Why Write for x Hours Every Day? What Then?
June 24, 2013 3:13 PM   Subscribe

A number of sources suggest that writers write for x number of minutes a day. I wrote for 30min/day for 2 months, but stopped because I could not determine a benefit. In addition, I was (and remain) totally unclear on what one is supposed to do with the writing afterward: read it (if yes, soon after writing, or later)? Edit it (if yes, again, soon after writing, or later)? And for what purposes? I hope some established writers can direct me in the proper use of this tool, or debunk it in favor of another method. If it helps, I am writing creative non-fiction, travel narrative, etc.
posted by derward to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
There are many reasons for doing so, but here is one example: As an exercise to expand creativity, the idea is to pick one thing to write about, and explore every possible aspect of it in the time allowed. Write about a marble: What is looks like, how it feels, what the day was like when you were five years old, playing with marbles in your yard, the smells of that day, etc. Do this enough, and you should be a better observer of things, experiences, thoughts, memories, the way the light hits things, on and on and on. It can help you think visually, emotionally, artistically, and that should carry through to your thoughts in general, in addition to to how you present your thoughts in writing.
posted by sageleaf at 3:24 PM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

The idea is to develop a discipline with your writing. You're not supposed to be writing random stuff: this is your writing, the actual work product that you are trying to create. If your goal is to write travel narrative, then it's travel narrative that you spend x minutes a day writing. This is a method for getting the work done.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:24 PM on June 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's like being a musician. No one picks up an instrument and plays it perfectly the first time. They practice, usually daily. The practice hones their skills. Daily writing = daily instrument practice.
posted by palomar at 3:26 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a bad idea and there is no good reason to do it.

You either want to write intensely on some days and rest/do something complementary on others, or completely immerse yourself in writing and write all day every day.

What you are doing is the equivalent of doing ten pushups every day without even knowing what strong looks like or what a strong person might do, and not exercising different muscles to give the pushup muscles a rest, so you don't get much benefit from your workout time.
posted by michaelh at 3:32 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The idea behind writing every day is to develop a habit of writing so that you will, eventually, write something that you're proud of and/or that other people will want to read.

The "write every day" technique stands as a counterpoint to the idea that you only need to write when you're "inspired," or that your personal setting, your tools, etc., must be just right before you start working. It acknowledges that writing (or whatever other art, or creative endeavor) is, in the end, just another type of hard work that you need to sit down and do. It's not a matter of dancing around in fields with Dionysus until you are able to spout a poem fully-formed from pure inspiration - or whatever other unrealistic impression you have of the artistic process. You will only ever get anything done if you work on it consistently - that is the point of writing every day.

That said, I think it does help to have at least a semi-specific idea of what project you're working on when you sit down to write. And not just a genre, like "travel narrative," but a particular project, like "the story of my time in Tibet" or whatever. And then to the extent you can, you write about that when you sit down for your half hour a day or whatever. However, if you simply can't write about that for some reason, write about something else instead - you must WRITE, no "writer's block" allowed, no saying "but I just don't know what to write!" It must be something. Words must flow from your keyboard or pen. Eventually you will find yourself able to turn back to the travel narrative - but only if you are still sitting down writing, rather than having given up to mow the lawn or pay the bills or drink a whisky or whatever.

Then I should think you'd at least want to read your daily scribbles to the extent they do end up related to the target project - because the other part of writing is editing and redacting with a self-critical eye. Again, this method acknowledges that you are not going to come up with the perfect thing all at once - a major part of writing is pulling all the disparate little gems you set down at the various times into a coherent whole.

Assuming you write on a computer, I don't see why you wouldn't save all the rest of it, too, given how cheap storage is. Returning to your example, if you are writing travel narratives and (other) creative non-fiction, perhaps the travel narratives are much easier to line up as discrete projects and focus on in turn. And maybe the things you turn to when you're distracted from the specific projects amounts to a pile of interesting creative non-fiction anecdotes which you can pull together into a novel or series of stories or whatever. Heck, even if it's all written out longhand, you can still save it. I think that is the petty little secret of a lot of writers - they save everything in case they (or someone else) can come up with a way to make it sound brilliant someday, in case they can come up with just the perfect ending or unifying metaphor that turns the rambling, disjoint narrative into a real story. Most of it probably not - but you'll never know if you throw it away.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 3:37 PM on June 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

Could be both, actually: free-form writing exercises, just to train your "writing muscle," and x minutes a day in order to get your writing projects done.
For answering this question, one would need to know where specifically this advice came from, because it recurs in a bunch of books about how to write, but various authors have been doing various things with the write-every-day rule.

I would agree with you that to write a bunch of words every day about something random, without knowing what to do afterwards, is not very edifying in and of itself.

On the other hand, writing x units of time every day, in my experience, is an extremely helpful tool for getting stuff done.
posted by Namlit at 3:37 PM on June 24, 2013

Well, what is the purpose of your writing? If you write for pleasure and writing for 30 minutes a day does not make writing more pleasurable for you, then there is no need to do it.

I think the main reason for suggesting that people write for a minimum amount of time per day is to maintain a habit, keep in practice, and stave off procrastination.

I am currently writing a book for a freelance assignment, and in the past, I've written a book-length dissertation for grad school. For a large, long-running project like that, it's important to put in small chunks of effort on a regular basis. If you procrastinate too long, you end up running out of time before your freelance deadline, or spending eleven years in grad school (ahem). Or you might meet your chapter deadlines, but do so by spending 20+ hours in a weekend (times however many weekends it takes), which is a lot more taxing and tends to produce crappier results than spreading out the same amount of writing over a few weeks.

There's also a certain amount of start-up energy required when you haven't looked at the project recently and have to get your head back into it. You have to re-learn the material you were discussing and remind yourself what your line of argument was. When you write on a daily basis, this understanding stays with you better from day to day and you can pick up where you left off more easily.

For me, the most important benefit of writing on a regular basis (not necessarily 30 minutes per day, but let's say at least three writing sessions per week) is that it keeps momentum going on the project and prevents me from getting overwhelmed by the scale of it. It prevents me from getting into an anxiety > procrastination > more anxiety > more procrastination spiral. If you don't have that problem, then maybe you don't need to write on a regular basis.
posted by Orinda at 3:39 PM on June 24, 2013

The way I would break it down is to ask yourself: What are your goals? Is your eventual goal to write 1 piece that is published in magazine? Or improve your ability to communicate ideas in a business setting? I would define your goals,first.

Let's say your goal is to become a published writer in type X magazines. Then make it a goal to submit 1 piece/month (or whatever is appropriate for you). So write parts of your piece, edit it, and submit it. If it is not accepted for publication, then it provides some information for you (i.e. continue to work at it). If you don't succeed in getting a piece published after so many attempts, then consider taking a class or participating in a writing critique group, which consists of writers of all levels. But if you continue to just write and not evaluate it in an objective way, it may not lead to improvement.

tl;dr 1) make measurable goals with a deadline; 2) periodically evaluate your progress;3) revise your plan.
posted by Wolfster at 3:39 PM on June 24, 2013

It seems like you're new to writing and you haven't articulated a goal or purpose. You'd probably benefit from working with a nonfiction syllabus, taking a class, or otherwise finding a formalized mentorship process so you can better learn to critique and revise your own work--and to set goals for yourself that are qualitative rather than quantitative. Daily practice is important, but hand in hand you need to reflect on how your daily pages fit into a larger set (or project, or assemblage, or series of essays--whatever's most appropriate at this point--it'll change as your writing develops). When you're early on in this, it might be easy to start with short, self-contained vignettes so you're able to keep a narrative arc in mind. With longer pieces comes a more complex and less straight forward arc, and if you've been writing regularly for two months and don't have a sense of this arc in mind already--if you haven't been able to knit all of that together into a messy set of stories--then you should scale back your expectations. Write shorter. Also remember that prose writers have hundreds of pages of pre-writing: these are the pages that get cut in the second or third draft (even if they're essential parts of the story in the first draft), but that have been crucial in helping the writer find his or her way in the story.

When I've written regularly every day (or so), I've noticed that I write more intuitively, that my work is more in conversation with itself and that I feel less like I need to fit every idea into a single piece. I also notice that, if I'm revising my work regularly--both sentence by sentence, and with a larger structural arc that keeps in mind what's at stake emotionally & psychologically--I have a better understanding of what it is I'm trying to do. And even when I don't exactly, my subconscious choices are more thoughtful.
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:41 PM on June 24, 2013

I wrote my first (terrible, unedited, unpublishable, but at least complete) novel by writing 100 words a day. Writing 100 words a day instilled discipline and routine and ensured forward progress on the project.

Some days, I wrote a lot more than 100 words, of course, because once you get started it's easier to continue than it is to get started in the first place.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:00 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I committed to the 3 handwritten pages recommended by The Artists Way, which actually costs me about 40 minutes of time every morning. I was not writing my book during this exercise -- in fact, I was specifically not addressing my novel which I work on in the afternoons and early evenings. I was "free-writing" in order to open the tap, so to speak, to establish the discipline, as others have said, and honestly, to trust the process laid out by many other very successful writers and teachers of writing who have gone before me. For once, I decided not to judge it or wonder what the point or product would be. I would just do it.

On days when I'm frustrated with structure (my personal bugaboo) issues, the free writing helps me accomplish something, vent, keep moving my hand across a page, stack pages, uncover memories or ideas.

Started in January, will finish first draft of my novel by Fourth of July!
posted by thinkpiece at 4:22 PM on June 24, 2013

By the way, following the Artist's Way method, you are not reading or editing the 3 pages of free-writing. They count as creative play, with no pressure or expectations attached.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:30 PM on June 24, 2013

I am personally a little skeptical of the Artist's Way 30-minutes-free-writing thing if you are also trying to produce salable copy of whatever sort. I try to write on a schedule, but I spend two hours minimum working on my current project three days a week. I don't produce "free writing" of any sort, unless you count AskMe answers.

But then, I don't feel particularly "blocked" or "creatively stifled" - I am a writer who has learned how to produce on a deadline, and so I set deadlines and produce, dammit. If you don't have ideas, free writing may be a way to generate them, but if you have the ideas, why not actually produce finished pieces?

I think the general idea of producing a lot of stuff that will probably suck is immensely valuable, but if you're going to produce it, you should also reread it, edit it, get feedback on it, and polish it as best you can. Otherwise you don't have any benchmarks for how well you're doing or what you need to improve on. Journaling is a useful meditation/self-help/emotional processing technique, but I'm unconvinced that it's a good writing instruction technique on its own.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:35 PM on June 24, 2013

r_m, fair enough. I will say that once I got very confident in my actual book-writing schedule and had my plot and characters wrangled, I stopped the practice. It definitely did help me start the channeling process for the first couple months.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:38 PM on June 24, 2013

I believe there are two kinds of professional writers: those who need to write daily and those who could just as easily (and sometimes more happily) forget the project and mainline episodes of Mad Men, if only that deadline weren't looming.

Since I know just as many working novelists who take days (sometimes weeks; hell, sometimes months!) off from writing as I do writers who work every damned day, I'd say that this advice you're asking about probably comes from the latter group -- whom I look upon with great suspicion. GREAT suspicion, I tell you...

More seriously: in the end, do whatever it takes to get the manuscript done. If, after a trial period of writing every day, you find your output increasing in a manner that satisfies you... wunderbar! You found a great technique.

If, after a trial period of writing every day, you find yourself cranky and burned out and longing to break your laptop over your knee... you may belong to the "replenish the well" school of writers, who embrace periods of inactivity (often focusing on other creative pursuits) between their writing projects.
posted by artemisia at 4:44 PM on June 24, 2013

When someone tells you they're a painter, and you ask them what they last painted, they'll tell you – "Oh, I was working on a piece for my friend's coffee shop, based on her favorite band." When someone tells you they're into programming, they can usually tell you their favorite language and what open source projects they follow. When someone says they play the guitar, they can usually name a few songs they like to play or at least what type of music they've been practicing.

But for some reason, a lot of people who openly identify as writers do not write a damn thing. They open a Word document once a month and tap out two paragraphs that just popped into their head, the literary equivalent of doodling on the back of a napkin. There are no revisions, and no attempts at writing a complete piece, let alone drafting.

(I'm not suggesting that writing is unique in this regard, but I am all too familiar with this phenomenon – which is to say, I have been guilty of it.)

I believe this is because writing is ostensibly "easy." You don't need special equipment to jot down 1,000 words here and there, nor do you need exceptional skill to arrange words in meaningful ways. Most educated adults have the basic toolkit to write a story or an essay or even a novel. You don't need to commit to hours of training or a $1,000 instrument – a basic education, a pen, and some paper will suffice.

The challenge of writing boils down to a) revision and b) persistence. A story takes a long time to write, even if you're really good. I've gone through upwards of fifteen revisions of some stories I have written because it was missing something essential that I didn't figure out until I'd rearranged all the pieces just right and worked on it with a group of peers. Writing to completion involves a lot of tenacity and willingness to slog through 2,000 words of crap you wrote the night before because you need to get your hero over the lava bridge to get to the cool sword fight scene on the other side of the mountain.

The real work is developing the discipline to put your ideas down on paper. There is a lot more boring, laborious maintenance involved in producing creative work than you would expect at the outset, but the common belief is that creative writing happens in brilliant bursts of insight which cannot be forced. E.g., "I'm not feeling inspired today." or "My muse isn't speaking to me." Yes, inspiration is part of it, but if your Muse only shows up once a month, you either have to never finish that story or develop some discipline to fill in the gaps.

So take the "write an hour a day" advice for what it is – a reminder for writing enthusiasts that you have to put in the time to polish and finish your work in order to improve. If you don't, you'll go the rest of your life saying, "I want to write but I just don't have the time." You have to make the time.
posted by deathpanels at 5:15 PM on June 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't write time/day, I write at least 1000 words a day when I am writing a book. It's important to work even if the muse doesn't show up. You put in the hours and inspiration will arrive.

Whether I'm under contract or not, I keep to this schedule because momentum is so important. Losing your mental place in a book breaks up the narrative in your head, and makes it harder to get back to it.

I usually start my day by reading and editing what I wrote yesterday. That way I'm back where I left off when it's time to write my new 1k for that day. I don't tend to read back over when I'm done for the day. That just makes me anxious and want to delete.

I find that I can be more alert and aware of the words when I look at them the next day. Then if I need to delete, it's because they weren't good words, not because I let the fraud muse derail me.

That said, when I'm not writing a book? I write jack diddley. I don't even try or think about it. You have to take time to fill your brain back up. You have to read and absorb, and come up with something worthwhile to say.

If I had to free write for a half an hour a day without any purpose, I would get burned out too. What's the point? That kind of discipline is for accomplishing something, in my opinion. I mean, I'm sure it works for some people (outlines work for some people, too!) But I would not be one of them!
posted by headspace at 5:45 PM on June 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't really see the point of writing for X amount of time every day if you don't have any kind of discernable goal about writing.

I mean, there are lots of good goals:

- get more fluent at writing in a language you're not very literate in.

- improve your written communication skills generally.

- write a Thing, for creative reasons or because you just think writing is a fun hobby.

- write a Thing, for creative professional purposes (in other words, because you want to become a writer for a living).

If none of those seem interesting to you, then I agree, go find a different hobby if you're not getting anything out of this one. You won't go to hell if you don't write for an hour a day, every day. It's not like pushups or crunches where it would be of general benefit to all humans.

I've had good luck in the past with alternating big writing projects and blocks of editing. So I wrote a screenplay, then I put it away to work on other stuff, then I took it back out and started editing it, then I put it away again in favor of other projects, etc. I don't think there are any rules here unless you're trying to prepare something for publication in which case you probably want to get done with it and satisfy deadlines and such.
posted by Sara C. at 5:49 PM on June 24, 2013

It's all about developing a habit, kind of like running.

Writing is also about articulating what you hear in your head on the printed page. It's not easy to do, and practice makes perfect.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:09 PM on June 24, 2013

"You either want to write intensely on some days and rest/do something complementary on others, or completely immerse yourself in writing and write all day every day."

Pure nonsense. I don't make a point of reading "writing porn," but on more than one occassion I've read what a writer has written about writing, and I am sure your model of how a writer should work doesn't apply to all of them, or even most of them. John McPhee, as I recall, gets up, strenuously avoids writing for the better part of the day and then finally hammers something out. And he does it pretty much every damn day.
posted by Good Brain at 6:32 PM on June 24, 2013

I'm one of those who thinks the only way to learn to write is to read a lot and write a lot. So I basically endorse the "write X amount a day" plan, though I've always done better with word count than minute count.

But I agree with many here that writing aimlessly is maybe not going to be so helpful. You're planning to write narrative essays about travel? I think you should start writing a narrative essay about travel. About travel you've already done, obviously. Write a certain amount of it each day until a version of it is finished. It will stink. Reading it over will give you some sense of what stinks about it. Start over and write a certain amount each day until you have a version that stinks less. Some people like to iterate this process many, many times; others like to quickly move on to another project. It may take a long time before you write something that doesn't stink. That' OK, writing is hard.

(Caveat: above describes my process of learning to write prose fiction. I think it should apply to narrative nonfiction, but I can't be sure.)
posted by escabeche at 7:37 PM on June 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a means of clarification, in the places that I had seen the x minutes a day method, I almost uniformly took it as a "free-writing" exercise (and in some cases, specifically NOT for use on project writing). Furthermore, it seemed that part of the method was to not consider the fruit of the labor much, which as a pragmatist, didn't set well with me.

However, in reading the responses (thank you all for spending the time to write such thoughtful replies), maybe I have missed the actual point. I already do have ideas, I already do have things I want to say, and for that matter, already have pieces that I have written (which need editing).

I do respect the idea that making a regular concerted effort with some sort of benchmark helps keep the focus and accountability in the process, adds a bit of discipline to the practice, and probably helps progress the work as well. So, in that regard, I do believe that the x minutes/day method can be effective.

I think I will try doing x minutes (or words) a day again, but on projects instead of free-writing, and see how I feel with that. I will likely also try the x finished submissions a month, in lieu of daily time/words minimums.

As a new writer, I'm still trying to find out which methods, strategies, tools, and principles work best for me. Any additional advice would fall on receptive ears.
posted by derward at 8:34 PM on June 24, 2013

what one is supposed to do with the writing afterward

Stick it on a blog, why not; gives it a destination and there's an outside chance someone will read it and like it.
posted by Segundus at 1:58 AM on June 25, 2013

Here's my take. I started doing 'Artist's Way' type journalling about six months ago, longhand, in a nice journal. For many years, I'd struggled with sitting down to write, for various, largely stupid reasons. I read the Artist's Way, then took the parts that I thought would work for me and did something with them. Basically, it goes something like this.

- I sit down each morning and write three pages. The first page is divided into two halfs, 'Yesterday' and 'Today'. This is purely a record - what I did yesterday, things that came up, ideas I had yesterday, then what I'm thinking about for the day ahead. As I write, if there's something I want to write more about, I put (ML) in brackets, for More Later.
- The next two pages are just your classic journalling. Sometimes I'm working on a story problem. Sometimes it's about work, or about something I need to do around the house, or something to do with another personal project. The important thing is to write three pages.

What I've found is that doing these three pages resolves a LOT of the various anxieties and weirdness I had about writing otherwise. I finish up my journal entry for the day and then immediately roll into my 1000 quota of fiction for the day. For me, the two actions have become inseparable. One is preparation for the other. It's also a nice record of what I'm thinking about at any given time and fulfils a longstanding ambition I've had to journal regularly.

So, if you're asking what's the point of 30 minutes of freewriting you could be spending on 'real' writing, I'm pretty much with you. But for me, journalling each morning has become part of my working routine. Sure, I could just pile straight into the fiction - by now I've built up enough of a momentum and a habit that I could probably do fine that way. But I prefer not to. Think of it as like a rolling start in an F1 race. The journal gets the wheels turning, so you're not sitting on the start line trying to remember which pedal is the accelerator (or worrying about whether you even have an accelerator, or does this car even exist, or should I even be a racing car driver?!).

It's a mental trick, pure and simple, but it's working well for me.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:00 AM on June 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

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