I know, I know. A lot of conventional wisdom about writing recommends a daily writing habit—for exactly that reason: if you write every day, it becomes a habit. Habits, in this case, are good. But.
Conventional wisdom is just that: conventional. It’s often the average of all the options, something that most people can aspire to. But it doesn’t take into account your own personality, or your routine, or anything else unique to your individual circumstances.
Since I read Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k back in April, I’ve started tracking my metrics again. I did this for a few years when I first started writing, but then writing became just another way to measure my failure and so, to help dig myself out of the mire of postnatal depression, I quit writing. When I took it up again (initially in 2013 with the proposal for From The Ground Up—non-fiction was an easier ‘in’ for me than fiction with my mental state at the time), I decided not to track my word count or anything like that, because I didn’t want it to become like before: I didn’t want to have statistics I could use to beat myself up.
I neglected two things, though. First of all was that I’ve matured a lot as a human being since 2011: I’ve had two kids, I’ve suffered through and, with the help of a lot of family support and a great psychologist, beaten it, I moved away from my home town for the first time ever (and moved back again 18 months later, ha)—but most of all, I’ve learned to cut myself some slack.
The second thing I learned (or relearned) from Rachel Aaron’s excellent (if short) book: you can’t improve what you’re not tracking. Following the advice in her book, I spent a week tracking my daily circadian rhythm—which it turns out, by the way, is almost exactly wrong for modern day living. My peak awake times are at the 10s and 4s of the clock—fantastic given the baby pretty much only wakes just after 4 during the night if she’s going to, less fantastic when I’m supposed to be going to bed at 10pm. My peak asleep times? The 1s—not too drastic, although I’d like an afternoon nap more often than I get it—and the 7s. Guess what time I have to get up for work? You guessed it: 7, or just before. URGH.
But anyway, writing. The other thing I noticed after tracking my stats again for several weeks was that I actually write better when I don’t write every day. I’m a deadline kinda gal: you know, the one leaves the essay to the day (night) before (of, haha*). So even though my spreadsheet is set up to tell me how many words I need to write each day in order to meet my deadline, it actually works better for me if I let it lapse a little. There’s nothing like two days of zeros to motivate me to spend a good hour writing, even if it’s late and I’m tired, because I’ll do anything to get the numbers back on track. The key, though, I’ve found, is to be ahead to start with: if I let myself fall behind, then missing a day registers in my subconscious as ‘FAILURE, FAILURE, DO NOT RETURN TO THIS PROJECT’ and it’s really hard to find motivation again. If I start off the spreadsheet ahead, though**, then missing a day or two just means I’m less far ahead than I was, so I’m not failing yet—but it’s enough motivation to kick in a really write so I can maintain that lead.
Yeah. I know. Psychological games played with oneself are totally weird. But they work, so don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
So writing daily for me actually doesn’t work so well: it becomes a daily chore, and something to beat myself up over if I don’t make it. If I give myself permission to NOT write every day, though, and combine that with spreadsheet tracking of my word counts and deadline goals, something magical happens: I don’t write every day, but when I do, I pull much better word counts much more easily. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a win/win situation.
So this is your official permission: you don’t HAVE to write every day. Try tracking your metrics, and use that information to tailor your routine to you.
* I gave up fighting this in uni, because although I’d try to be diligent and get the essay done early, I’d invariably end up scrapping it the night before and starting over. It got so bad that I was often starting my 2,000-word essay two hours before it was due. I still got distinctions, but I don’t recommend this as a path to stress-free education. Ha.
** My current spreadsheet is tracking the word count for On Roads Between, the sequel to Where Shadows Rise (the Sanctuary series). By ‘starting ahead’, I just mean that I waited until I had a few thousand words under my belt before creating the spreadsheet, which meant that even though I only had to be at 565 words on day 1, I already had 8,507 to dump in, putting me about three weeks ahead from the outset. (Of course, I’m only ten days ahead now, but I’m still ahead, so my subconscious registers this as WHEE SUCCESS LET’S DO MORE OF THIS.)