Putting Writing First and How Much Time to Spend Doing It
Our lives are a series of competing priorities, and for a while now, I’ve wondered what it would be like to put my writing first, at least chronologically in the day. I can’t prioritize its importance in my making a living, but the one thing I could do is try carving out some time at the start of every work day for writing before I jump into my freelance business tasks, chores, and the like (barring emergency exceptions).
I’ve been at this with relative success for a couple of weeks now. I am averaging about 1500 words per day in a two hour block. It’s pretty easy to see the advantage of building this kind of habit. Figure 250 writing days a year, at an average of 1500 words a day and you end up with 375,000 potential words per year. That’s three novels, a novella or two, and a few short stories. It’s likely to be less than that if you spend this time editing some days, but I tend to try to do my editing in the evenings, after my kid’s down. Even at half that rate, it’s a pretty good way to carve out a side-career on top of your main one. That’s where I am these days. I’m not determined to be a full time writer at the moment. The odds of me supporting my family with that money are pretty slim. But I can supplement, and that feels much more achievable. If I were to become a full time writer through chance, I wouldn’t complain. But it’s unreasonable to expect!
I have found myself writing ahead of what I have banked away, I will say. The relentless emphasis on pure words on the page means I sometimes forget to stop and think and plan. Having an hour somewhere in the day where I disconnect from everything and just think through ideas in total privacy is almost as valuable. My notion of what constitutes “writing time” is shifting with age. I think for a good chunk of your career, you can count on an idea surplus you’ve built up, but after a certain point, you might empty that bank. It takes time for good ideas to accrete.
The wide variety of ways to accomplish being a professional writer can be disconcerting. How much of your day should you work at writing? If I was a full time writer, would I write 8 hours a day? Almost certainly not. There’s definitely a law of diminishing returns for me, where the longer I write in a session, the worse the quality of writing can get. And there are many other business tasks that need to be performed.
For me, ten hours a week feels good right now. I’m working on one novel and about to start co-writing another. I still have some short stories to work on when I’m stymied on the bigger projects. And so far, novels have so much more space to breathe that they can absorb a 1500 word session a lot more easily than a story. I’ve been exploring decompressed vs. compressed storytelling for quite a while now, learning the limits of short stories and where you can cheat with a little compression. Novels feel very freeing so far because you can decompress everything, really take your time. Eight hundred words of setting description in a short story is usually self-indulgent and gets cut in later drafts. In a novel, that’s par for the course…? Although eight hundred might be pushing the limits of patience in some readers.
Ultimately, half of being a writer is experimenting with process and figuring out workflows that don’t get in the way. There are a million ways to not write. There are only slightly fewer ways to write. I’m enjoying finding means that work for me and my life. It’s something all writers have to figure out for themselves. What works for you?