Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.Karen Blixen
This advice changed my life.
In fact, I propped that quote up on my desk over a year ago after I read Austin Kleon’s fantastic post about it, with the idea that I’d eventually replace it with a new quote. It has remained there ever since; a necessary daily reminder.
If you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t complete a writing project because you weren’t committed enough, focused enough, determined enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, anything enough, I’ll make you a promise: If you can finish reading this post, you can finish that project. And with a lot less effort than you probably imagine.
Remember that time you committed to the new 5am wake-up routine, or the morning Crossfit challenge, or the 30-day-startup? Let me guess: somewhere along the way you gave up on it. Of course you did! It was far too much, far too fast.
The same goes for writing.
Every November, “National Novel Writing Month” rolls around, and hundreds of thousands of people determine to write a novel in a single month.
How many participants actually accomplish this goal? About 12%.
I don’t know about you, but I want more than a 12% chance of completing my writing project.
The trick to finishing a novel, or a screenplay, or a memoir isn’t to write it in a month. In my experience, that’s a fast track to giving up.
Instead, write it little by little, over a long period of time. Don’t aim for a chapter a day. Don’t aim for five pages a day. Don’t even aim for a page a day.
How much should you write?
A Little Every Day
What’s a little? That depends entirely on you.
If you’re new to writing, or have had difficulty finishing projects, start by committing to a daily paragraph. Your intuition will tell you that this isn’t enough. Your intuition is wrong. And we can prove it with some simple math:
Let’s say your average paragraph is 50 words long. That’s a short paragraph – exactly the size of this one. Very do-able. And let’s say you commit to writing one of these short paragraphs every day, Monday through Friday. And every weekend you give yourself a break from your hard work.
After a month, you’ll have written a 1,000-word story – which, by the way, is on the longer end for a piece of flash fiction. Spend a month editing the thing, rewriting, and in a grand total of two months you’ll have a piece you can submit to the New Yorker.
50 words a day? That’s just typing the thing. What about coming up with the ideas, the characters, the plot? And who said anything about flash fiction? I want to write a novel/screenplay!
Enter the Perfectionist – that little voice in the back of your head who’s been sabotaging you this whole time. In the mind of the Perfectionist, taking a stab at something might lead to failure. And failure would tarnish your Perfectionist’s spotless reputation. So the Perfectionist throws out objections like the one above, because it would secretly prefer that you do nothing at all. If you do nothing, you can’t fail.
Just remember that the Perfectionist is the one who landed you here in the first place. You’re here because you no longer want to do nothing.
So here’s something you can do: 50 words a day.
Now your only job is to make the time to do the daily work. How long will 50 words take you? Maybe ten minutes? Plan out when you’ll do those ten minutes every day – before breakfast, during lunch, or after work. Your job is now done. It’s that simple.
How a Little Becomes a Lot
As you get comfortable with this daily practice, you should be able to up that daily count. Increase it slowly, maybe by 25 words a month (so on month #2 you’ll be writing 75 words a day, and so on).
After a few short months, you’ll be able to do 150 words a day, netting you 3,000 words a month. That’s a decent-sized short story. You could write twelve of those in a year, all the while taking weekends off! That’s enough for a collection!
Re-enter the Perfectionist: 36,000 words in a year? A very short collection, maybe… but I suppose anything is better than flash fiction. Let’s jump straight to 150 words a day. No, make it 300. Then we can write two collections per year. If we do that, we’re sure to land a book deal in no time. Together we can beat the system!!!!
The Perfectionist, in its infinite cunning, wants you to aim just a little too high. Not high enough that it seems unreasonable – but high enough that you eventually give up. If you give up, you get to go back to doing nothing. And you can’t fail at doing nothing.
Screw the Perfectionist. Start with a target you won’t give up on; whatever sounds like “a little” to you. If you’re not sure what that is, start with 50 words a day.
“Write a little every day.”
Without Hope, Without Despair
You’ve silenced the voice of the Perfectionist. You’ve committed to a little every day.
The only things that can sabotage you now are hope and despair.
As you chip away at your daily words, you start to gain some confidence. You now have high hopes for your story. You daydream about all the people whose lives it will touch, the prizes you’ll win, the impression it’ll make on your family and friends….
If you indulge these thoughts, you’re in for a rough time.
Because pretty soon you’ll read through what you’ve written and realize those 50-word paragraphs don’t look as great strung together on the page as they sounded in your head. They’re not quite making the point you’d hoped they would make. And damn if they’re not ugly.
Just when you thought you were getting somewhere, you suddenly realize you can’t possibly live up to those hopes you had. And, before you know it, you’re thrust into a state of despair. Your motivation to complete your daily words dries up. Pretty soon, you’ve gone an entire week without writing.
Before settling in for a long winter slumber, the voice of the Perfectionist delivers its final deathblow: Give it up. We weren’t getting anywhere anyway. 50 words a day? All for a measly short story? What’s the point. Next week we’ll come up with a new routine, a better routine, a routine more fit for a Serious Writer®. Next week we’ll start on our novel. Next week we’ll wake up at 6am every single day and write a whole chapter. That’s the path for us. The warrior’s path… The path of fire…
Of course, that week never comes. But the allure of its promise gives you permission to cool your daily practice for a while. And quietly, without fanfare, you give up.
Or maybe you don’t.
Maybe you remember that a missed week is no big deal. That you can get going again and make your goal in a month-and-a-week instead of the initial month.
Maybe you remember that, at this stage, the writing is supposed to be bad. That you get better by making bad stuff, not by making good stuff; by doing something rather that nothing.
Maybe you start up again. Maybe this time you remember to do it “without hope, without despair.”
The Perfectionist tries to chime in.
“Later,” you tell it. “Right now I have 50 words to complete.”
Now you’re writing. Keep at it.
“A little every day, without hope, without despair.”