You don’t need to write every day to be a ‘real writer’

I’ve written a lot about writing advice – the good and the bad – but if there is one piece of ‘accepted wisdom’ I’d like to see killed by fire, it’s ‘REAL writers write every day’.

‘Real writers write every day’, you are told, as if being a writer is an uncontrollable impulse that must be indulged at all costs, and if you can manage a whole 24 hours without it then… what? They revoke your club membership? You’ve failed some test you never agreed to, somehow proved you aren’t ‘real’ – in your talent, your commitment, your drive? No ‘real writer’ badge for you, slacker! (And what’s a real writer, anyway? Someone who makes money from it? Look at some of the clickbait journos courting outrage for clicks – they make plenty of money, and honestly I’m not even sure they are real people.)

Then there’s the other, no less pernicious version: ‘sorry to be so blunt, guys’, you’re told, ‘but you have to write every day, or you might as well not bother, because you’ll never achieve anything otherwise.’ This materializes every so often, usually along the lines of ‘if you can’t stick at it you might as well quit!’ It’s so toxic because it masquerades as ‘tell ‘em like it is’ wisdom. They’re just being honest, you dreamers! And if you can’t take it, you’re too soft for this biz!

Of course, if there’s one thing you should never trust, it’s tell ‘em like it is wisdom, since the people telling it like it is are almost invariably twats. So I invite your scepticism – I have no omnipotent knowledge of ‘how it is’. Just my own experience (both as a writer and someone paid to edit and / or manage other writers). And on that basis, I am saying: this is a load of crap.

And yes, yes, before I start, I know as well as you do there are many noble examples of writers who assign their success to such a mantra – Terry Pratchett famously wrote every day, and at one stage had to stop putting out two books a year because the marketing for one was running into the next one. We’ve all heard stories of the first-time novelist who wrote their prize winning debut by getting up at 5am before the kids were awake, or scribbled chapters in their car after a ten-hour shift down the hospital. And I applaud those people, I truly do. But not everyone can be like that. That doesn’t make them failures or fakes.

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Exclusionary advice

Why do I hate ‘write every day’ more than any other piece of writerly advice? For a start, well-meaning as it often is, in practice it can be exclusionary: sexist, classist and ableist. Sexist, because the reasons women often can’t carve out time to write come with their disproportionate responsibilities as primary caregivers – to children, to ailing family members, to housework. Classist, because if you are struggling financially, your focus is often on work, or activities that bring in income: many working class artists only flourish in later life, as they don’t have the support, opportunities or even expectations to do so when young. Ableist because some health issues – mental or physical – make it simply impossible to do anything every day.

None of these are necessarily insurmountable problems to being a writer. But they may mean you have to adopt a strategy of finding writing space and energy when you can, in the gaps and the margins: and that just might not be every day.

Personal experience

I got my first (paid) short story published in a magazine when I was 17, so I have been at this whole writing malarkey for over 30 years now. During that time, there were periods where I was working two jobs to keep a roof over my head – going from a full-time day job in a bookshop to evening shifts in a bar, so tired that my priority was not walking into traffic, not untangling a knotty plot structure. I’ve had recurring health issues that made it impossible to pick up a pen or type, unable to concentrate past chronic pain. I’ve been homeless, all my notebooks stuffed in storage, my focus on figuring out where I would be sleeping this week. I’ve had jobs so demanding all my spare energy went into seeing how quietly I could cry in the toilets; I’ve dealt with family crises that left me so drained with twice daily treks to the hospital, I could barely sign my name. And I’ve also had multiple jobs where writing was the core of my role, and so it was what I was doing for 8 or 10 hours a day for a living. And I still didn’t write every day. Because sometimes life forces you to put things you love on a back burner. Sometimes you just need a bloody holiday. And sometimes a field needs to lie fallow if it’s ever going to bear any crops.

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Seeing past the clickbait headlines

And you know the worst part of the ‘write every day’ mantra? It’s that often, that’s not even what they mean. People say that, but what they mean is: writing is a muscle, and you have to use it. You have to work at it, you have to hone it, and if you leave it long-neglected, it’ll go rusty. You can’t expect to be brilliant or successful without practice, without rewriting, without spending time on what you are creating. You have to write when you don’t feel like it, when you’re not enjoying it, when it feels like wading through sludge. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike, you can’t wait for the ‘perfect’ time or place or circumstances to write, or you’ll be waiting around forever. And this is great advice. This is true advice. This is advice that will make you a better and potentially more successful writer.

And best of all: this is flexible advice, that you can take to heart and learn from but still adapt to your circumstances. You don’t write a word for two years because you were busy nursing an elderly mother or raising boisterous kids? Because you were dealing with a global pandemic or working two jobs to cope with the cost of living crisis? Fine. Don’t punish yourself for that: just accept you’ll be rusty when you go back to it, and take that into account. A health issue knocks you sideways? Leave aside the self-recrimination at neglecting your writing, just be determined that when you can get back to it, you will.

Learn to be honest with yourself

The trick is to parse the genuine reasons from the excuses. Can I really not find the time/energy to write, or am I scared of what will happen if I do (the risk of rejection, the fear of exposure, the terror of failure – or of success)? It’s easy to use real problems as fake excuses, and if you do that, you’ll need to get past it – or, yes, you’ll never be a writer, because you’ll always find a reason not to be.

But writing comes with enough self-doubt and criticism. Don’t let some impossible standard set by someone who has no idea of you or your life add to that. Find a method that works for you – and go do it.

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