We've all heard the arguments: Practice makes perfect. Writing every day will force us to develop a habit. It's a great way to get over writer's block. Writing more improves writing. It achieves the aim, gets the job done.
We've all believed it. Even tried it. We start off by setting ourselves ambitious goals. After doing the maths we arrive at a magic number. An "ideal" goal. Like writing 2000 words a day. Perhaps for the first few days we even manage it. And we feel proud of ourselves. Gradually, though, we start to slip up. Miss a day here, two there. An ill child. A surprise visit. An overflowing inbox. An insistent friend. Urgency changes the game. Life gets in the way. Writing falls down in priority. At the end of the month, we find we've actually written on only ten days. And our spirit flags. What's the use? we say. We'll never be able to stick to this schedule. It's going to fail. And then, some of us give up.
Others are more persistent. Perhaps our goal was too challenging. How about starting small? Like writing 500 words a day. Surely I can manage that? That little window of time I can snatch in the morning when I've dropped off junior at school and am about to start my mad scramble to work? Or that sliver of time I can carve out at night after the kids have dropped off to sleep and the wife is catching up on her reading? But then one day junior gets late and there's an early meeting at the office, or the kids are too wired to sleep on time and the wife expects a helping hand to tuck them in to bed, and that precious slice of time gets squeezed out, gone. And once again, having failed in our resolve to write every day, we recognise the enterprise as doomed and many of us give up.
It's like all those New Year resolutions we make: eat healthier, exercise regularly, give up smoking. Eight days into the new year and we've already forgotten them.
Once we get a setback, we beat ourselves up, get de-motivated and stop going forward. Negativity begets negativity. One slip-up triggers the end, and another couple bring about a complete shut-down. Why?
The problem may lie not in the goals, nor in the execution of those goals, but in the basic premise itself: that of writing every day.
Hordes of authors and editors swear by this maxim. As if writing every day is some sort of a silver bullet to our troubles. To an extent it could help. If you're one of those people who are full-time novelists, or with no imperative family responsibilities, or working to complete a thesis or academic paper, then writing every day (or whatever regular schedule you choose to set up) may work well for you. It does force you to get disciplined. It does help you revisit your characters, recall them frequently, or keep them fresh at the forefront of your mind. It does put the words on paper and help you reach that final page.
But if you're not, then forcing yourself to write X number of words every day is not going to improve your writing in any significant way. Stealing ten minutes on the toilet to thrash out a hundred words will not make you a better writer. Instead, spending a concentrated four hours revising, editing and polishing your work, or finding an apt verb or a better rhythm to a sentence, will. Even if these four hours come over a period of three weeks. If you're having to force yourself into doing something, then you're not really enjoying it. And if there's one thing we writers enjoy doing, it's writing.
Making the goal too small will not make things easier. It only defeats the purpose. It's like trying to trick yourself into working, like trying to manipulate your mind into writing "just a mere 100 words a day" and then feeling good about your achievement. But if the aim is not challenging enough, you're not going to derive much joy in reaching it. Think about it: would you feel proud of having walked to the corner shop to get a loaf of bread? How about walking cross-country across five states on a camping trip? See the difference? You don't stretch yourself for the low-hanging fruit, and it doesn't taste as sweet.
It is important to analyse why you write and then set your goals accordingly. Fiction requires imagination and cannot be tapped at will at a specific time every day. So having a rigid writing schedule doesn't work for writers who write fiction while holding down a traditional day job. But for those who write fiction to earn their livelihood, they are "writing" even when they are not writing: they are dreaming up plots while folding the laundry, weaving conflicts as they set the table, following their characters as the dishes pile up at the sink, and generally living their story. They are always at it. And in such circumstances, setting aside two hours at a specific time every day just to write makes sense. So also with academic writing that requires dull, often dry research, albeit with consistency.
A possible compromise between having a rigid schedule and none at all is the "maintenance mode." This means setting aside a flexible time -- some time, any time -- every week to reconnect with your writing. Putting yourself into maintenance mode does not mean re-reading email messages or submission guidelines! That kind of "keeping in touch" isn't going to get any work done. Instead, if you find at this time you're not in the mood for writing, try pitching to markets. Re-visit older stories to see if they can be re-purposed. Edit something you'd been working on two weeks ago. Read others. Listen to audio books.
So write as much as you can. Go for NaNoWriMo if you like. Only, don't chuck up the whole thing simply because you couldn't write every single day. Nobody ever published a blank page. Just write when you can, when it makes you happy. The writer in you will thank you for it.