“You should write every day! It’s the only way to stay consistent.”
“Real writers write every day.”
“Remember the story about the potters – it’s about quantity over quality!”
In most writing circles, writing every day is lauded as a cure-all to anyone’s writing woes. If you’re having trouble with your writing, you’re simply not writing enough.
Yet this common wisdom doesn’t work for everyone. It fails to take the needs of the individual into account. After all, consider the difference between a full-time freelance writer and a novel writer who is writing their book while also working a full-time job. These two writers will have drastically different workloads and demands on their schedules.
On top of this, writers walk a fine line between burnout and procrastination every day. What counts as writing “enough?” How do you know the difference between needing a break versus letting the urge to procrastinate win? How do you stick to your schedule when life becomes overwhelmingly busy?
So, what are writers left to do?
Treat Your Writing Like a Workout
Strangely enough, sticking to a writing schedule has the most in common with… going to the gym.
We all know exercise plays a huge part in staying healthy – it’s good for us. Yet, we don’t always want to exercise. More often than not, we drag ourselves to the gym, dreading it until we walk in the door and realize: “Okay, this isn’t so bad.”
On the flip-side, sometimes we’re so eager to “get in shape,” we run to the gym, try workouts we’re not ready for and either burn out or injure ourselves.
The key to creating a sustainable exercise routine is balance. You have to know when to push yourself and when to back off.
Writing works exactly the same way. To make your schedule something you can stick to in the long term, you have to develop that intuition.
But sometimes, we could use a little help. Just like a personal trainer guides you through an appropriate workout schedule, this article will help you create a writing schedule that works for you.
So, let’s get started.
The Writing Fit Test
Before placing anyone on an exercise program, good trainers put their clients through a fit test to measure their current fitness.
We’re going to do the same here. But because writing is an individualized process, we’re going to test your focus while writing rather than setting word count benchmarks.
First, block out around 2–3 hours on your schedule for a writing session. You may very well finish early and not use up all of this time, so don’t fret.
Next, choose one project for your writing session. It should have the potential to be fairly long-form (i.e. a 2,000–4,000 word non-fiction article) or carry over into multiple parts seamlessly (i.e. any novel or short story work). If you write both non-fiction and fiction, make a note of which category your project falls in.
Finally, sit down at your scheduled time with a timer or stopwatch (most smartphones have these built into a clock app now). Start the timer and start writing.
Most likely, as you write, you’ll eventually hit a spot that you’re uncomfortable or struck by the sudden urge to do anything else but write. Check your timer and note how much time has passed. Record that number and see if you’re able to continue writing. Repeat the process every time your distraction urge arises.
Gradually, you’ll hit a point that you feel like you can’t sit still long enough to write another word or you’re spent mentally. Stop writing, record and star the time (to differentiate it from your distracted moments) and pause your timer.
Depending on how long you’ve already been writing, take a 10 to 30 minute break. The longer you’ve written, the closer to 30 minutes the break should be. Also, spend it doing anything that isn’t writing. After your break, return to your writing, start your timer again and give your writing one last shot.
You may find you’re refreshed after the break and can keep writing without a problem. Or, you may be absolutely stuck two minutes into this second session. No matter where that sticking point is, stop your stopwatch and record your final time.
Congratulations, you’ve finished the writing fitness test!
Interpreting Your Writing Fit Test
You now have three types of times recorded on your worksheet.
The first type is your distracted times. These markers indicate when your focus started to flag just a bit, but not so much that you couldn’t keep writing. It’s a bit like hitting a rough patch in a workout – it’s not pleasant, but you can hold out to work a bit longer.
The time you starred before your break is your lower focus limit. This is the frustration threshold for your sustained writing focus. Trying to write and focus past this point is going to provide diminishing returns. Don’t overdo it. Instead, schedule a break into your writing sessions around this time.
Your final time is your upper focus limit. This is the absolute maximum that you can focus on your writing in a given day. Working past this point is only going to cause frustration and provide little to no gains in return.
Why? In Deep Work, Cal Newport references Eric Andersson’s studies on deliberate practice. Amateurs generally manage focused time of about an hour, while highly trained experts can only focus for about four hours a day. So, at the absolute maximum, we have four hours of focus time in us in a day.
Most likely, other daily activities in your life will take up about one to two or two-and-a-half hours of that focus time. So, your writing threshold will probably be around one and a half to three hours per day. Does this mean that’s all you can write in a day? No, but realize writing more than that may lack the laser focus of a session happening under your focus limit.
If you’re not satisfied with your current upper focus limit, you can alter it. But, just like getting in shape, it takes significant work and practice. Start by adding on five minutes to your maximum focus time. Gradually increase this time by tacking on an extra five minutes every week or two.
If you find that adding on just five minutes becomes too easy, increase the added time to ten minutes. But treat this like increasing the amount of weight you lift at the gym: do it slowly and don’t overload yourself. Doing too much at once may not injure you like a weightlifting mistake, but it will leave you discouraged and frustrated.
Building Your Writing Schedule
So, how do you use this info to build your writing schedule?
First, examine the types of writing you do in a week. You can categorize this by project type (novels versus short stories), genre, or even writing type (fiction versus non-fiction).
Now, consider the stakes for each type of writing. If you’re a freelance writer, your paid work will be fairly high stakes and require careful focus. If you’re writing a novel without a strict deadline, your stakes aren’t as high, but you’ll need to be disciplined to make progress without the pressure of an impending deadline. Rank the stakes of your writing categories on a scale of 1–10.
High stakes writing takes top priority on your schedule. But realize this type of work is like an intense workout for your brain: it may drain your focus more quickly due to extra external pressures. Your daily sessions for this type of writing may need to be shorter than writing for leisure. In contrast, less intense writing sessions can be longer to allow for exploration and spontaneity.
Just like the average person wouldn’t exercise for more than an hour to two hours per day, your daily writing sessions will need a time cap. For most writers, your upper focus limit will be an absolute maximum. And, like you would vary the length of your workouts, you should also vary the length of your daily writing sessions.
If you write professionally, consider yourself an Olympic athlete of the writing world. Professional athletes spend much more time than the average person on training. So, your total daily writing time may exceed your focus limit. But, you should block out your focus time to devote to your most important and/or difficult projects.
Once you have an idea of your daily schedule, you can work on scheduling your week. Examine your high priority writing types first. These sessions are like HIIT or cardio workouts: you can’t do them every day. So try to aim for 3–5 days a week to leave time for “active recovery” or “rest days.”
Next, look at your lower priority writing types. These sessions are like walking, yoga, or stretching: you can do them almost every day, even if you’re working on high priority writing on the same day. Days you’re solely working on low priority writing should be considered “active recovery.”
Now, determine whether you’ll take rest days. Most intense workout schedules allow for at least a single day off and your writing is no different. Think of it this way: if you have intense, deadline driven writing on your schedule, you need a day or two of complete rest to recover. But, if your writing is all for fun and not driven by deadlines, you can write six to seven days a week without an issue, especially if you’re varying the length of your sessions.
Adjusting Your Schedule
Once you’ve finished this process, you should have a writing schedule tailored completely to your needs and projects. However, don’t consider it absolutely set in stone. Your schedule needs to be adaptable, too.
Just like pushing too hard in a workout session can lead to injury and the same workout routine week after week gets stale, we need to recognize when we’re getting close to burnout or boredom with our writing.
If you’re feeling burnt out, scale back on the number of days you’re writing for a week or two. If you’re getting bored, try switching to a different genre or project for a bit, just to change things up.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of finding a schedule that you can be consistent and get your writing done without feeling like you’re stretched to your absolute limit.
Thank you to PWA user, Arjhun Swaminathan, for sparking the exercise analogy!