Learning from Karen Russell.


I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day, but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or “research” some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer?

I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going. Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.

I think it’s bad so much of the time. The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare. But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy to despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly.”

I like this. Just keep after it for several hours. Don’t worry about how it is going. I have such a tendency to allow myself to become discouraged if the words aren’t flowing effortlessly out of my pen, or keyboard, as the case may be.

And what happens when I get discouraged? I quit.

I have had a lot of success in the past with setting myself to “word sprints;” setting a timer for a relatively short period and racing to see how many words I can fit in. While that almost always guarantees bad writing, it satisfies the competitive side of my nature. Perhaps, then, telling myself I will not be beaten by bad writing, and determining to keep at it for several hours without giving up will have the same effect. It’s like getting through holding a plank for three minutes: Yeah, this hurts. No, it’s not fun at all. Sure, my form is drooping a bit after the first 90 seconds. But ya know what? I’m bigger and stronger than this dumb plank.

I think I’m going to try that today. (The writing equivalent, not the plank hold. I already did that this morning.)


This post is the tenth in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

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