.

The only way I can drag myself out of depression is by accomplishing milestones. Little ones. Preferably ones I can accomplish every day. I won’t cheer myself up by thinking “You won’t feel like garbage 3 months from now, when you’re done!” I have to find something I’ll feel better about today. Now. Something like:

  • You sketched out notecards for every scene that’s working in your novel, up to the point where it isn’t
  • You brainstormed ideas for how to fix your current problems
  • You wrote a reasonable amount of content
  • You wrote something else, and it was fun and liberating
  • You read a book about writing and it gave you some ideas on how to fix your writing
  • You sat down and used your dedicated writing time for something writing-related for once, and you’re going to do it again tomorrow.

All of these are small victories, and you can do them today. They don’t require you to succeed at anything, or to complete a lot of work, or to fix everything. They’re just tiny baby steps you can do today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

It doesn’t always work, of course. But it’s better than clubbing yourself over the head with things you can’t do today.

I still get writer’s block. I seem to fall into a pit of depression about once a year, swear to give up writing forever, and stop writing for a week or two. It happens. And every time it happens, it feels like I’ll never drag myself out of it.

But I always get back on that horse and try again. And it’s never because I remembered that it’d be Really Super Amazing to get a TV show based on my novel. It’s always because I did something small, and writing felt possible again, and accomplishing something felt good, and I figured I should do that more often.

So, yes. Perspective shifts: helpful. Maybe they are for you, too?

Way back in 2015, I wrote an article called “Fun Ways to Use Excel to Track Your Writing Process.” It’s been getting a lot of visits lately, so I thought it was time to do a new, improved, and updated version of it.

Let’s talk numbers! Writing numbers.

Tracking your daily word count is awesome.

I love knowing how much and how often I write.

Writing is so very, very slow. Sometimes the amount of work you’re doing is obvious–it’s pretty hard to not feel proud when you’re staring at 10 new chapters or 30,000 new words. But what about when you’re brainstorming, outlining, or editing? Or when you’re rewriting chapters? They can take tons of time, and most of it’s invisible. You could spend a whole season editing and come out feeling like you did absolutely nothing at all.

So I track my work. I keep track of every time I sit down at the computer, how many words I write, what kind of work I did, and how many hours I spent on it.

It sounds complicated, but it’s not. It takes me less than a minute. (Literally.) In exchange, I know:

  • How many words I wrote in a day, week, month, or year
  • How much time I spent doing writing-related tasks (and how much time was specifically spent writing, editing, or whatever.)
  • My average words per hour
  • The average amount of time it takes me to finish a novel or short story.

It’s fun. No, really! I promise!

So here’s what my current Excel tracker looks like.

If you checked out my 2015 post, you’ll notice that my current tracker’s a little different. let’s go through it!

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet with a month's worth of work recorded.

Click to see the full image. Yes, January was a lousy month for me.

It’s simple, but it works. Here’s what it tracks:

  1. Date: When I wrote.
  2. Title: The name of the piece.
  3. Chapter: I only use this field for novels. (It makes it easier to keep track of new and old word counts for the “Words Written” section.)
  4. Story Type: Short or Novel.
  5. Work Type: Can be anything. Usually this is writing, editing, or outlining. But I’ll talk more about that in a second.
  6. The “Words Written” Section: I enter the word count this piece or chapter had when I started (and “0” if it’s a new chapter or short story) and the number of words it had when I finished. Excel automatically calculates the number of new words.
  7. The “Time Spent” Section: This includes the time I started, the time I finished, and the number of minutes I spent writing. Excel automatically calculates my words per hour.

And I track everything. Absolutely everything.

I track everything I do that’s related to writing. Everything. I track:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Outlining
  4. Worldbuilding (i.e., writing character profiles or theme files)
  5. Anything else I feel like tracking. For example, in January of this year, I logged a bunch of stuff under the super-unclear term “Analysis.” I was reading the first draft of my novel and taking notes about what to change. I wrote several thousand words of notes, so I recorded them.

If I’m working on my story, I track it. If I stop to outline a story for a couple of weeks, I’m not “doing nothing,” so I don’t record it as such. Everything counts. It’s all work, and it’s all helping me prepare to write a novel.

That’s great, but why do I do all this?

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not doing this so I can stick to some arbitrary words-a-day habit. (Heck, I don’t even think “write 1,000 words a day” literally means “you must write 1,000 new story-related words a day.”) My goal is to know how often I work on my projects and to measure how much work I’m doing.

I know exactly how I’m using my writing time, when I’m being productive, and when I’m slacking off.

This is especially fun after you’ve done it for a year. I’ve been tracking my writing for nearly two years now, and I now know all sorts of stuff–how long I usually take to write a novel, for example, or when my biggest lulls in activity are.

I don’t know if I’ve ever made major decisions or changes based on this data, but it’s been invaluable in learning and refining my writing process.

Now that you’re (hopefully) convinced, I’d like to tell you about pivot tables!

COME BACK. I PROMISE IT’S INTERESTING.

Once you have all this cool data in Excel, its easy-peasy to make some cool tables that help you see your data. Here are some of the pivot tables I’ve used:

Number of Words by Month

Screenshot of my word tracker, showing the number of words written per month.

This fun one takes the number of new words I wrote, the type of content, and the type of story, and organizes them by month. This lets me see how much work I did each month and what kind of work it was.

Number of Words by Month and Title

Screenshot showing the number of words I wrote, by month and title.

This is similar to the above graph, but it organizes them by title. This way, I can see what projects I worked on each month and how much work I did for each.

Number of Words by Week

Screenshot of my word tracker showing the number of words produced by week.

And, of course, you don’t have to track anything by month. This is the same as the “number of words by month” graph, above, except it breaks it down by week.

There’s no limit to the type of data you can track and the ways you can display it. If you’re interested in learning more about how you write, give it a shot! You might learn something interesting about yourself.

It’s probably not surprising that I am not the most social of writers–I don’t participate in very many communities, and I’m fairly quiet when I do.

But, er, this might be a good thing! Because whenever I peek at one of the writing boards I occasionally visit, I always run into a question from a very well-meaning and very new writer that makes me want to write an obnoxiously long, 1,000-word reply.

So, of course, I was on Reddit’s r/Writing last week. And what did I see? The good ol’ question of, “How does anyone have time to write?”

(The subtext here is that they want to write, but they don’t have enough free time, so they can’t write. Ever.)

Their argument will start with “Writing is too much work! Doesn’t everyone say you have to treat it like a job?” And jobs, of course, are very important and time-consuming things! And so, these folks conclude, clearly only the most dedicated and devoted people can find time to write (which means, of course, that the “average” person shouldn’t feel bad if they’re too busy.) It must be impossible to write if you have a 9-to-5 job. And if you don’t have time to “be a writer” they might decide–in different, yet equally wrong ways–that their only choices are to quit their jobs or pine for a far-off day when the opportunity to write falls into their laps.

Where does all this come from?

Most Writing Advice is Aimed toward the Undisciplined

The answer is obvious. The #1 advice for writers IS to buckle down, write every day, and treat writing like a job.

This really isn’t surprising, if you think about it. Like any creative hobby (or, er, probably any hobby on Earth…) most people are not very disciplined. If you spend any time in a writing community, you’ll practically drown in posts about people who have never finished anything: the people who only write when the muse hits, and who end up only “wanting” to write once in a blue moon. The people who have been toying with an idea for years, but never make any progress on it. The people who dither around writing one or two chapters, then abandon their work for something else.

(For that matter, “people who say they want to write, but claim they don’t have the time to do so” are in the same bucket. But since that’s the whole point of this post, let’s continue.)

And how do you get people to stop dithering? You give them a dose of tough love. You grab them by the metaphorical shoulders and type very firmly at them: Writing is work! You have to treat it like a job! You have to write every single day, even–and especially–when you don’t want to!

And this is great advice! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of it. Except when all those good intentions go awry.

The “If Writing Is Work, I Don’t Have Time to Write” Trap

The problem with the “writing is work; writing is a job” advice is that it’s tempting to turn that attempt at inspiration into a reason that you can’t write.

“You have to treat writing like a job” is pretty intimidating. But it absolutely does not mean:

  • That you have to literally have to have a part-time job’s worth of hours to write every day
  • That you absolutely must write at least 1,000 words (or any arbitrary number of words) a day
  • That you need to write every single day

…Or you “aren’t a real writer” and “don’t have enough time to write.” And it definitely doesn’t mean that you should wait until any of the above are true before you try to write anything.

So, here’s the truth.

There’s No Minimum Threshold for How Much You “Have” to Write

Seriously. Really. If you want to write, you can write 3 days a week, two hours a week, one day a week, or whatever works for you.

I’ve written about eight full-length novels. All of these schedules resulted in a completed first draft in under six months:

  • Once a week: I used to do all of my writing in one mega-binge on Saturdays. I wrote from 8 or 9 to noon. That was the only time I wrote all week.
  • Twice a week: Later, I wrote only twice a week: in 2-to-3 hour stretches on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 or 8 to 10 at night.
  • Once per weekday: Finally, when the above schedules stopped working, I started writing for one hour, five times a week, from 5 to 6 in the evening.

So, caveat time: Even with the laziest of these schedules, I was still writing at least 3 hours a week. So I clearly had a regular habit.

And habits are good. I’m not, for one second, going to tell you that you can become an excellent writer by keeping to a schedule of “1,000 words maybe once every three months.” Writing is a skill, and you get better at it the more you do it. The more often you write, and the more regularly, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll produce.

But here’s my point: Unless you literally have zero free minutes in the entire week, there is no threshold at which you can say “I don’t have enough time to write, so I won’t write at all.”

If you can only write on Sundays, great! If you can only write for one hour two or three times a week? That’ll work! Heck, if you only have half an hour a week, you literally have absolutely no other free time anywhere else, and you desperately want to write, it’s better than nothing. That’s incredibly slow–at 1,000 words a week it’ll take you one-and-a-half to two years to finish a first draft–but it’d still get done.

Basically: If You Want to be a Writer, You Have to Write Sometime

Most writing advice is geared toward taking people with excuses–I’m not confident enough, I can’t stick to one idea very long, I don’t have enough time for it–and telling them to find a way to do it. That’s all the “writing is a job; take it more seriously!” pep talk is about.

If you are passionate about writing and want this to be your actual job, yes, you will eventually need to build up to the point where you spend multiple hours per day on it. But if you’re just learning how to write, don’t turn “you have to write a lot” into an excuse to say “then I don’t have enough time to write.”

Whatever time you have, and whatever schedule you can manage is enough. You don’t need to meet some imaginary threshold to justify starting.

By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.

– Stephen King, On Writing

Everyone who writes–absolutely everyone–has heard the ol’ spiel about how you should write at least 1,000 words a day. This advice seems simple. I mean, 1,000 words a day, right? What’s to misunderstand? But if you look across the wilds of the Internet, you’ll see people interpreting it a million different ways.

I hang out on a few writing boards, and I’ve seen people take this advice in a completely different way than I have. For example, I’ve seen:

  • People who are anxious that not meeting 1,000 words a day means they’re failing as a writer.
  • People claim you have to write 1,000 words of new prose every day, and that you have to find some other time to edit, outline, or brainstorm.
  • Someone who was afraid to try 1,000 words a day because they thought it was an extremely difficult challenge that only the most creative people could manage.

I disagree with all of this. Let’s talk about what I do think!

It’s About the Habit, not the Words

I’m not going to speak for Stephen King, especially since he says a lot more about 1,000-words-a-day than what I quoted above. But that quote at the top of this post? That’s a very gentle message. It says you need to make writing a habit and that 1,000 words  a day is an easy, low number to start at. The “1,000” is a suggestion.

And that’s what I’ve always thought about the “you must write XXX a day” advice. The point isn’t to write 1,000 words. The point is to write regularly. The form that habit takes–and the exact number of words written–isn’t as important.

So, let’s illustrate this with a briefly off-topic example. If you decided to learn an instrument, what would you do? You’d practice, right? And you’d probably want to do a little bit almost every day, right? How good would you get if your plan was “play 15 minutes once a month” or “only practice when you feel like it”?

But new writers do this all the time. They only write “when the muse hits.” They take 5 years to write a first draft. They write a chapter or two every few months.

And that’s why people suggest a daily writing goal. The “1,000 words” isn’t the important part. The point is to do a little work every day.

That makes you write regularly. And writing regularly means you improve at a steady pace and don’t forget the things you’ve learned. And writing regularly means you’re taking an intimidatingly big project (an 80-to-100,000 word novel) and breaking it into manageable pieces (1,000 words at a time).

It’s not a death pact where you meet 1,000 words–and no less!–or fall on your sword in shame. It’s just a recommendation to do a little work every day. And maybe that’s 1,000 words a day. Maybe it’s not. It doesn’t have to be.

It’s About Making Time for Writing

I also firmly, firmly believe that the point is not to just write new prose and do nothing else. If the point of the exercise is to work on your writing every day, then all of these should “count” as your “1,000 words”:

  • Editing
  • Outlining
  • Research
  • Idea-generation exercises: Everything from writing prompts to idea-association
  • Worldbuilding files: Character profiles, descriptions of settings, places, things

I mean, editing isn’t optional. You’re going to have to do it sometime. Why not count it as a meaningful use of your writing time? And everything else is helpful for idea generation. Many of these can be good “warmup” activities, too–you can do them before you write to help get yourself in a creative headspace.

(That said, there does have to be a balance. You should write more often than you do anything else. That’s probably why it’s “write 1,000 words a day” and not “do something writing-related every day”–to keep people from just noodling endlessly about a story. Goodness knows there are a million would-be fantasy authors who have spent years on worldbuilding and never written a single word of prose.)

When I have an active project, I definitely write thousands of words, every day, until I finish the thing. But when I’m between projects, I’ll spend my writing time on all kinds of brainstorming exercises. And that’s OK. You don’t have to produce, non-stop, forever. You have to fill the creative well sometimes, too.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up About It

And for goodness’s sake, if you don’t meet your daily quota, don’t whip yourself over it. If you’re putting aside time to work on your writing every day–or every weekday, or 3 times a week, or whatever works with your life–then you’re doing a heck of a lot more than someone who daydreams about writing a novel but has never written more than a chapter or two.

If you have a regular writing habit, no matter what it looks like, you’re doing well and you’re making progress. And that, in my opinion, is what the “write 1,000 words a day” advice is trying to do. It’s trying to make you build a habit. And it shouldn’t be treated like a limiting, prescriptive law.

So don’t take “1,000 words” too literally. Don’t make it a cross you have to bear, or an overly-strict rule you have to beat yourself up over. It’s advice–and good, useful, and practical advice. But it’s also just a suggestion.