If you’ve been writing for any length of time, and you’re curious to know what will take you to the next level in your career, you’ve no doubt come across the burgeoning movement that is the daily writing habit.
Whether it’s something that you’ve considered, something you’ve already devoted yourself to, or something that you’ve long since written off as gatekeeping nonsense, there are a number of things that you need to know about writing every day. Things that many writers believe to be true, but are actually bullsh–I mean, myths.
These myths are so pervasive that they’ve become unquestionable truths in the minds of many writers, so much so that they’ve polarized the idea of a daily writing habit as either inherently good or bad. But have no fear! Today, we’re dispelling some of the most common myths and hopefully giving you a refreshing take on why you might want to implement a daily writing habit into your life.
We’ll start off today with one of the biggest myths about writing, one that has become a personal pet peeve of mine.
You don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike before writing.
You just don’t!
So many writers, especially newer ones, are under the impression that in order to write at their best, they must wait for a flash of inspiration–or worse, motivation–before they can sit down and write. To do otherwise would be forcing themselves, rushing art, or otherwise trying to make something happen that isn’t supposed to.
Thankfully, this harmful ideology is losing its grip in the writing community, but it’s still a very easy trap for new writers to fall into. And to be honest, I can’t blame them! Whether it’s a global assumption about creativity, a subconscious inclination to rely on a metaphysical “muse,” or just that we all have the eccentric toy restorer from Toy Story 2 burned into our brains–“you can’t rush art!”–it seems to be the default setting of creatives to rely on some external influence before we feel “ready” to actually be creative.
But, in reality, inspiration can be summoned.
Cue the collective gasp and whispers of “blasphemy!” from the keyboard warriors, already furiously typing in the comments.
You heard me!
Inspiration can be summoned. The muse can be called upon. And art? While it should not necessarily be rushed, it can be scheduled.
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
― W. Somerset Maugham
One of the true powers of a daily writing habit is that it trains your mind to be creative on command. It might be outlandish to consider that we, lowly authors such as we are, can summon inspiration. However, if we simply show up every day, we eventually rewire our minds. Our brains adapt to our insistence to produce quality work, to the point where eventually, it knows that if you’re sitting down in front of your computer at 9:00 AM, it’s time to create something amazing.
This is where a lot of writers scoff, choosing to rely on the mystical “muse,” à la The War of Art. However, many writers who subscribe to this more divine way of thinking forget something else Steven Pressfield said amidst his questionable treatise:
“When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Don’t get me wrong–I have my issues with Pressfield’s methodologies (though his writings on the idea of Resistance are fantastic). I quote him merely to show that someone who takes the external Muse so seriously believes that it can be called upon when we show up and do the work, day after day.
If you’re looking for a more pragmatic approach, look no further than one of the most famous authors in modern times.
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
This quote is likely derived from a similar sentiment shared by painter Chuck Close, but I prefer King’s version. It better reflects that there is a real and powerful force called inspiration, but focuses more on the fact that one shouldn’t wait for it.
Many writers look at King’s words and shut him off completely. While, yes, his black-and-white statement can be called gatekeeping, you mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The list of creatives who have realized the power of consistency is endless. I could bore you with a hundred similar quotes, but you get the idea by now. So if you always find yourself missing that magic spark of inspiration, show up and get the work done anyway. Inspiration will come.
And as a final note on waiting for inspiration, consider this: we improve with practice, yes? We’ll talk more about this later. But for now, just know that if the only time you write is when you’re inspired, the work you eventually do produce will rely on rusty, out-of-practice writing skills that you haven’t used since the last time you were inspired. If you really want to do your ideas justice, if you want to let inspiration flow without poor writing skills getting in the way, even if you just want to honor the “muse,” do yourself a favor and make sure your writing chops are in good shape for when it finally comes.
Let’s swing in the opposite direction for a moment.
There’s a small subsection of authors who collectively gatekeep the writing profession by claiming that you’re not a real author unless you write every day.
Let’s get one thing straight.
If you write, you are a writer.
If you’ve written a book, screenplay, journal, or even an essay (willingly, that is), you’re an author.
If you’ve ever been paid for a piece of writing that you’ve produced, you are a professional author.
We’re writers, right? Lovers of whatever language in which we write? So let’s honor definitions and not dare to say that if someone doesn’t conform to a specific structure, habit, or practice, they aren’t a “real” anything.
However, is this really a problem? Is every writer on the internet out to get you because you don’t write every day? Are people like Stephen King actually saying that you have to write every day if you want to get anywhere in life? Did I write this section because I get paid by the word and wanted Chick-fil-A for lunch today?
No, no, no . . . and maybe.
To be honest, I wrote this section because a lot of authors completely dismiss the idea of writing every day in open rebellion of the so-called gatekeepers who claim that you must.
They hear people like Stephen King call them out and get defensive. They refuse to adapt because to do so would be “conforming.” They stick it to the man and stubbornly adhere to the same methodology they’ve used their whole lives . . . and accomplish little but hurting themselves.
I saw a YouTube video a few years ago where a newer writer was interviewing another newer writer about certain advice that gets passed around the internet, and it was this train wreck of an echo chamber where they ranted about advice they hate and threw a lot of it out the window because they personally disagreed with it.
It was painful to watch, especially when they said that the “write every day” suggestion is ridiculous, unhealthy, and overall terrible advice. It was, however, a good example of an attitude that’s getting thrown around more frequently these days, a rebellion that swings too far in the opposite direction and refuses to acknowledge the well documented research regarding habits and creativity.
To make matters worse, this same rebellion is gathering momentum at the same time as the mental health revolution–a wave of support for healthier work habits and work-life balance. And while the latter movement is incredibly important, a balance must be struck. We must find a happy medium that encourages healthy writing practices without working in a way that invites burnout.
However, the whole “issue” is . . . not really an issue.
The thing is, there will always be a loud voice that claims it’s the only way to write, or that you’re not a real writer if you don’t.
But it’s far from the definitive zeitgeist of the writing community at large.
Yes, writers have been recommending a daily writing habit for ages–and for good reason. But if you want to instead stick to a looser schedule, or forego a schedule entirely and rely on inspiration, that’s your choice. Very few people are going to fight you on it. We’ll warn you of the dangers thereof and encourage you to consider objective evidence, but only the truly obnoxious are going to lambast you on the internet and accuse you of not being a real writer.
Rather than taking polarizing quotes from people like Stephen King and using them as a reason to ignore advice that could genuinely help you, I encourage you to thoroughly research habits, creativity, and give a daily writing habit an honest go before deciding it’s not for you.
One of the biggest reasons why there is any debate about the “write every day” advice is that mere productivity is not a good motivator. Sure, some people cultivate the hustle mentality and thrive off the idea of making more, doing more, and having more.
But for most people, productivity for productivity’s sake just isn’t enough. And for those people, if they try to implement a daily writing routine with the singular goal of writing more words, it can lead to burnout, as we’ll discuss later.
I do believe that over time, your productivity will increase. Dramatically so, in fact. Nearly every writer I’ve coached has seen a staggering increase to their productivity after a few weeks of writing every day.
However, it’s not productivity that we should aim for when trying to write every day. Rather, it’s something far more abstract . . .
While I’m grateful that writing every day has injected my writing with a massive spike in productivity, it’s not what I value most about the habit.
It’s the fact that I’ve developed my craft so much that my earlier writings are unrecognizable to me now. I don’t pretend to be the next Hemingway–not by any means. I still write young adult fiction for the time being, and therefore I’ve intentionally limited how mature my writing voice comes across for the sake of being relatable to my audience, but the sheer quality of my work has grown dramatically over the years.
It’s also the fact that I’m so much more comfortable in my work that I haven’t suffered writer’s block in over a decade. This is another huge benefit of the daily writing habit, and one that I see reported among authors who have implemented it so frequently that a direct correlation can be assumed between the two.
It’s the fact that when I sit down to write, I don’t have to fight imposter syndrome anymore. I don’t have an existential crisis while staring at an empty Scrivener document. I don’t tear my hair out when I get to the messy middle of the second act and get lost in the weeds of a sagging plotline.
And yes, I attribute all of it to the daily writing habit. It’s also because that’s my goal when I sit down to write. Not necessarily to produce more, but to become a better writer.
In the end, after all, that’s why we create habits. That’s why we practice. It’s to get better.
Let me challenge you for a moment.
Wouldn’t you laugh at the aspiring bodybuilder who goes to the gym “when inspiration strikes”? Granted, they wouldn’t use those words. Chances are, it’d be along the lines of “when it feels right.”
There’s a reason why no athlete would have such a flippant attitude toward personal development. They know that if they don’t practice regularly, they won’t improve. What’s worse, if they don’t practice regularly, they will start to decline, whether in skill or form.
I don’t write this to scare you or shame you into anything. Nor do I want you to think I’m laughing at you when you say that you write “when inspiration strikes.” However, I challenge you to consider that what is considered normal by some in the writing community would never fly as an athlete.
If you want to get better at something, you practice it, and you practice it regularly. If a bodybuilder waits too long between sessions, their muscles atrophy. If an athlete doesn’t practice, their progress is lost. If you only write every few days, or even weeks, why wouldn’t you think the same thing might happen to your brain?
You see, it’s no different for us creatives than it is for Arnold Schwarzenegger (for those of you too young to remember, he was quite the bodybuilder before he got into politics). The only difference is, we are exercising and improving our brains. We are encouraging healthy neuroplasticity and becoming more creative.
In fact, as a bonus mythbusting for you, a common argument against the daily writing habit is that it becomes a chore, rendering you and your work less creative. On the contrary, when you intentionally engage in creativity on a daily basis, you literally rewire your brain and become more creative in the process.
So yes. You are more than free to write every day for the sole purpose of being more productive. However, you might see better results if you simply do it because you want to get better at it.
However, this leads us to our next myth about writing every day.
I realize how ridiculous I sound right now. I just wrote an essay about how writing every day makes you a better writer, but now I’m saying that the notion of becoming a writer by writing every day is a myth?
That’s exactly right!
Let me explain.
I never said that writing every day makes you a better writer.
Go ahead. I’ll sit here and wait while you take a look for yourself.
I said that writing every day will make you more creative. And yes, I will admit that I heavily implied that writing every day will make you a better writer. So much so that I’m not sure this argument would hold up in court.
But I digress.
Burgeoning creativity does not necessarily translate to good writing. A perfect example of this is M. Night Shyamalan. It’s hard to deny his creativity, but one thing that most people can agree on is that his writing and directing are inconsistent at best. How does a man responsible for incredible films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable put out such unwatchable films like The Happening?
So how do you foster good writing habits? It’s by practicing good writing habits.
Writing every day will not necessarily make you a better writer. If you never take the time to read high-quality books or study craft, and all you do is write contrived fiction with clunky dialogue and unrealistic characters, it’s unlikely that your skills will improve.
Rather, it’s important to accompany a strong writing habit with a strong reading habit. That is, read books that showcase compelling narratives, witty dialogue, and strong characters. Read books on craft like McKee’s Story. Implement what you learn into your daily writing, and I promise you that your skill will increase so dramatically that you’ll look back in a year and be utterly stunned by how far you’ve come.
This belief is common among those who fight so hard against the idea of a daily writing habit. And it’s a special case because, depending on how you manage a daily writing habit, it can be true!
Take a fledgling writer who averages 500 words per writing session. Maybe they write every day, but chances are they write when inspiration strikes or whenever they have free time. While trying to finish their first book, they come across Stephen King’s On Writing and think that in order to be taken seriously as a writer, they need to pump out 2,000 words a day, every single day.
I don’t have to tell you that this writer will, in all likelihood, get burned out in a matter of days. There are a number of reasons this could happen:
- The mere act of quadrupling your word count goal and believing that you’re a failure if you don’t hit it is a surefire way to welcome disaster.
- Going from sporadic writing to a strict daily habit without a realistic plan is unwise at best.
- Reading a book laden with dry humor, hard truths, and some problematic opinions, then taking it as gospel? It’s just not a good idea in general.
Yes, a daily writing habit can indeed lead to burnout. However, this is usually because the plan is flawed from the start. If you only write a few hundred words at a time every few days, don’t worry about increasing word count for now. Just try to write that same amount on a daily basis.
And if that’s too much to aim for right now, you don’t even have to hit that word count! It’s far more important to just get in the habit of writing every day, and if you need to lower your target word goal in order to make that happen, then go for it.
Yes, you don’t want to be writing 300 words a day for the rest of your life. Many authors who write every day allow themselves a couple hundred words of junk before they get into the flow, and if you need a little wind-up time, you’re going to need to aim for a little more so that you can consistently produce quality work.
But if you’re just starting out on your daily writing journey, take it easy, and take it slow. You have the rest of your life to build upon this habit, and what’s important is that you start with a strong foundation.
And in many cases, it prevents burnout.
At least it should.
You see, as much as we know about burnout, it’s quite a subjective phenomenon. What might drive you to the point of insanity is another person’s happy place. My idea of a productive writing life is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 words a day, but that’s enough to make some people swear off writing for the rest of their lives.
So I’ll be the first proponent of a daily writing habit to say this: It’s not for everyone, and it can indeed cause burnout.
But I guarantee you that it causes burnout for far fewer people than you might think.
Remember that YouTube video I mentioned earlier? This poor writer went on a 15 minute rant about how a daily writing habit is the worst thing you can do, how it’s so unhealthy, and how it’s the worst advice you can give to any writer.
It may not have worked for that writer, but their personal experience does not stand up against the science behind habits. It doesn’t line up with what we know about burnout and creativity.
In truth, burnout caused by daily writing (according to what we know about habits thanks to researchers like Charles Duhigg) should be the exception, not the rule. That’s because a daily writing habit directly addresses three major causes of burnout. If anything, those with a daily habit should suffer less burnout over the course of their career. However, don’t think that writing every day is the magical cure to all burnout . . .
What do we know about burnout? Well, according to the Mayo Clinic, we know that it can be caused by an unhealthy workload. But it can also be caused by lack of control, a work-life imbalance, lack of social support, unclear expectations, and the absence of habitual reward.
So let’s say you’re that writer who’s working on your first novel. Maybe you currently write 500 words in a session, and you write once or twice a week. Let’s say you take my advice from earlier, and when developing a daily writing habit, you only aim for 500 words every day. Maybe even only 300.
Are you going to get burned out from this?
Chances are, you’d expect me to answer with a resounding no. But the answer isn’t quite that simple.
You’ve solved a few problems here:
- Let’s assume that 500 words a day is doable and well within your abilities. This prevents being overwhelmed by an unhealthy workload.
- You’ve definitely solved the lack of control; one of the best things about a daily writing habit is it places you, the writer, back in the driver’s seat. You’re no longer waiting on the “muse” to grant you with her blessed inspiration.
- The expectations are clear, at least the short-term ones. You have a set goal in mind of 500 words a day. There’s nothing unclear about that.
But what about a reward? One of the keys to developing a successful habit is the inclusion of a reward that reinforces positive behavior. Maybe you treat yourself to some chocolate every day you hit your goal. Maybe you go out to dinner at the end of the week if you achieved a “perfect” week. Maybe you let yourself buy that shirt you were eyeing at the mall.
What about work-life imbalance? Is your 500-words-a-day mission getting in the way of your relationship with your spouse? If so, be sure to check out my compilation of timesaving hacks for ways to meet your writing goals while on a limited schedule. But don’t sacrifice the most important things in life in order to get more writing done.
And then finally, let’s discuss one of the most common causes of burnout in writers: a lack of social support. Writing is a famously lonely career, after all. Most writers will go their entire lives without a proper support system in place, and that’s why so many quit before they ever see success. It’s why so many merely dabble when they have grand dreams. It’s why some will plot out a book and never actually write a word of prose. Isolation breeds resistance, and though many writers are fierce introverts, it’s hard to do it completely alone. So get out and meet writers in your area! Join some groups online. Make sure your family knows how important writing is to you so that they can support you however they can. It’ll make the journey that much easier.
Yes. And no.
For reasons I’ve explained, it’s unlikely that writing every day will directly cause burnout. In fact, it can definitely help prevent it. Don’t be surprised if you still suffer burnout after implementing a daily writing habit, but don’t blame it on writing every day without thoroughly examining all possible causes.
I will say this: When you take on a daily writing habit, you naturally open yourself up to more potential burnout. After all, it’s easy to avoid conflict with your spouse if there is no scheduled writing session cutting into your personal time with them, for example.
If you do choose to embrace the habit of writing every day, just be prepared to combat burnout proactively by doing it the right way. I guarantee you, simply based on what they say about it, so many people who lambast the daily writing habit as unhealthy did not go about it the right way.
Despite my miniature treatise on burnout, despite the thorough research on habits, despite the litany of reasons I’ve provided today why a daily writing habit might be for you . . .
It might not be for you.
Yes, it’s true. At the end of the day, writing every day may not be what’s best for you and your writing.
What can I say? We’re all different. We work in different ways, think in different ways, and approach writing in different ways.
And if you write best under a specific set of situations that don’t line up with the science?
All the more power to you!
Listen, as much as I love the daily writing habit, and no matter how many people come back and tell me a year later that it transformed their career and changed their lives . . .
I would still rather see more good books in the world than anything else.
And if you have a good book inside you, and writing every day just isn’t working for you no matter what you do, then try something else!
But my challenge to you is this: Resist the urge to scoff at the daily writing habit simply because some people give it a bad reputation. If you haven’t given it a serious effort yet, put aside your prejudices (and possibly even what you think you know about yourself) and give it an honest go. If you try it and it’s not working, consider the other factors I discussed in the burnout section, and try tweaking your routine a bit before giving it up entirely.
But don’t keep banging your head up against the wall if it just isn’t working.
It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay.
No matter what you do, I hope you keep writing, and I hope you find what works best for you.