Sunday 1 November 2015

You Don't Need To Write Every Day

The Lone Technical Writer, aka Greta Boller, has just written an interesting article on why you shouldn't write everyday.  She suggests that writing everyday can lead to burnout, a lack of joy and an inability to separate the good ideas from the bad ones, whilst stepping back can give you perspective on what you've written, a chance to learn more about your subject and the opportunity to remember why you love writing so much.

As a professional writer with a personal blog, my attitude is similar.  I put a lot of thought and effort into the articles I write on Agile Documentation, and of the reasons that Greta gives for not writing everyday, the chance to learn more about the subjects I cover, is the prime reason I don't post more articles.  However, some people feel torn between the horns of a dilemma when it comes to writing; on the one hand they feel they are unproductive or somehow failing if they don't write every day (or at least most days), but on the other hand writing everyday often has all of the drawbacks that Greta points out.  I want to address some of the reasons for this and see if we can find a happy compromise.

To do this, let's look at why people feel bad if they don't write every day. I come from (the early days of) Generation X, the first generation for whom marriage, children, a steady career and retirement at 65 wasn't necessarily the best or most highly-regarded life choice. We in fact had many choices, and things in that area have only bloomed for the Generation Y and Millennials that have succeeded us as life's bright young things. The birth of the World Wide Web and the explosion of electronic and software engineering meant that we were the first generation to have mobile phones as essentially children - I got my first phone before I could vote - and the first generation of students who could research the vast majority of human knowledge at the click of a mouse.  This has had many benefits, but one significant drawback is choice overload.  We could see the breadth and depth of human knowledge stretched before us like a giant canvas, and so much of it looked interesting that it was, and is, hard to choose a single things to focus on for any long period of time.

This has got worse with the proliferation of interconnected digital media creation and storage devices.  How many people want to take more photographs (and organise and curate the ones they've got on multiple devices and cloud storage accounts), find new music (and organise and curate the music they've got on multiple devices and cloud storage accounts), read more books (and organise and curate the ones they've got on multiple devices and cloud storage accounts) and watch more films,  TV shows and documentaries (and organise and curate the ones they've got on multiple devices and cloud storage accounts)?  People have a voracious appetite for both learning and expressing themselves, and with so many things to explore, and so many things to get good at, how do you choose?  Whether it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something or 10 hours, there are still only so many hours in the day, and a finite amount of days in your life.  It is no longer possible to be a renaissance man and know everything that man knows, like Da Vinci. And on top of that, if you want to express yourself and create something, that takes time to master as well.  No-one picks up a piece of marble and a hammer and produces a Michaelangelo first time round, and no-one can write War and Peace from a standing start.

With this whirlwind of choices in mind, there are things like NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where you write a certain number of words each day and at the end you have, if not something publishable, a serious chunk towards a publishable work. There are similar challenges with photography, film watching, novel reading, crafting, programming, language learning, and a whole host of other creative or learning pursuits.  These challenges are geared as much as anything to people who want to be personally productive and make efficient use of their time to learn, understand and create as much as they can in the relatively short life span of a human.  There are also MOOCs which can have tens of
thousands of students, and these are incredibly popular, because the drive for learning seems to be universal. This drive for learning and achieving can create pressure and lead to a feeling of failure if you're not hyper-productive all the time.  Basically, people want to be Tony Stark, or Elon Musk, or [pick your unbelievably productive hero here]. I won't go into the psychology of this - because it's presumably quite complex and highly contextual, and I'm not a psychologist - but I'm aware that it exists, and I'm aware that a lot of people suffer from this combination of intense drive and choice overload, which can often lead to feelings of failure.  If you've read this far you're probably aware of it too.

Which brings us to writing every day.  If you're struggling to write every day then NaNoWriMo won't change that.  It might change it for a month, but when a family member gets ill, or you've got a ton of housework to do, or 8 weddings, a funeral, 3 christenings and 5 birthday celebrations to attend in the space of 4 months, the fact that you spent an hour a day for 30 days working on a novel back in November isn't going to help you.  Life gets in the way.  That's normal.  Besides, at the end of that 4 month period you'll have a lot more to write about, simply because you haven't written much.  I'm not knocking challenges like NaNoWriMo at all, because they're a great way of working on your self-discipline and churning out a lot of work, but that doesn't mean that you have to work like that every day of your life to be productive.  Ah, but, I hear you say, the best way to Get Things Done is to make them a habit and do them for at least 10 minutes a day so that you can make progress!  Yes, and if you're keeping on top of your email or rebuilding an engine that productivity and project management approach is very effective, but writing is not about being efficient or getting better.  Allow me to expand on that.

There's an old saying that goes something like "If you want your child to become great at a sport, give them one ball", the idea being that you can be good at football and rugby and cricket, but you can only be great at one of them, and to that you need to specialise.  Therefore, if your child spends time playing rugby, and only rugby, they'll have a chance to be a great rugby player because they'll get better and better the more they play rugby.  As with rugby, the theory goes for some people, so with writing: Dedicate yourself to writing and you could be great at it.  But are you REALLY writing in order to get better at writing? Or are you writing to express yourself, to have a creative outlet, to give yourself a sense of satisfaction, fulfilment and achievement?  Becoming a better writer takes training, learning and effort.  That doesn't mean writing everyday, it means practising writing regularly and with a purpose.  That is not the same thing as writing a blog post or another chapter in your novel. 

I doubt many people who blog or write books do it in order to get better at writing, except occasionally as a technical exercise for reasons of professional or academic advancement. Besides, the quality of practise is more important then quantity, so writing everyday might build discipline (which is good), but it won't automatically make you a better writer.  The wheels will spin, but you won't necessarily be going anywhere.

You can apply the same logic to most creative pursuits such as music, photography, film-making, and so on.  Doing nothing but taking photos might help you develop a rule of thumb for the types of photo you take, but it won't teach you the principles of effective composition that can be used in every situation.  For that you need to learn about the theory and how to apply it. Otherwise you'll keep taking 1000 photos a day and getting 2 or 3 good ones, mainly by luck, whereas with a little theory you can take 500 a day and get 5 or 6 good ones, partly by understanding what makes a good photo.  Writing is the same.  Writing 50 pages a day of which you keep 2 is a worse use of your time than writing 10 pages of which you keep 9.

So, if I'm suggesting that writing every day isn't that worthwhile, how do you build the habit of writing and do it regularly?  Well, as this is a blog about writing in agile environments, you will not be shocked to hear that an agile approach can help.  Instead of focusing on how often you'll write, focus on what you'll produce instead.  As an example, let's look at this blog.  I know that, all things being equal, I can write 4 articles a month. So that's my velocity and sprint size right there - 4 articles a month.  The obvious way to look at this would be to say, ok, why not 1 a week then?  And the answer is equally obvious: Life gets in the way. If I'm having a busy week, or I'm ill, or work has gone crazy, I don't want this blog to suffer, but it can't be a higher priority than my work or my family, because I work to provide for my family and the blog is a personal project.  So whilst the priority of this blog is higher on my personal backlog than, say, watching a new box set, it's not higher than paid work or my family. And work and families being what they are, the chances of a week going by without me having adequate time to write an article I'm happy with are relatively high.  

But I also get weeks where everything is quiet, and that when happens I double down on the blog writing.  The important boundary is that I've got one month to produce 4 articles.  My month is a black box, and the customers - that's you, dear reader - don't care how I get the articles done within that month, you just care that they are done, and that the blog is regularly updated.

There are other benefits to an agile approach as well.  I've got a minimum marketable subset of 3 articles a month.  Less than 3 and the blog isn't updated enough for my liking, so I always do a minimum of 3 (unless circumstances are very unusual, in which case life comes first), but 4 is my goal.  A month also allows me periods of time when I can accept that my writing mojo isn't high.  If I had to write an article every week I'd have an opportunity to fail every 7 days, and sometimes my brain just doesn't work to that schedule so I'd be setting myself up for failure.  But I love writing and I know that my mojo will come back, so I know I can achieve at least 3 articles a month almost every month with a relatively small amount of effort (because I love writing, so it's not a huge effort to write when my mojo is present and correct).  A month is long enough for me to look back at my past articles and have some temporal distance to be honest with myself about what's worked and what hasn't and do a kind of personal retrospective.  It also gives me enough time to discover interesting articles (like Greta's article that made me think about this) and do a bit of planning and grooming of future articles. 

(The irony is that for the first time I've just missed my target.  I've only posted 1 article in October 2015 because it's been the busiest month I've had for several years, but I still wrote 3 articles, including this one.  It's just that I planned to post 2 articles on 31st October, but circumstances intervened and I'm posting them on 1st November instead. Despite this minor hiccup I still wrote the articles in October, which gives me confidence that the system can work even in the busiest months.)

I won't stretch the agile analogy too far, but the general concept of a sensible, repeating time period with a realistic goal at the end of it has worked very well for me, and I've started to apply variations of it to other things I want to work on. You can add goals to your monthly sprint, like "take photos of 3 sporting events", "bake 5 different cakes", "read one book", or whatever you want.  Just make sure that the things in your sprint aren't the day-to-day of email management, budgeting, cleaning, or anything else that you can use a to-do list for.  

Having tried the "build a habit by doing it everyday" approach, I can honestly say that an agile approach has made me much more productive and, crucially, stopped me burning out whilst still allowing me to build a habit.  And if I want to write every day I can. I just don't have to.  Like many people I want to read, learn, understand, create, experience and achieve many things and agile has so far proven to be the best tool to help me get there.  Go on, give it a try.  You might be surprised.

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