Write every day. As writing advice, it’s up there with ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘write what you know’. And it’s easy to see why: 220 words a day, and you’ve got the first draft of an 80,000 word novel in a year. But over the course of writing eight manuscripts, it’s never worked for me.


 When I started writing semi-seriously, aged 24, I had a day job, but was otherwise commitment-free. Plenty of free time balanced against an unpredictable social life meant my writing output was prodigious, but ad hoc. No words for days because I’d gone away for the weekend or been out for several nights in a row. Then 8,000 words on quiet Saturdays, locked away with my laptop, a playlist, and a pot of coffee. All interspersed with plenty of 2,000-word evenings. Though this scatter-gun approach sounds quite different from writing every day, it revolved around the same core philosophy: write as much as you can, as often as you can.


Nowadays, I take a fundamentally different approach: for one month at a time, I write consistently and fairly intensely. In alternate months, I’m just as disciplined about not writing at all. And I’ve never written so productively or maintained such a good balance between writing and other activities. It’s a method that a lot of stressed-out writers could benefit from.


 Why the shift? Aged 33, I gave birth to my first child – and three months later, still in the grip of sleep deprivation and hormones, I signed with my literary agent. Writing simultaneously became more serious and harder to make time for.


I fought through a sequel to my contemporary fantasy novel that was on submission, attempting to utilise my old ad hoc approach. But the unpredictable, round-the-clock demands of a baby meant limited time to write. There were no long stretches in which to churn out thousands of words, and no guaranteed slots in which to take a slow and steady approach.


On good days, I wrote during the all-too-infrequent nap times and late into the night. On bad days – or weeks – I did no writing at all. There were glorious moments when the words flowed, and others when I played with my baby while character arcs and plot beats barely crossed my mind. But when I was writing, I felt guilty and stressed about the things I was neglecting; and when I failed to write, I was convinced the book would never be finished.


Though it took longer than any manuscript I’d written in the past and felt like far more of a struggle, I eventually got the book finished. But the process had really taken an emotional toll. I’d been on maternity leave when I started drafting that book. By the time I submitted it, I was back at my day job. Juggling work and writing had been challenging, but manageable. Juggling writing and a young child had been a real struggle. Juggling all three felt impossible.


I had an idea for an epic fantasy novel that I was desperate to start drafting, but I couldn’t face putting myself through all that stress, guilt and resentment again.


Eventually, November arrived, and with it, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The idea is that writers commit to writing 50,000 words in one month. I’d pulled it off twice before, in my pre-child days. But surely there was no way I could work full-time, look after a toddler, and write 50,000 words in 30 days?


Well, no. There’s ambition, and then there’s delusion. However, I thought that I could write 25,000, which would give me a foundation to build on at a slower, more haphazard pace.


So during November, I put personal admin on the back burner. I left the house untidy. I skimped on exercise, and said no to socialising and to lazy evenings on the sofa. I wrote when I was tired, I wrote when I wasn’t in the mood, and I tried my best to write when the words weren’t flowing. ‘It’s just for this month,’ I told myself. I managed 30,000, potentially a third of the way to a first draft.


Once November turned into December, I absorbed myself in Christmas preparation and caught up on everything I’d let slide. I didn’t write a word, and I didn’t feel guilty at all. I’d made a solid start, and made gradually finishing the book my New Year’s resolution. By the end of December I couldn’t wait to pick the manuscript up again, but I still worried about how I’d fit the writing around everything else, outside of the magic of November.


And then it struck me: There was no real magic to November. All I’d done was set myself a stretching but achievable target, tracked my word count, and ruthlessly prioritised writing in my limited free time. And I could do that any month of the year. A few intense months for drafting, a few for editing, and I’d have a complete polished manuscript.


Realistically, though, while I could indeed take that NaNo approach any month of the year, I couldn’t do it every month of the year. Six months at that intensity back-to-back, and I’d be burnt out. The house and my body would be wrecked. My husband and friends would be neglected. And that ‘it’s just for the month’ mantra would become meaningless. Eventually, I’d grind to a halt.


Then I had my second revelation: Not writing at all in December had been just as powerful as writing nonstop in November. Not only had it physically and mentally rejuvenated me and let me catch up on other things, but it had allowed ideas for the book to percolate in my head and reinvigorated my passion for the project.


What if I repeated the combination of one ‘on-month’ followed by one ‘off-month’ on a rolling basis? One month of no excuses. One month of no guilt. Repeated until the manuscript was done.


Inevitably, there were hiccups. Some on-months, I was slowed down by a poorly child, overtime at work, or a genuinely unmissable event. When I got pregnant a second time, I took two off-months in a row for morning sickness. Conversely, I did a six-week on-month to finish the first draft.


By and large, though, it’s worked. I started in November 2020 and sent the final 130,000-word version to my agent at the end of January 2022, a few days before baby number two arrived.


I had seven on-months: three for writing the first draft; then one focused on initial edits, another for dealing with critique partner suggestions, one for writing an extra 15,000 words (don’t ask!), and then final edits.


The focuses of my off-months varied: mentoring in a writing contest; dealing with a house move; pursuing a four-week exercise challenge; or just indulging in some relatively lazy evenings.


That 14-month turnaround isn’t the fastest ever example of novel creation, but it’s not bad for a fairly long, fairly ambitious, fantasy novel. I believe it would have taken as long, if not longer, if I’d tried to write every day or as often as I could.


Perhaps more importantly, though, I stayed engaged and enthused in the project. I balanced writing with my core commitments of work, childcare and pregnancy, and made time for other activities. Above all, I avoided (or mostly avoided, I’m only human!) that horrible feeling of guilt about writing when you’re doing it, and guilt about not writing when you’re doing something else.


This approach is very adaptable to your individual lifestyle, goals and preferences. The heart of it is simply to have some predetermined periods in which you prioritise writing, alternated with other periods in which you deliberately don’t write at all.


Those periods can be longer, or shorter, than a month. You can make the targets as stretching or gentle as feels right for you – on-months aren’t synonymous with working yourself to the bone. And you can spend the off-months watching trashy TV, catching up on life admin, or being equally ruthless about something else. The important thing is that, instead of constantly pushing yourself yet feeling you’re never doing enough, you compartmentalise and strike that balance between no excuses and no guilt.


Write every day is an old piece of advice. But increasingly, in every area of life, we’re encouraged to do things with unfailing consistency. Meditate for ten minutes each day; maintain a winning streak on a language app, walk 10,000 steps. The idea that tiny bits of effort can build up to big rewards is an alluring one, but daily commitments can pile on the pressure and set us up to fail. Maybe we’d feel better, and achieve more, if we think more about the best times to be truly on and truly off, and free ourselves from the tyranny of floundering in some uncomfortable middle ground.


Try this

  • Set a target before you start. It could be a drafting word count, or a specific editing goal: think challenging but doable. Once the month’s underway, track progress. Briefly brainstorm what exactly you’re going to write or edit, to help you work fast once the month starts.


  • Schedule sensibly. If a planned on-month will be too full of other commitments, consider two successive off-months, for example.


  • Reward yourself in your on-months. Think about ways to make writing sessions as pleasant as possible and to decompress after them.


  • Write, write, write! Don’t make excuses; just get those words down on the page – you can always edit them later. Remember the mantra: ‘it’s just for this month’.


  • Accept that life happens. If you genuinely can’t make your target, don’t beat yourself up; just try again next time.


  • Relax properly in an off-month. Make light-touch plans in advance to maximise the benefit of your free time. And don’t write! Working on your main project isn’t extra credit, it’s cheating!


SOPHIE WILLIAMSON is a civil servant, mother of two children under three, and freelance writer with a particular focus on writing, parenting and fitness. She’s currently on submission with Unchosen, which seeks to subvert the ‘chosen one’ trope. She’s also reviewed every book she’s read for the last ten years. @williamsonwords

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Sophie Williamson

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