Should a writer write every day?
This is the eternal question, or at least it seems to be nowadays. It has become very common and somewhat fashionable to throw down challenges to write daily, with the aim of developing a writing habit. It is put forward as the secret to becoming a successful writer, or at least one that completes books.
The most famous example is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which is as a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing”. The aim is for participants to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days, starting on 1 November each year. It launched in 1999 and has become a worldwide phenomenon, certainly within the writing community, with more than 400,000 participants in 2018.
More recently, The Bestseller Experiment podcast launched their BXP 2020 Writing Challenge. The idea is to write 200 words a day, as part of a community aiming to finish 15,000 books in 2020, reaching a total of one billion words. They chose 200 words because it is around one page of a book, and one year of continuous writing will result in 73,000 words – the average number of words in a book. Marks Desvaux and Stay, who front the podcast, point out that 200 words takes around 15 minutes, and is the equivalent of six text messages, on average. They say friends of the podcast reported a 10-fold increase in word counts achieved, and they loved the challenge.
There are many others, of course, including Kiingo Writing Sprints on Twitter, which likens writing to something comparable to a spin class or reps in the gym, consisting of speed writing challenges over short bursts of time.
Before I carry on, I should say that I do not want to denigrate the experience of anyone else and I certainly don’t want to criticise anyone who takes part in daily writing challenges, The Bestseller Experiment in particular has nothing but the best intentions towards budding writers and I personally regard them as nothing short of wonderful mentors who have helped me enormously to move from dreaming about seeing my writing published to have several books out there.
However, I do have some reservations about the concept of a daily writing habit.
Leaving aside the implied reference to drug-taking, the advantages, they say, are that you will become a ‘better’ writer by force of practicing every day and that, little by little, almost without noticing, you will amass enough words to have completed a book or novel, all within a pleasingly brief timeframe.
The implication is that achieving a book’s worth of word count is the only obstacle standing in the way of you finishing a book, and when we say finishing a book, in our mind’s eye we mean a successful book.
This of course appeals to the human desire to measure and see things in numbers easily counted, with a total mounting up in black and white. A finished book is said to equal a certain number of words on the page, and so breaking that down into bite-size chunks helps with overcoming feelings of self-doubt when faced with the seemingly unscalable edifice, making the task more manageable (although I have my own solution for that problem).
The implication is that achieving a book’s worth of word count is the only obstacle standing in the way of you finishing a book, and when we say finishing a book, in our mind’s eye we mean a successful book. I say not ‘bestseller’, as there are so many factors influencing either a book becomes a bestseller other than its content or word count that it would make your head spin just to think of them. I say it also because we all have our own definition of what successful means, which may be a long way from achieving bestseller status.
What are you writing?
What seems not to be questioned here is whether the idea of writing every day is even a good one. I happen to think that it partially depends on what kind of writing you are talking about. I have been a professional writer and journalist for twenty years, and been writing fiction since my partially misspent youth, and I have come to the conclusion that writing can be divided into two broad, and sometimes overlapping, types.
Leaving aside purely academic writing, which is a skill all of its own, the first main type of writing I would call reportage and covers journalism, non-fiction, and the type of fiction that mimics those styles, such as thrillers, espionage and crime and, I would argue, much romantic fiction, to name a few. For these types of writing, it is necessary to develop a punchy, compelling style that focused on action and reaction (or consequence).
To do it well requires a particular mindset and way of looking at the world, and one should be immersed in it as much as possible. The aim is to keep practising until it becomes second nature. Aside from taking time to do research, learn concepts and mull over the meaning of the story and how to present it, it is important to write regularly, as that style, which is unnatural to write but natural to read, can always be improved.
Moreover, punchy and compelling is difficult and relies on brevity, which in itself requires a broad and highly developed understanding of your chosen language. It also needs an expertise in wielding a language similar to the most accomplished fencer or musician. In short, reportage is not to be underestimated. It is more craft than art, and all the better and more satisfying for it, but all crafts need dedication and lots of it.
Time for reflection
The other main writing style one might call reflective. Even though action may form a strong or even central part of the story, the main purpose of the narrative is to make you think about something wider than the events taking place.
This is more the art than craft end of things and requires a great deal of cogitation both before and during the commitment of words to the page. What we are talking about here is literary fiction, classical and contemporary, as well as science fiction, dystopian fiction, some crime, thrillers and comedy, among others, as well as poetry, epic and otherwise.
Great art is not a production line, even if production lines can give us wonderful things that entertain and dazzle.
These are books that are as much commentary as story, and typically stand the test of tine, speaking to us as people, rather than being a lightning rod for a moment in time. This fiction, in my opinion, should not, indeed cannot, be written every day. Several days a week, perhaps, but not and expressly not every day.
Time to think, to formulate, to ponder events and meanings, as well as connections, is as central to the creation of the story as putting down words on the page. From this comes some of the most memorable and durable prose ever written, and stories that we shall carry with us as people forever. Great art is not a production line, even if production lines can give us wonderful things that entertain and dazzle.
How regular is regular?
You would be forgiven for thinking that I was going to conclude that a daily writing habit is appropriate for reportage but not reflective writing. However, I said “it is important to write regularly”. Regularly does not mean daily.
In either case, a ‘daily’ writing habit, with goals attached, is not to be recommended in the same way that a daily running habit is not recommended for people who wish to become professional runners. Runners who overtrain run the risk of injury. For creatives, the risk is that of burnout, and both experience the law of ever-decreasing returns. We all need time off to refresh and repair, and to process what we have done and how we could do better. Writing is no exception.
In the future, artificial intelligence will use algorithms to spit out words enough to fill the internet and more, and may even produce generic novels, journals, news stories and texts of all kinds.
Even I don’t write every day in my job as a journalist, or at least I try not to – I aim to space out the writing of news articles and reports to every other day. Otherwise I notice myself, and my work, becoming stale. To be punchy, clear and direct takes an energy that cannot be replenished immediately.
Whatever the style, writing is an art and a craft, although the proportions may differ, and we do it because we want to become good at it, not simply to produce, or even churn out, words. In the future, artificial intelligence will use algorithms to spit out words enough to fill the internet and more, and may even produce generic novels, journals, news stories and texts of all kinds.
The important thing is for us as creators to produce texts in which the the human touch can be distinguished, to add value and to stand out. And that takes imagination, thought, planning and learning, as well as dedication and application, to make improbable connections and develop an idea.
Otherwise we may as well not bother at all and take up knitting. That lovely habit produces a lovely object that comforts when we need it, rather like a good book. Unlike a good book, however, it is made to a pattern, the intention of which is to make it indistinguishable from any another.
L. A. Davenport