Embracing inconsistency as a writer

I’d love to be one of those writers who can write a thousand words a day, every day.

Scratch that. I’d love to be a writer who can write FIVE thousand words a day, especially if they were all brilliant words.

But I’m not.

There are some days I can write three thousand words. Others I can write two. Not two thousand. Two words.

I used to beat myself up over this, but self-flagellation never helped improve my consistency.

Then, last week at my day job, I had a revelation that helped me see my inconsistency as something to be embraced instead of flogged.

I try not to talk about my day job much here, but there are some things you need to know for my revelation to make sense. I’m the web editor for an international humanitarian aid organization. No two disasters are ever alike, but one thing they almost all have in common is their unpredictability.

For several months, my job was fairly quiet and, I’ll be honest, a bit boring. Answering emails, making improvements to the website, editing web pages to get the wording right, dealing with the few minor technical issues that I know how to solve. All things that need to be done, but not exactly activities that make other people’s eyes light up with interest when I tell them what I do.

Then New Zealand. Then Libya. Then Japan. Three weeks, three major disasters.

Suddenly I was working late most nights, writing stories about how we were helping while at the same time still responsible for the boring stuff. I produced more than in the quiet times, and felt like I was doing my most important work. One of my blog posts for work got 30,000 views in the 24 hours after I wrote it, and even though it proved to be fairly controversial I was glad to have at least created a place where people could tell us what they thought, and we could respond.

This is why you do what you do, I told myself. This is why you love your job.

Of course, there was a trade-off. During those weeks, I was so tired that I slept through my morning writing time. By the time I got home each night, all I wanted to do was read and recharge my creative batteries. There were several days when I opened my work-in-progress and just stared at the scene, no earthly clue what happened next in the story. My fingers hovered over the keyboard, but no words tapped their way onto the screen.

And then, as I left work on Friday evening, I realized that I could only be so productive in my day job because I’d done the less exciting groundwork. By working with my colleagues to put guidelines in place for how we respond to disasters, we were able to do so quickly and efficiently. Because I’d plowed through so many of the less interesting items on my to-do list during the quiet times, I could focus more on the big things when I needed to. Because I’d tinkered and worked on wording and small technical matters, the website and its content worked the way we needed it to.

Creative writing is the same. We might blame a blank screen on our muse or on the priorities competing for our attention. We might berate ourselves for writing so little the day after accomplishing so much. But in those times when our characters insist on giving us the silent treatment, or other responsibilities suck up our creativity, there are smaller things we could be doing: research, blogging, reading, critiquing others’ work.

I have no idea what will spark that ah-ha moment when I figure out what will happen next. But by making sure I do the groundwork, I know I’ll be ready to fill my screen with thousands of words when it comes.

I’m not saying to only write when your muse decides to show up. Just the opposite, in fact. Write every day, even if you need to take a break from your work-in-progress to focus on other items on your to-do list. Just don’t make the mistake of abandoning your writing because you have too many other priorities – like blogging or giving feedback on other people’s writing.

This is how I stay consistent: I ALWAYS show up. At my day job, I would never even consider calling in sick just because I’m uninspired by my to-do list. Unless I’m so ill I need to take time off to let my body recover, I will be there, computer open and brain working. I just might be taking care of the less glamorous tasks so I can focus on the sexy stuff later.

Are you a consistent writer? Do you make sure you hit a certain word count every day? Or do you let yourself work on other things when your inspiration lags behind your motivation?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Embracing inconsistency as a writer

  1. Hi Kat,

    With the Christchurch earthquake I found it difficult to concentrate, and then Japan happened. I’ve got friends and family in both places. So, my mind has been elsewhere literally.

    I try to focus on my writing where possible at times like this but it is difficult, the good thing is, sometimes these disasters can spur me on.

    Happy writing this week! πŸ˜‰

    • Katrina

      I hope your family’s all safe, Talei. I have family in Japan, and it was awful wondering whether they were okay. Fortunately, they are.

      Writing can be a great distraction from the stresses and fears of everyday life, if you’re able to focus on it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I’ve made the most progress when I’ve set a word-count goal of about 500. Lately, because I haven’t been writing at all, I’ve tried to get 100 words. Some days I haven’t even made that and I’m beating myself up about it. Thanks for a good reminder to cut myself some slack!

    • Katrina

      Definitely cut yourself some slack! You work hard and I truly believe it’s the quality of the words that matter more than the quantity.

  3. Suzanne, loved your post. Alas, I embrace inconsistency all too readily. Reading this has reinforced the notion that I need to set weekly goals for myself. As it is, it’s all to easy to let things slip.

    • Katrina

      I’m glad you’ve decided to set weekly goals, Margaret! I find that really helps me – more than daily goals, which I beat myself up over if I don’t meet. With weekly goals, I can give my brain a rest for a couple of days and be far more productive on other days.

  4. When I’m working on a new WIP, I usually have no trouble keeping in the 1,000-2,000 word count range (not that they’re GOOD words). But it gets too easy to slack off when I’m doing the edits, or the promo, or the marketing if I don’t have a deadline.
    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • Katrina

      I’m like that too, Terry. When I start a story, I can be really productive. Being an unpublished writer, I have to set my own deadlines, and they can be easy to change unless they’re things like contests. That’s partly why I enter so many. πŸ™‚

  5. There seems to be an ebb and flow in my writing. But I’m trying to be consistent in showing up to the page everyday. I might not work on my WIP, but I will edit something, work on another piece, or start something new. That seems to keep me open to when I am ready to get back to my main WIP.

  6. I have to say that I am not a consistent writer. But when I am on, I am on. If I am in the zone I can write for hours and days and then I crash and nothing creative comes out of my brain for days, even weeks.

    Thank you for sharing this blog. I enjoyed reading it. And thank you for the work that you do in your day job. πŸ˜‰

    Micole Black

  7. At the moment I am a totally inconsistent writer. Which makes me feel nothing like a writer. One of my creative writing tutors at Uni used to tell us that he wrote every day, every morning in a coffee shop with a bucket of coffee and an ipod on to drown out everyone else. And that’s how he got to write decent words. He insisted that if you wrote every day not only would the quantity be easy, but the quality would improve. I used to think ‘yeah, sure, that’s great for you – you have time’ but having read this post you point about showing up every day as you would your day job has really hit home. I go to work every day, why can’t I write every day? Perhaps eventually I’ll be writing novels and holding down a day job, like my old professor πŸ™‚

    • Katrina

      Glad what I said made sense! And I’m with your professor. I work office hours and either sit at my table or go to a coffee shop (with a bucket of coffee) and write for an hour before work. The days I allow myself to sleep through my writing time, I don’t feel any more rested and I get annoyed with people more easily. I think it’s a matter of making time and prioritizing the things you love.

      Good luck becoming like your old professor! πŸ˜‰

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