Is it required to write every day? Is it useful? I have agonized about this question for years and finally decided to ask some of my favourite authors for some insight. Do they write every day? Does every published author write every day? Certainly there are the Stephen Kings who stick to a strict schedule of four hours of writing every day. They might do it in the morning or in the afternoon. Or they might do it in the middle of the night.
But there are others who don’t.
In order to answer the question ‘Do you need to write every day?’ and the perhaps even more poignant: ‘If you don’t write every day can you call yourself a writer at all?’ we’ll take a close look at each of the twelve writing superheroes’ writing process below.
I would personally argue that after you’ve leveled through the beginning stages (where indeed you should be writing a lot of the time) you do not need to stick to a rigid schedule or write every day. As we’ll see below it’s not necessary to write every day to get published. Just like a stonemason (forget the tired old plumber metaphor) gets two days a week off work the writer needs these two days (or three weeks or four months) off just the same.
A lot of writers (no quotes given because who truly knows where any of this originated?) have given a reason for this: You must ‘re-fill the well’. You must ‘gestate your idea’. You must mentally (subconsciously) test the idea to make sure it’s worth it. You must let go of the idea and see what comes back (Hint: usually the good ideas come back!). Et cetera.
All these come back to a simple reason for taking time off: Your brain sometimes needs a break. You’ve finished a story? Chances are you’ve wrung your mind dry. The ideas are all out there and you’re… blissfully empty. Or not! I often get the feeling of wanting to write – almost HAVING TO write – MORE even after I’ve successfully added a good chunk of useful words to my project. And isn’t that great? It is! But at some point my energy levels will still drop and I won’t be able to stand sitting and writing for a day or two – or a week. And isn’t that all right?
But don’t let me the one to convince you to drop your fear of letting go and taking a few… time to relax! Let’s hear from our writing superheroes how they churn on through endless days or words vs no words.
Myth #1: Write Every Day
Question: What is your writing process like? How much time do you spend writing every day?
I work full-time as a writer and translator. I get up and go to work every morning in my home office, and on a perfect day, I work on one project in the morning and different one in the afternoon. If I had a “day job,” it would be more complicated.
It took me about two years to write Semiosis, and another two years to write Interference. I was working on other projects at the time or at part-time jobs, so I could only devote limited hours of work on the novel on most days. Of course, I had no deadline, so I could take my time.
I wrote the first few chapters and outlined much of the rest of the book in fall of 2014. I then didn’t touch it, for various reasons, until November of 2015, when I decided to use NaNoWriMo as a prod to actually finish it. I wrote every day from then through the middle of December, when I finished the first draft.
I write best in committed bursts, probably because of NaNoWriMo. I’ll average about 2000 words a day while drafting, and work 6-7 days a week, but then not touch that project again for a month or more (when possible).
Tim had a special question from a while ago added. (A while in this case is about two years when I first started to bug him with them!)
1. Do you write every day? (Or do you take the weekends/holidays off?)
Oh, not remotely. According to my work diary I only wrote or revised fiction on 50 days in 2017. (It was my lightest year in a decade. I wrote on 94 days in 2016, which is more typical.) I have a full-time day job, a ten-year-old kid, and a busy social life. Writing one day in three or four is about the most I’d ever do.
In 2015 I wrote the first 12,000 words of the Wrong Stars (four days of writing, scattered over three weeks in late spring/early summer). That was to create a submission package. I wrote and revised the other 80,000ish words in 2017, over about six weeks. (21 working days total, according to my writing diary.)
I began writing The Dreaming Stars in December 2017 and did a bit more on a dozen days in the next month, with the last 50,000 words written over five days at a writing retreat in February 2018.
I started The Forbidden Stars on New Year’s Day 2019 and finished revisions on March 17, across 15 working days total. (I did another little retreat in there where I produced another 50K in six days.) For all three, of course, there was more revision in response to editorial feedback, and copy-edits, and proofreading, and etc, but the above covers my pre-submission process
I work part-time and write the rest of the time, not just on my novels but on short story and novella commissions for Black Library and other various presses and anthologies; and I have a semi-regular newsletter and a monthly Patreon, all of which take away some focus from my main writing. That said, I manage around four hours’ writing a day, usually seven days a week. When I’m on deadline I increase this as much as possible/necessary, but the rest of the time it ebbs and flows. I’m trying to be less strict with myself – instead of having to write 3,000 good words a day, I’m trying to focus on writing 40,000 good words a month. So if that’s 500 words on Monday but 4,000 on Tuesday, that’s fine. Having a daily word count target worked for me for a while, but then it ended up causing me more stress. Shifting to a monthly word goal has actually improved my productivity.
It’s always changing based on circumstances. When I was working on The Snow Child, it was a crazy time for me and my family. I was pregnant with our second daughter and working part-time as a bookseller, my husband was working full-time as a fishery biologist, and we were building our fixer-upper cabin that had no running water or electrical wiring as we lived in it. And then, as I continued writing the novel, we had a newborn. I couldn’t have done it without my husband. Each night, after he’d worked a long day and we had finished dinner, he would get the girls ready for bed while I stole an hour or two of writing. That’s how I wrote it, an hour here, and hour there, always in the evening.
Once The Snow Child was published and both our children were in school, I found myself in this wonderful but strange situation of being a full-time, stay-at-home writer. So now, instead of sneaking in an hour or two at the computer, the whole day stretches out in front of me. I tell myself I have to write 500 words a day, and I set a timer to write for 20 or 25 minutes, then a five minute break to throw some laundry in the washer or feed the chickens, then it’s back to the computer. Sometimes I give myself a treat of writing at our local coffee shop or at the library, just to have a change of scenery.
I’m far to the planning end of [the writing] spectrum. I’ll generally start a project by building a world I’m interested in exploring – setting out its axioms and parameters, its species and factions, and gradating into finer and finer detail. There’s a definite difference between doing this for fantasy and for SF, in where the focus is and how I approach the ‘rules’ of a world. If I’m working with hard SF, such as with Children of Time, I’ll need to research and talk with people who know more than I do about various aspects of the science and the setting. After that I will generally set out an overview of the plot, detail the major characters, and then produce a chapter-by-chapter breakdown.
I spend a few hours each day, mornings and evenings, and that generally suffices. My personal process for planning and writing means the first and submission drafts are generally fairly close in content, which is a godsend for getting stuff done.
These days I write at a pretty steady pace of 1,000 words/hour, and a sustainable pace for me is 2,000 words/day, so that’s two hours of writing a day. The rest of the day is spent dealing with other writing business matters (answering emails, promo, revisions to earlier pieces) or on hobbies like gaming or art.
I don’t really have any rules. I usually write in the morning, and try to do at least 1000 words a day, but I also know pushing myself if the story isn’t working doesn’t help. If I push myself, I usually end up having to take it out and re-write it.
I’ve been writing for about 10 years and I’ve only just developed a process I’m happy with. I take an extremely modular approach to writing a novel – it’s a monumental task, and I can only achieve it by breaking it down into bite-sized pieces.
First I will formulate a plot from different ideas, be they influenced by character arcs or specific scenes in my head. With the Steelhaven trilogy, this involved working on an excel spreadsheet and mapping each major character’s arc, then crafting an interweaving story. I’ll take these ideas and organise them into a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. Each chapter will only consist of a few very basic bullet points.
I go on to use Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate the basic plot of each chapter, as though I’m telling myself the story. It results in a very short and rough draft, but I find it helps when I come to writing the actual prose. Next step is to turn this synopsis into the first draft of a chapter.
[How much time I spend writing every day] can vary wildly. I’ve been writing professionally for about 10 years now and my process has never been the same for more than one book. I tend to go by word-count-per-day or a chapter per day. Currently I’m on about 2,000 words a day, which might take anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on my level of focus.
I try for a page a day, which works out to somewhere between three and four hundred words. I try to get to that page when my inner critic (i.e. the voice that says, “This is awful.”) is asleep–either early in the morning or later at night. I have to write fiction by hand, and I prefer to use a legal pad. At the end of a project, though, I may be good for a couple of pages at a time.
Volume One [of Whispers from the Abyss] took about a year to go from concept to completion. We set out an open call for submissions as well as invited a few specific authors that [we] wanted to include. As far as the open call went, I waited till the submission doors closed before reading the submissions. I learned not to do that for the second volume.
[The Slush reading process] is very different than editing a manuscript for a client. I look for different things when vetting submissions for an anthology. Mainly because the submissions for the anthology should have already (presumably) gone through the editing process and the [writer] is now submitting to me their best work. In going through these works I’m looking for how well the story is constructed and how well the author can grab their audience in the first paragraph. It must fit what I’m looking for the first time or not at all. I usually give authors the benefit of the doubt and read the first three paragraphs, but if it doesn’t hook me in that time, I give the piece a pass and move on to the next one.
I used to be a pantser, but there’s nothing like a big fat fantasy trilogy to turn you into a plotter. I write best in the morning, in silence, on a computer with no internet connection.
[While writing the Titan’s Forest Trilogy] I was writing 5 days a week, aiming for a thousand words per day.
As far as this interview went we received 12 very different answers. Some of your writing superheroes will work meticulously seven days a week (a lot of the outliners seem to be the ones who stick to word counts a day!). Others are content to write 94 days a year (looking at you Tim!). And yet others fall somewhere in between.
All of the writers above have their own process and style. All of them have found a method that works for them. Some take more gestation time than others. As scary as it sounds, it’s all about finding your own path.
I believe Martha’s response can be very helpful with this – whichever way you want to approach it: Martha has a wordcount she would like to achieve daily but won’t push hard if there’s no give from the story (her muse, some might say!). As with any puzzle: if you don’t know where the square block fits then forcing it into a round hole will only destroy the framework around it.
So the best I can make of this as a summary: Find your own way. Don’t panic if the words don’t come one day. I assure you they will the next. Don’t agonize over ‘I should be writing’ if you really don’t feel like it or are busy otherwise for day – or even half a year (like Tim). The most important thing is to get back to it when you are ready. And this readiness can’t be forced.
You’ll find out yourself if you keep at it: Sometime you need a time-off. Sometimes you need to find new ideas. If you’re patient they will eventually come out to play.
And play is our next week’s topic! We’re going to go deeper into our superheroes’ writing process. When did they start their magnum opus? When did they finish it? How much play did they need in order to get it done? How fast did they get it done? We’re debunking the myth that you have to fast or your food gets cold! Are you a rabbit or a tortoise? [Hint: All good things take time!] Stay tuned for next week’s post!