I admire greatly Cal Newport’s blog Study Hacks; he’s interested in examining myths about studying, and entrepreneurship, and achievement, stacking the myths up against data, and thinking about what really works and what doesn’t. And he’s usually got extremely good advice. So I was very amused to come across one of his posts with which, essentially, I do not agree, “Write Every Day is Bad Advice.”
I tell my students to write every day, and I myself find that if I want to get anything done I need to write every day. And multitudes of writers, from Stephen King to Julia Cameron, advise other writers to write every day. Could this, too, be a myth? Oh, noes!
Newport, who has several books to his credit, and therefore speaks with authority, says that the foundational issue is that it is actually impossible to really truly write every day, and that if we set writing every day as our goal, we will slip up, and at that point, our brains will tell us, oh, damn, we’ve messed up, might as well give up the whole project. His theory is that the “write every day” advice works for full time writers, who are clearly able to fit it into the day cause that’s their day job, but that for most of us, who write in bits of time carved out of days spent doing whatever else it is that we get paid for, the best advice is to use a freestyle approach, planning in writing time in a flexible manner.
He’s on the money about the problems of setting daily goals that can’t really be kept up, and the human tendency to expect perfection and then drop everything when perfection doesn’t happen.
But there are other factors that he hasn’t taken into account. (And some of them get mentioned in the comments section, which is worth reading along with the original post.)
One is that he’s not drawing a distinction between different kinds of writing. He uses Stephen King and Anne Lamott as examples of writers who advocate writing every day. And they write fiction. And he’s writing nonfiction. And my experience of writing both fiction and nonfiction is that different pieces of my brain seem to be in use. Or at least, different pieces of my personality. And it is much more difficult to walk into one’s fiction after a long time away from it than it is to walk into academic articles. Or even, I find, creative nonfiction. And poetry? Oh, it needs me to pretty much camp out at the well, rather than stopping by every once in a while.
Another factor is that it’s not just the full time fiction writers that think it’s a good idea to write every day. It’s possible to get large fiction projects done, even if one can only spend an hour a day on them, and it’s been done. My favorite example is Anthony Trollope, who managed to create one of the largest bodies of Victorian fiction (and those of you who know the field know that it’s possible to create a VERY LARGE body of Victorian fiction, all on one’s own, so as to keep young scholars busy for quite some time, getting ready for their doctoral exams), getting up every morning, writing for an hour or so, and then going off to the post office, where he kept his day job.
Ok, to be fair, he didn’t write ALL that stuff while he was working for the post office. But he wrote a substantial piece of it. And then he got famous and made some money off the writing, and got to quit his day job and be a writer. So. You see. Worth getting up daily and ponderously writing on your Barsetshire series.
Another factor is that even in nonfiction, there’s strong anecdotal evidence that a habit of daily writing can ease even academic life. Academics need to carve writing time out of time also allocated to meetings, teaching, class preparation, and research. And academics tend to “binge write,” producing work in giant chunks right before the deadline. (Academics, you know this is true. May I see a show of hands? How many of you have spent a night before you gave a paper sitting in your hotel room, trying to get it finished? Yes. I thought so.) But it’s easier and more productive to write even nonfiction in smaller doses, getting bits done at a time. It means that your underbrain has more to work with when you’re not writing; it’s easier to come back to it and get things done more quickly, because you’ve been working on it even when you stepped away from the computer. (My favorite book on how to get academic writing done is Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot; I recommend it to graduate students.)
But I do think Newport is right in that there’s a danger inherent in creating the daily writing goal. It can become the “real” goal, when it’s just a method. The REAL goal is getting the writing done. The poem. The paper. The book. The short story. The essay.
Write as often as you can, even if it’s for one hour, for 15 minutes. Try to write every day, but don’t make that the goal. Make writing the goal. Plan in what time you can. Carry the notebook in case you get some time sitting at the coffee shop waiting for your next appointment.
Write every day, not because you’re devoted to writing every day, but because you’re devoted to writing.
And don’t be afraid to write in little bits often, rather than large chunks occasionally.