Do You Need to Write Every Day to be a Writer?

Recently, I was at a writing retreat and I learned something very valuable that’s taken a lot of pressure off me. This tidbit of information has changed how I feel about my approach to writing a novel or a short story.

In the writing world, there is a mantra that we’re supposed to write every day. We’ve heard it over and over. It’s our albatross. And when we don’t, the feeling of failure, the feeling of not being a real writer, is all consuming.

We’re supposed to write a certain number of words per day. To write so many short stories a year or to write at least one or two novels a year so that we can fulfill reader expectations because the immediate nature of social media and technology dictates that we produce polished works quickly.

We’re also told that we are better writers if we always work at our craft.

It’s true that we always need to work at our craft. It’s true that we need to produce work so we have something to submit and sell. What’s not true is that we need to be hard at it every day. That may work for some, but for many of us, it doesn’t.

When I learned that, I realized that I don’t feel all the pressure to perform to someone else’s mantra any more.

Sure, I want to write at least one novel and/or five short stories per year. I can do that. But now I write without the expectation I’d learned, the one that states that I need to write every day in order to produce work. At the writing retreat, I learned to relax and accept my own writing schedule. How did that happen? I simply asked others about their approach to the craft.

And that was how I discovered that I don’t need to write every day to be a successful author.

The bottom line is that we all write differently, and we all approach our craft differently. Our personalities and how we process information differs. One writer I spoke with thinks about his novel for 6-8 months, and sometimes longer. He writes in a journal, makes notes about the world, and mulls about the plot and the characters. Another outlines and plots. Another is a pantster with the vaguest notions about the story before she begins writing. Another is part pantster, part outliner. Some write a little every day. Others may wait for 6 months until they’ve got the pieces together and then in 4 to 6 weeks, they write the entire novel. Not everyone writes every day. Some don’t write for months. Some take a lot of time to think and outline while others dig in. Everyone’s method of creating the world, characters, and plot differs as does how much and how often they write every day.

But there is one thing in common: At some point, everyone has to sit in the chair and put their fingers on the keyboard and write the story.

I think that’s why when we’re new to this game, we’re told to write a bit every day. It’s about creating a habit and getting the job done. Unless we’ve tried writing every day, how do we know that it isn’t what we need to do? Unless we’ve tried outlining and writing as pantsters, unless we explore and learn whether we write best after long periods of reflection, or if the muse is more willing on the fly, we’ll never really know which method works best. That’s what I learned from the pros on the retreat – everyone had written long enough to have discovered what works best for them.

Then, there are those other times when we’re not productive. Those times makes us wonder if we’re really cut out for this business. You know, when illness strikes either you or someone in your family. Or, when the job and family leave you too exhausted to be creative (it takes physical and mental energy to write). Or, when good things like vacations, promotions, moving to a new house, new babies, or other events happen. All these life circumstances threaten to derail our story telling if we keep the mantra in our head that there is only one way to be a writer and that is by writing every day.

That mantra, is simply not true.

You don’t need to write every day to be a writer. Yes, it works for many, but not for all and not always. Life happens. But also, our personality and approach to the craft determines what works best.

The good news is that even when we’re not writing, we’re observing, we’re learning, we’re putting things together in interesting ways. We’re watching people and trying to understand what makes them tick. We observe things in our environment and we see interesting combinations and juxtapositions. On a recent road trip, a writer friend noted a corral with a horse and a rusty Winnebago and she began to wonder how she could work those things into a story. Even when illness strikes, we intimately learn about compassion and patience, about the will to overcome and survive, about what it means to be human in those circumstances and it makes us take stock of what we value. And somehow, all that gets translated into the stories we write.

Everything we do and experience contributes to our stories. We need to realize that and give ourselves a break during those times when we aren’t writing. Equally important is for each of us to discover and understand which approach to the craft is most productive.

But the cardinal rule remains: you have to write. You have to get the story down whether it’s a bit every day, whether it’s in a month-long spell, or every weekend, or some other schedule. Find what works for you and do it.

What is my writing method? My goal is always to write at least one novel a year. I tend to research and ponder for a few weeks. This includes world building and character studies. I’ll make a vague outline, which means that I know the beginning and the climax, and sometimes the end. Then, I’ll and jump into the novel, and see what my characters have to say. I’d love if I could, at that point, write for 6 weeks straight, but that rarely happens.

Last year, family health problems and a death happened and that made it impossible to concentrate on my new novel. I could have beaten myself up for not meeting my goals, for not being able to write, but instead, I wrote 8 short stories because those were manageable pieces. I’m back at the novel and it’s being written.

So now I know, that my writing method allows me the time to ponder and create so when I do write, the time spent is productive and stories (novels included) are written fairly quickly.

Happy writing!

5 responses on “Do You Need to Write Every Day to be a Writer?

  1. Charles T. Whipple

    When people ask me how to write novels, my stock answer is “500 words a day.” But I’ve only written a few published novels and novellas (and some short stories). No, I can’t write every day, unfortunately. I can write most days. It helps me get 2-3 novels out per year, and if I’m lucky, 2-3 fantasy novellas for the Masacado Scrolls series.

  2. James

    Thank you thank you thank you. You’ve just depressurized my stress level by 75 percent. Because of this article I now know that I don’t have to write every day but choose the best time for me.

  3. Ace Jordyn Post author

    You are so welcome, James. Creativity, aka ‘the muse’, seems to work best when not under pressure to perform. I found that I can’t force a story (it becomes really contrived), which is what happens when I try to force myself to write because I think I must. And Charles, you make a good point, that you must write whenever you can, even if it’s a little, because that’s how the word count adds up. Thank you both for your comments!

  4. Trevor

    Great reminder that we’re all different – which is what makes our personalities and our books interesting.
    Personally I like to do something each day, even at weekends, because I find it easier to keep track.
    But the quantity of “somehing” varies quite a bit depending on my mood, whether or not life gets in the way, even the weather (it’s just snowed here in the UK in April which isn’t really normal but could be worked into a plot somewhere I’m sure).
    The idea of changing writing style from long to short novels (or vice versa) to better fit in with life’s changes sounds excellent and much better than beating myself up for not doing what other people think an author should be doing. Thanks!

    1. Ace Jordyn Post author

      You’re right on when you say it’s our personalities which make our books and stories different from each other. It took me a while to figure out that how and when I write is as much a part of that process as how many words I put on the paper. I’ve just avoided a major writing disaster because I stepped back from a novel for reasons outside the novel itself. That gave me the time to think about the details which niggled but I hadn’t yet addressed. If I had persevered writing while under the duress of circumstances, I wouldn’t have recognized a story problem and then I would have had a mess to clean up. So, sometimes a delay is an opportunity because, as writers, we never stop the process in our heads.

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