Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s secret weapon

with one comment

I don’t feel much like writing a blog post today—I imprudently chopped a hot green pepper into my breakfast omelet, and it still feels like my head is on fire—but I’m going to write one anyway. Why? Because I’ve now posted something every day, without fail, for close to a year now, and it feels strange to skip it, in much the same way that I feel vaguely uncomfortable whenever I’m not working on a larger writing project. And I’m grateful for this. This blog has granted me all kinds of unexpected rewards, but perhaps the most useful consequence of all has been the habit of sitting down to write upwards of five hundred words every morning, on top of my other duties as a writer, to the point where I’d no more think about going a day without posting than I’d skip brushing my teeth.

And this kind of habit is something I’ve always tried to cultivate, trusting that it will see me through whenever inspiration or craft fall short. Everyone knows that a writer should write something every day, but I’m not sure if everyone understands why. As I see it, there are three good reasons for writing every day, from the least to the most general:

  1. It increases the odds of a particular project being finished.
  2. It gets you closer to the million words or 10,000 hours required to achieve mastery.
  3. It accustoms you to the habit of writing.

And this last point is perhaps the most important. A true writer is someone who is used to writing, who does it all the time, and who can’t imagine going more than a few days without it. And if anything separates a professional from a gifted amateur, it’s that the professional feels strange whenever he or she isn’t working.

This sense of uneasiness between major projects is something that nearly every writer can understand, and it’s responsible for such monsters of productivity as Isaac Asimov, who wrote something like five hundred books simply because he was happiest in front of a typewriter. And I’ve always felt that one’s goal as a writer should be to follow the example of Trollope, who wrote a fixed number of words each day and, if he finished a novel halfway through the day’s work, simply took out a new page and began another. It may seem hard at first, but as as Tom Wolfe says in this morning’s quote, writing generally comes out the same whether you’re forcing it or not. And looking back at my own work, I know that there have been mornings when the writing seemed to flow by magic, and ones where every sentence was a struggle, but when I read over the finished manuscript, I can’t tell the difference, at least not after a few revisions.

Habit, I’m convinced, is the secret weapon in any writer’s arsenal. Much of what we call talent, virtue, or even good taste merely amounts to the tedious cultivation of daily habits of work and thought, gained and nurtured by simple repetition until they become close to unconscious. Habit alone won’t guarantee good writing, but it’s safe to say that a writer without good habits won’t produce much of anything except by luck or accident. It may not be sufficient, but it’s definitely necessary, and even on the most basic level, habit can work wonders. I rarely feel like writing when I start each morning’s work, but by the time I’m at my desk for five minutes, I can’t imagine doing anything else. And it can solve other problems, too. Looking at what I’ve done this morning, I see that, somehow, I’ve written a blog post, and no longer feel that hot green pepper reverberating through my skull. Isn’t writing great?

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2011 at 10:27 am

One Response

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  1. Prof Engell used to declare that Virgil wrote the Aeneid at the rate of two lines a day…. And then would remark, “… and it still wasn’t very good…”


    October 20, 2011 at 11:27 am

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