June 15th, 2016

Why “Write Every Day” Isn’t Always the Best Advice

Katie Rose Guest Pryal

One of the most beloved chestnuts of writing instruction is that you should write every day. There are many reasons that writing advice-givers (of which I am one, obviously) give for this advice.

  • You should write every day to gain discipline.
  • You should write every day to gain practice.
  • You should write every day to be more productive.
  • You should write every day to encourage your muse to show up (a teacher told me that one).
  • You should write every day to prove to yourself that there is no muse (a different teacher told me that one).

But recently, some friends of mine, writer and novelist Esme Weijun Wang and writer Jacqui Shine conversed about how “write every day” advice has really terrible ramifications for a certain group of people in particular: those with physical and/or psychiatric disabilities. Some people—like them and me—simply can’t write every day.

Does that make us failures at writing? Answer: No.

Yesterday, for example, was a day I couldn’t write. My brain was a fog because I woke up with a migraine. I could barely see my laptop screen. My mood was terribly low. I answered urgent emails only and did all work that could be done by rote—invoicing freelance clients, entering travel receipts into bookkeeping software, and other work that I save up for just the sort of days when I can’t write.

I anticipate these bad days because they’re so common. I save rote work for those days. After all, not every day can be a writing day.

As a creative writing teacher, I never tell my students to write every day. It would be hypocritical of me.

The ironic part of all of this is that I’m often told by others how “productive” I am. Sometimes, though, the words don’t sound very complimentary. I remember learning about the criticism of Joyce Carol Oates’s overly productive writing output, as though she spat out too many books for them to be any good. Stephen King mentioned Oates in his own writing on this subject for the New York Times in 2015, in which he noted, “No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.”

Nowadays, we, as a society, are guided by the nose by the cult of productivity. Productivity is the modern-day incarnation of the Puritan work ethic with a dash of iTech thrown in.

I do not like being called “so productive,” especially when the person uses the vaguely judgmental tone that implies that I’m churning out mindless, crappy writing in vast quantities. That’s not a compliment; that’s an insult. Even when the “so productive” comment is a legitimate compliment, I feel like I need to make an appointment with my doctor because maybe I’m manic and I can’t tell and I need to change my medication and is that why I’m writing so much lately help I CAN’T TELL.

Worshiping in the cult of productivity is bad for writers because it is bad for human beings. And if you are a human who also happens to have a reason that you can’t write every day—because you have a disability like me and my friends do, or because of some family or work responsibility, or whatever—that does not meet that you are not a good writer or can’t become one. Some suggest that writing every day is actually bad writing advice, per se.

So here’s what I suggest: let’s try really hard not to confuse productivity with discipline.

And discipline is what this is all about. Theri Pickens, a professor, writer, and colleague of mine, helped me summarize my thoughts on this point, and I appreciate it. She pointed out that I was really talking about the “illusory concept of productivity and how that’s different from discipline.” I said I owed her credit for my thesis statement. (Did you know that writing is often a collaborative activity? Now you know. Let’s explode myths all over the place today.)

You do not have to write every day to have discipline. You do not have to “be productive” to have discipline. To be honest, I don’t really know what “productive” looks like. Who sets that metric? Who decides what productive means? How many books means you are productive? How many blog posts and tweets?

So what does it mean to have discipline if we’re not focusing on being productive?

Only you know what having discipline means for you. For me, having discipline means setting goals, and doing my best to meet those goals, and having compassion for myself when I do not. Discipline, to me, also means regular practice. But regular doesn’t have to be every day. Regular only has to be regular enough to show that I am making a commitment to yourself.

Because we are what matters. Not someone else’s opinion of us, of our productivity, or of how often we write.

Do you write every day? Why or why not? What does “having discipline” mean for you?

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About Katie Rose

Pryal Color Author PortraitKatie Rose Guest Pryal, J.D., Ph.D., is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Entanglement Series, which includes ENTANGLEMENT, LOVE AND ENTROPY, and CHASING CHAOS, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to QUARTZ, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE (late, lamented) TOAST, DAME MAGAZINE, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. She teaches creative writing through Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and leads the Village Writers Workshops of Chapel Hill. She also works as a writing coach and developmental editor when she’s not writing her next book.

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33 comments to Why “Write Every Day” Isn’t Always the Best Advice

  • Katie, I think you’re going to touch a lot of hearts with this post. I always say that if I’m not in a coma, I’m writing.

    Until lately. In the whirlwind of having 8 books published in 3 years have left me in flameout. I’ve taken a month off (makes me nervous, just typing that!)

    You know what? I like it. And, more importantly, I needed it. Bad.

  • I try to write every day because I enjoy it. I have my word count goals. But if “stuff” happens (such as a last-minuted critical visit to my parents), I don’t obsess about missing a few days. There are so many other ‘writing’ things one can do, such as reading. “Head writing.”

    • This is pretty much exactly what I was going to say after I read this post. I love days when I get to write, but when I can’t i’m still ‘head writing’ everywhere I go, narrating my life. It can’t be helped. I have a friend who is a successful concert pianist who told me, “just do one thing to move your art forward every day” – some days this is writing, but some days this is experiencing my life.

      • ..“just do one thing to move your art forward every day” <-- What a FANTASTIC quote. 🙂 Please tell your friend I think he or she is very wise.

      • Orly Konig-Lopez

        Everything here! Just yes!!! 🙂
        I don’t write every day although if I go too long, I get itchy. But I’m always “head writing.” The story ideas are always with me, whether it’s nodding an existing project or marinating a new idea.

    • Head writing! Yes. Now it has a name, I feel better about the hours I spend doing it on the days I don’t put a word on the page.
      I often take a day or two off and that’s when the head writing starts. When I come back to the page, I’m bursting with ideas.
      I don’t away write every day. If I forced myself to write on the days I don’t feel well or have other things needing my attention, I’d probably end up taking the pleasure out of the thing I love.

  • Betty Bolte

    Since I have the luxury of writing full time (thanks to my very supportive hubby!) I treat my writing like a job. I write on a book 8-12 am most weekdays, and write a blog or two on Sundays. I do not believe the myth that you have to write every day to be successful – depending on your definition of what success means – nor that anyone has to do anything every single day if they don’t want to. Frequently there are family obligations that intervene, and family first is my motto. Thanks for a heartfelt comment on this myth!

  • Terry, I LOVE that way of describing reading! Will have to use it in the future.

    As for not writing…Last year I published six books at regular intervals. Each book contained two short novellas. In December the plans for our new home kicked into high gear.

    I haven’t published anything in six months.

    I’ve written blog posts, book reviews, parenting posts, and even done a little bit of editing for a client. But no substantial writing.

    I’ve also shed quite a few tears and spent many days feeling low about not being able to write. But most of my free time was going into the details of the house. What free time I had left, I found myself sapped of all creative energy.

    So I’m relieved to read writing advice from a professional (especially another Carolinian!) that it’s okay NOT to write every day. Thank you. This post makes me feel so much better!

  • I am very glad to hear there are others who do not write everyday. I have many life intrusions, and as much as I’d like to accomplish my writing goals, some of these intrusions (like my aging dad and my not-quite-flown-the-coop daughter) are more important to me. How do I know? Because when needed, they always come first. That being said, one of the most difficult obstacles I have to accomplishing my writing goals is losing my momentum. If I let more than a couple of days pass, when I get back to my manuscript, I need to spend valuable time getting reoriented, combing through notes to remember the ideas I jotted down, etc. etc. So as with most things, we need to find a happy balance between writing everyday and making sufficient progress (however we individually define progress.) And learning to leave guilt and self-recrimination locked away. Thanks, Katie.

  • carrienichols

    Thank you, Katie!! I try to write most days but there are times when I feel as though I’ve tapped the creative well dry and need time to refill it…by reading or watching a movie or favorite tv show. Of course I need to be sure not to let refueling become a procrastination tool. 🙂

  • Your comments on the cult of productivity has hit home. I am so guilty of discounting a perfectly wonderful, rich day with family or friends as being “unproductive.” Ridiculous. I get to decide what’s meaningful and how much writing I want to accomplish.

  • Beverly Turner

    Katie…I’m sure the ‘write every day advice’ is handed out as a cure for procrastination. As the Queen of Procrastination, I will admit I don’t write every single day. There are days when real life interferes and I have to be away from my computer. But I have found I get restless if I am away from my characters for too long and getting back to writing after a day or two away makes me more enthusiastic, not less. Also, writers are ‘writing’ even when they aren’t at their computers. I find myself thinking about plot when I am taking care of mundane tasks and ‘listening’ to my characters conversations during solo road trips. So productive is subjective. As different as each writer out there.

  • Great post, Katie. I long ago stopped feeling bad for not writing every single day, because there are days when I simply don’t have it in me, and when I have forced myself, then I found that I disliked the writing process and that is not a place I want to be in. However, at this time, I have the leisure of being able to write or not write. If I am on a deadline, it’s different and I would have to set some disciplined time.

  • I am a morning person, so I find that writing in the early morning when the house is quiet works for me. I usually take a break from writing for the rest of the day, but I might return to look at some of the earlier writing if I had an idea or want to add something. I don’t beat myself up if I do not write every day. I find that taking a couple days off sometimes helps the creative ideas rebuild and allows me time to mull over plot ideas, hooks, characters, and other things writers mull over while they should be worried about whether or not the damn fish are biting.

  • Thank you for saying this! I’ve heard this writing advice more times than I can count. Some days I don’t write because I don’t want to be unproductive by writing a scene that would be mush, so I take time to mull over where the story is going.

    Also, as a person who believes in the Sabbath concept of a day of rest, I believe it’s good to step back sometimes and give other parts of your life focused attention. Anyway, I’m thrilled you hacked away at this myth that you can’t be a “real writer” unless you write every day. Well said!

    • I take weekends off to spend them with my family, unless I’m doing a Fast Draft or something like that. The Hubs is hugely supportive, which helps, but I just never get excited about writing EVERY day. I like to have some days off.

  • Linda Lee

    I try to write every day, but don’t force myself. I suffer from migraines–and sometimes, even thinking about writing hurts my head!

    To be a writer, an individual must be disciplined as well as driven. If I’m not writing, I’m researching my book or jotting down notes for my story. I’ll work on character dossiers. Those mental activities feed the creative brain and nurture the subconscious.

    My advice? Never feel guilty about not writing. It’s counterproductive.

    Thanks for the post, Katie. Pinned & shared. 🙂

  • Writing every day never worked for me. When there is a book in progress, I’m writing as much and as often as I can, even if its at a hospital beside while a family membere sleeps or 2 in the morning. But to me being an author is more than just putting words to paper. There is researching and preliminary grunt work for the next one. Editing and polishing, production details, and then marketing are all part of the job. So I finally accepted that not writing is fine and so is downtime. Sometimes you have to let the well refill.

    Thanks for helping crack the myth..

  • I just want to say how much I love that you wrote and shared this. Thank you. 🙂

  • Let’s try not to confuse productivity with discipline. I always say it, you’re a genius Katie.

  • I don’t write everyday. I have two children aged 4 and 6 as well as depression and anxiety. When my children (and my husband) need me, I’m there because they are the most important people in my life. And when my illness acts up then it’s all about surviving – getting out bed, making sure the kids are cared for, crawling back into bed at the end of the day. Everything else, writing, housework, everything, comes second to that.

    It might not make me a fast writer, but I am still a writer.

    Thank you for posting this.

  • Pedro Vasquez

    I agree that writing every day is not for everyone.
    However, I don’t believe that telling someone “You should write every day” is bad advice (if what one means by it is that the writer–especially those that are new to writing–should strive to work whenever possible, so that writing becomes habitual).
    There’s no such thing as writing too much. Don’t they say that practice makes perfect? Of course, whoever can’t write every day –for whatever reason– shouldn’t. They can “think about writing” instead. 🙂

  • All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. That was what Jack Nicholson was typing over and over again in The Shining. That’s an extreme example of quantity over quality. It’s OK to take some time off. That’s where you pick up experience that you can use in your writing.

  • […] did write a piece recently on how I don’t buy into the (terrible) advice that you have to “write every day.” […]

  • […] did write a piece recently on how I don’t buy into the (terrible) advice that you have to “write every day.” […]

  • The one thing I’ve never lived by as a writer, but have been made to feel guilty for a few times. Life has intervened a lot these past two years, so I write when I can, or when inspiration and energy to do anything at all align. It’s great to hear someone say “out loud” what many of us have apparently been thinking for a long time. Thank you, Katie!

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