Why writing less may make you a more productive writer


Since I started writing my novel a couple of years ago, I've written in many different ways.

I've attended NaNoWriMo and written 50 000 words in a month. 
I've written during my commute, with my laptop on my lap.
I've written in the early mornings before work. 
I've written in the dead of night.

Most of all though, I've written on weekends. During the day, when I'm rested and focused. That's when I can usually write pretty well.

Sometimes I feel ashamed for not writing every single day. I feel ashamed that I don't write in the evenings after work, that I'm too tired to produce anything of value, that I can't fall asleep if I wind myself up enough to write. That I'm not a morning person who can write when I'm barely awake. 

Productivity is such a badge of honor in our days, not producing at a fast pace feels shameful. Like I don't care enough. Like I'm not willing to sacrifice enough.

But here's the thing. If I write when I'm tired or can't focus, I know exactly what's gonna happen. 

I'm gonna write crap that will take forever to edit, or I'll just have to delete it. 

It's a realization I've had for long but rarely voiced, because it's not a popular opinion in the writing world. Much more popular is the notions that we should write crap, that we should just keep writing, that we can always edit later.

But is that actually, honestly, the most productive way? 

Is just writing a lot really productive?

During spring and early summer, I read Lisa Cron's book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). In it she presents a method for writing a novel which involves a whole lot of work before actually starting to write the novel.

Cron is a firm believer that before you can begin writing your novel, if it's to be a good one, you need to explore your story and your characters in certain ways. As I've used her methods, more than once the thought has hit me that well, I'm not actually writing yet. I'm spending all this time working on my novel, but I'm yet to write an actual chapter. 

Writing is so often measured in number of words and pages, and we are encouraged to "just write", but when we do write like that, off the seat of our pants, we run the risk of writing a whole lot of words that we can't really use, but still feel obliged to try to make work. Otherwise all that writing would have been for nothing, right?

Mark Manson, a blogger and author, learned while writing his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck that writing a lot is actually not productive at all. In an article, he shares that after writing 8 000 words in one day, he was first elated, thinking that 10 days like that would finish the book.

But after spending four days to sort through and rewrite those 8 000 words, which turned out to be mostly crap, he understood that the banging out words method was not a good one. 

Suddenly, my 8,000-word burst of “massive” creativity created so much extra work for myself that I would have been better off not writing at all that day.

When it comes to creative work, not only is there a diminishing return, but at a certain point, writing more produced a negative return. Because bad writing isn’t just bad—bad writing creates more work for yourself, because it requires way more time to revise and edit.

After this realization, Manson started writing only two hours a day and found that yes - spending less time writing in fact made him finish the book faster.

Similarly, Steven Pressfield shares in his book The War of Art that he stops writing for the day after about four hours, when he starts making typos. By then he knows he's hit the point of diminishing returns. And mind you, in the same book he writes that professional writers show up every day, no matter what. So this is not a lazy writer.

So what is productive writing?

Greg McKeown dedicates his whole book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less to convincing the reader that being busy isn't productive. He writes

If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the non-essential busyness that infects so many of us. Rather than trivial diversions, they are critical to distinguishing what is actually a trivial diversion from what is truly essential.

Resting and sleeping is productive, because it'll make your brain more alert and productive when it's time to work.

Thinking and reflecting is productive, because it'll help you make better choices so you won't have to backtrack.

Making the best use of the time when you know you can write pretty well, not planning in any other activities, is productive.

Planning and exploring your story is productive, because it'll pay off in the quality of your writing.

Refraining from writing when you know you can't create well is productive, because editing crap takes forever.

Don't be ashamed if you can't write every single day, or as often that you'd like. Our lives and our minds are different. What works for some might not work for you.

I'm not saying wait for perfect circumstances, because those will never come. I'm saying find the times to write in your day to day life that works best for you, whether that's 30 minutes every morning, a couple of evenings a week or weekend hours. Try to shape your life around what will work for you.

Defend your best writing times fiercely.