On notifying Writing Workshop participants and readers of my blog about my 21 Day Challenge©, I shared the results of studies from the past 30 years that have shown that people can improve the quantity and quality of their writing. In fact, writers following a regimen produced 9 times the quantity and quality of those who write occasionally and in big blocks of time.
They do this
by writing 15-30 minutes a day
by keeping records of their time writing, and
by being accountable though sharing those records
One author who has shared strategies for writing more is Joan Bolker. I’ve talked about her advice in these pages before. Her seminal work is Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, but it is relevant for anyone who writes, including fiction writers.
Despite the 15 minutes in the title of her book, she advocates starting with ten minutes of free-writing a day because it works quickly and gets you on track: “Anyone can write for ten minutes a day, particularly if one is free writing.”
She recommends doing this by keeping a diary or journal with dated entries where you record “the flashes of insight you have” as well as any questions you have for your writing. Just as Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones calls these “first thoughts,” the mind reflecting experiences and insights (68). This is not a matter of “getting it right”; instead, you are working to make yourself clear, to make your writing sing.
Tara Gray, author of Publish and Flourish, says to “write from your heart, from what you feel and know,” and leave blanks to fill in later. Or you can imagine you are writing a letter to yourself or writing a letter to a friend or colleague or ideal reader.
Gray warns that each word, “each paragraph you write doesn’t have to become a paragraph that will later go” into your finished piece. Bolker agrees, elaborating: “Don’t concern yourself with matters of truth . . . with the trade-offs between pure ‘story’ and the artful creation of the ‘plot’ that make for a coherent narrative.” She also advises writers that “you can’t always say everything you want to say” and “you will never reach the perfect text you’re striving for, because it exists only in fantasy.”
The dated entries of a free-writing journal are the beginnings of recording your time, as well as finding fluency and voice, but actually keeping track of the time you spend writing is part of the writing more, writing smarter technique. Some people use a calendar. (See Jerry Seinfeld below.) Tara Gray recommends and uses a writing log: “It’s like a ritual for me. Once I have noted the time I started writing on the log, I know that this is my time for writing, not for emailing or for anything else.”
Bolker warns writers to set realistic (or realizable) goals for yourself. As discussed in the post on writing inspiration and practice, Naomi Epel has a chapter in The Observation Deck: A Toolkit for Writers called “Set Realistic Goals” which highlights Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, who dreamed of becoming a famous cartoonist but realized he would not achieve this unless he set some realistic goals, so he “told himself that he must simply get one cartoon published somewhere, anywhere, before he died” (36).
As Bolker says, “If you set yourself up to fail, you will soon discover that you’re writing less. And less. And still less.” She offers several methods for achieving writing goals.
- The “sit there” method: set a timer and write for that fixed amount every day.
- The “inspiration” method: “plan on writing each day until you come up with one or two decent ideas.” In a variation, writers like Flannery O’Connor and Daniel Pinkwater, as reported in this early post, would sit for a set time, even if they didn’t write – but they couldn’t do anything else. Eventually they would write and the writing improved over time.
- The “many pages” method, which I like to call the word count or page count method. Here writers set a goal to write a minimum number of words each day or the same number of pages every day. For instance, I know writers who would start with set a goal of 2 pages a day. Epel also cites Graham Greene who would write exactly 500 words a day, and when he reached that number, he stopped no matter where he was in a story (The Observation Deck 38).
Jerry Seinfeld and Not Breaking the Chain
This was Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to a novice comic: The way to be a better comic is to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes is to write every day. Get a calendar and a red marker and for each day that you do the task of writing, put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
You’ll notice that Seinfeld doesn’t say a single thing about results. All that mattered was “not breaking the chain.” And that’s one of the simple secrets behind Seinfeld’s remarkable productivity and consistency. For years, the comedian simply focused on “not breaking the chain.” (Btw – my husband told me that he recently heard an interview with Seinfeld who said he is still “not breaking the chain.”)
Writing “Every Day”
Gray also recommends writing every day no matter how rough the writing. As discussed in the post on how to become a writer, what does it mean to write every day? Bolker says that you can define your “every day,” whether it is seven days a week, only on weekdays, or as the Weekend Novelist series of writing books by Robert Ray recognize, it is the weekends that you can devote to writing.
However, writing regularly, even if you don’t feel like it, has its benefits as noted earlier with O’Connor and Pinkwater. And having an accountability partner is what Gray’s research shows is critical. She writes a weekly note to her partner, reporting the number of days and minutes she has written in the past week: “There is something essential about keeping records and sharing them with someone. It’s what keeps me on track.”
In my 21 Day Challenge©, participants commit to a writing project – for a little as 15 minutes a day. They keep track of the time they spend. And they have company – fellow writers not just for mutual support, but also accountability. Participants say that they appreciate the structure and support, that they wouldn’t have gotten to their projects, ones that they may have been considering, but putting it off or feeling stalled. Bolker asserts that “you are entitled to put your [writing] first” and this is an overall feeling of those that accept the 21 Day Challenge – they are making time not just for their writing, but for themselves. When will you start to do this for yourself and your writing?
© Ellen F. Higgins. For an upcoming session, contact: email@example.com.