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I often have trouble deciding whether (or how often) to take breaks from writing, or to "double down" and try to write, and try to eliminate anything distracting me from that.

I am not looking for unsupported opinion; I'd like to see data, research, personal experience, or well-regarded advice from pros.

  • 5
    Robert, sorry to be a PITA, but this question is waaaay too roundabout. Stack Exchange is a Q&A site, and part of that means paring your question down to the actual question you want answered -- giving a long personal introduction and then dialing back to "but I don't want personal opinions" is confusing; instead, just ask for the thing you're asking for. I'm proposing an edit; by all means roll it back if you don't think it expresses your question correctly, but in general this is the kind of Q&A question we're aiming for. :-) – Standback Jun 8 '18 at 15:40
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    If I actually have the opportunity to write, but I also want to be outside, I take my laptop and go outside. And make sure to cloud-save, often, because beach+laptop is a situation fraught with a certain risk. :) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 8 '18 at 15:48
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I have a leather-bound notebook with the words, ‘Quickly become feral’ embossed on it to remind me that that’s what works in progress do, because I’m an advocate of Annie Dillard’s advice:

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, "Simba!”

But, having said that, you do not need to write 2000 words every day, just enough to exert your mastery and exercise that muscle. Then you can go out, experience the world and bring new ideas into your consciousness.

Also, you can do both. Natalie Goldberg advocates writing everywhere: in the cafe, at the bus stop, in the park, on the train. That way, you exercise that writing muscle while bringing in new ideas from the outside world.

It really depends on where you are with your work in progress. If you are outlining and still searching for ideas it’s better to get out there, for a while at least, to take a break from research and writing. But if you’re editing, like me right now, I find it better to shut myself away in my study where I can concentrate on the work.

Do I follow the advice of Annie and Natalie religiously? I try. I believe they’re right. But sometimes the work is so hard, the words and ideas so elusive, that I procrastinate on here instead… it’s easier!!

  • @robertcday With those edits to the question, this answer no longer makes sense! BUT!! I've just figured out a sure-fire way to make sure you remain at your desk. Have your cleaner flip the latch on your study door so you can't get out until your husband gets back from London! Genius! Don't know why I didn't think of it before today. Unfortunately, I'm starting to need the toilet :0) – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Jun 8 '18 at 17:28
  • I like your colourful language but could please you explain what you mean by paragraph 2? – Edmund Frost Jun 8 '18 at 18:17
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    @EdmundFrost Goodness, Edmund, I WISH that was my colourful language. That's a quote from Annie Dillard, The Writing Life. It's the idea that if you leave a work in progress for too long you lose your connection with it. If it's a large body of work like a novel, you forget large chunks of what you've written, the writing muscle begins to atrophy and returning to it gets harder and harder the longer you leave it. Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic puts forth the notion that if you neglect a work in progress, the story idea will find a home in some other writer's mind. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Jun 8 '18 at 18:24
6

I take the advice of Stephen King and Orson Scott Card; write every day. I have read of other professionals that, even with another job have treated writing as a job, writing for a specified amount of time in the morning or evening, or only taking off weekends and work-type holidays, etc.

I personally write at least 90 minutes of fiction every morning including weekends and holidays, barring emergency, illness or travel fatigue; but I am an active research scientist at a university so I don't have the luxury of writing all day; although I sometimes do if I am free on weekends, holidays, or burning vacation days at home.

I'll make a similar point as GGx, which is supported by basic psychology of learning. Creativity has a fast fade factor, when you leave your story alone the details will fade from working memory and it becomes more difficult to find the spark of the next thing. One or two days may not kill your story, but if you take more than that, coming BACK to the story and reading it, it may feel like bad writing (because it hasn't been polished by three rewrites) and you risk losing interest, the motivations have faded too far.

I won't risk that; when I finish a story, if I have 15 minutes left in my writing time, I will start the first edit pass on page 1. Because at that point I know everything about every one of my characters, and I can begin to ensure they are consistent, in their mannerism, speech, attitudes and beliefs.

In between stories I may not write, but I keep my schedule and that time, typically I read instead until an idea begins to form, then I take notes and perhaps do research on a setting or professions.

Don't let the story go stale; in the midst of a story I'd spend at least a full brain cycle (90 minutes) on it, at least every other day.

6

Unless you are suffering from burn out from working too hard, the answer is always: spend some time at your profession every day. If it is just a hobby and you don't care about the end result, then you can do whatever you want. If your goal is to write good books and publish them then you should at least work as much as a normal person works on any occupation a week. How you organize your time around that is entirely based on how you want to live your life. Want to write 4 days a week for 10 hours a day? Go for it, have 3 days off. But you better be writing for 40 hours a week.

Writing in general is better in smaller creative bursts when you aren't worn out; but long enough periods of time that you get enough words down. But like any creative endevour it takes a while to reach flow state. If you want a real answer, I would research Flow State. Flow state is a state where your attention & bandwidth are committed to a task in the way that the rest of the world falls away. When you commit your entire mind & focus to an idea for a long period of time things just get a lot easier and you produce a lot. This is the space that a musician plays in, or a sportsman enters when giving their all. You are literally using up all of the bandwidth in your mind. This is exhausting, though. You can usually stay in a flow state for several hours a day. You should have a practice that gets you to that point quickly and after you leave it you should have a set of tasks that require a little less work, but are still on point.

The best flow-state work day is 5-6 hours in my personal experience. At 5 hours you need to work 8 days to get to 40 hours; which isn't possible. At 6, you need to work every day for at least 6 hours. A 7 hour day may be better. You can spend your last hour working on the bits where flow-state isn't required and have a day off; but you'll still be working 6 days a week. At 8 hours, you can have 2 days off, but this may kill your momentum and you may not have as many productive hours a week as you would have otherwise.


I've received a lot of down votes; but more up-votes, so I think this section may be of use to better understand my above advice. If you find this text caustic, so did I 6 years ago when I gave up writing. I've still found it to be correct. Writing is not my profession; Writing code is. On a good week I get to write for 7 hours. Over the course of a year I was able to put 200,000 words down into a novel. So you clearly need less time than I'm advocating to actually write a book. But, that's just a first draft. I have not had the time/energy to focus on turning that 200,000k into a finished draft; I do not have time to make mistakes and learn from them. If I am ever confused or conflicted about my direction it takes me weeks to sort it out because I don't have enough time and I'm not in the project long enough.

What I do for a living is write code and I do that 40-50 hours a week, averaging 45. It's still "writing," but it's a different form. Logical constructions with documentation about how I'm doing something, why and what that means for other people. At my profession all of the things I said above actually do apply; and when I've been able to write like I code it simply works better.

You do not need to work-write for 40 hours a week; but if it is your profession, you probably should. And anything less than that will lead to a low production rate (which will make it hard to make a living), or it will really make it difficult for you to stay engaged.

4

From personal experience? Both. If you have trouble writing, or feel tired or stretched, the best thing you can do is breathe. Go outside. Read. Anything besides writing.

If you feel like you want to write and you have inspiration, double down, but only until you feel like your streak is going to end. If you push yourself too hard, you'll write yourself into a corner (speaking from personal experience. First time, it took me a month to move to the next paragraph. Once I started rewriting, it's simply more effective to stop and catch your breath.)

I also find this very helpful, especially the "All you need is air" part. https://nybookeditors.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Got-Writers-Block-2-2.png

Source

2

Here's a question you must answer to yourself: what is writing to you? Is it a hobby, a pastime, something you enjoy but do not take too seriously? Do you aspire to achieve anything in this field (e.g.. publish a story)? Is it your art, your voice - does the story burn like a fire in your bones? Who are you - a writer, or someone who enjoys writing?

There is your answer then. It is up to you how you treat your writing, whether you choose to write or "do something fun" at any given moment.

(I do not mean to criticise. There is nothing wrong with only writing for fun, nor with writing being at most a "part-time" thing, while also juggling a "real job" and other obligations. I wish I could write full-time - I can't. What I'm saying is that in the end of the day, it's all about the goals you set yourself.)

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