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Life, Writing

Writer’s guilt and why I don’t recommend it

I don’t usually bang out a blog post and press Publish but sometimes it’s the only way.  Also, I generally avoid saying or becoming embroiled in anything with the faintest whiff of controversy on Twitter which, much as I love it, is fertile territory for misunderstandings and unintentional slights.  Believe me, I’ve managed to misread and mislead some close friends, felt offended for no reason and grovelled to people who weren’t at all upset by whatever innocuous thing I’d come out with. Almost as much of a waste of energy as the subject of this piece.

This morning I spotted some writing advice which concluded with an emphatic ‘write every day’.  I don’t even think it was someone I follow and it’s nothing we haven’t all seen a million times before, but something about the tone got on my nerves.  I took to Twitter, saying:

The least helpful writing tip ever (just seen again) is the bossy ‘write every day’. I’m a big believer in thinking time and downtime.

Shortly after that, Philip Hensher, author of nine novels (including The Northern Clemency, one of the greatest novels I have ever read) and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, replied:

I think ‘try to write every day’ is not bad advice. In my experience, the non-writing days happen anyway.

It was good to hear the perspective of an author of his experience.  Even that ‘try to’ puts a different spin on it.  Suddenly it doesn’t sound like a diktat any more.  I’m not against the practice or the goal of writing every day in its own right; it works for certain people as a means of boosting motivation and productivity.  It’s the suggestion that you’re not doing it right if you don’t which can be damaging.

We’re all constantly being told what to do.  But unlike cut down on alcohol and eat your five-a-day, hard to argue with given that we all inhabit a human body and generally share a desire to stay alive, one-size-fits-all doesn’t work so well for writing.  How could it, when there are so many variables: nature of the project, author’s personality, other commitments, the obstacles most of us face, one way or another?  With the obvious exception of people willing to risk dire consequences as the price for speaking out, once a work is published does it matter if the author wrote it between tempests perched on an oil rig or on the rare nights they weren’t exhausted after work or putting the kids to bed? There’s no escaping the fact that it takes years of commitment and discipline to master any kind of writing. Putting in the hours, whenever they may be, is enough of a challenge without all this pointless GUILT.

For guilt was mentioned or implied in so many of the responses I received today.  It’s clear that ‘write every day’ can be anything but motivating if it makes talented, committed people ‘feel like a fraud’.  Worse still, it can squeeze the joy out of creativity or suppress it entirely. I am sometimes asked for writing tips and my instinct is to back off because I don’t know anything (I usually come up with something non-prescriptive, to be helpful), but actually I do know a lot about guilt.

I grew up on it.

I even feel guilty about feeling guilty. It’s a huge theme in my writing – without it, my novel would be a very different type of book: guilt and sex is such a winning combination! Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have anything to say or would be too relaxed and blissed-out to bother. I sometimes feel guilty about writing – as in, doing it – but I refuse to feel guilty about not writing.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned – and hopefully there are several because I’m supposed to be doing a guest blog on it soon – it’s that there is an astonishingly weak correlation between the number of hours I spend at a desk (longhand is rare for me) and the quality of the end result.  The prologue to my book took me half an hour and has barely been touched since, whereas  I thought about a paragraph added in the final edit for at least two weeks and even then it took four days to make any kind of sense.

If I was going to end with a writing tip, bet you can guess what it would be.

Thanks to everyone for the interesting response today.  Thoughts?


Come back on Monday 9 May to see the cover and first page sampler of Paris Mon Amour.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


13 thoughts on “Writer’s guilt and why I don’t recommend it

  1. It’s amazing how often sensible advice gets shortened and mangled into soundbites that completely distort the nuances of the original. And it’s often very depressing how people in the quick-fix industry seize on these and repeat them until they attain the status of received wisdom.

    “Write every day” sounds almost like the rules of a professional writers’ closed shop — you can’t be a serious writer unless you’re able to clear your diary every single day. Also, if you feel you have a need to write, you shouldn’t be forcing yourself. It should come naturally.

    As you say, “try to write every day” is a much more sensible aim for a writer, although it risks being diluted according to resolve of the person doing the trying in which case it may become platitudinous. (To test whether a piece of advice isn’t just a platitude It’s often worth reversing these pieces of advice to see if they make sense the opposite way round — and “try not to write every day” may still make sense in certain circumstances.)

    For my MA course I collected various other “Rules of Creative Writing” from writer friends and aquaintances and wrote a 3,000 word piece of analysis to see which stood up to scrutiny. I wanted to examine whether some of the so-called rules were actually so misreported that they had mutated into very bad advice if given out of context. (You can read it on my blog if you’re interested. The background post is at http://www.macnovel.org.uk/?p=1299 – apologies for the odd font rendering which was down to my blog hosters and the actual assessment is at http://www.macnovel.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Reading-Novels-2-Assessment-MMU-MA-in-Creative-Writing.pdf )

    Interesting points about guilt too — when you look at how much guilt is used in marketing and sales (and maybe sometimes to exhort people to heed their advice)?

    Posted by Mike Clarke | May 6, 2016, 10:03
    • Interesting contribution as ever, Mike, and when I’m less frantic I’ll check out your pieces. Guilt is a complex thing to understand. It’s a significant part of many people’s make-up, especially women’s, and particularly in the latter case it is encouraged and trivialised by ‘guilty pleasure’ stuff like trashy novels/TV and slices of cake. Like anything, it can become a habit. Whether it’s fuelled by commercial interests, making us feel bad for not being thin or perfect or for the choices we make, or (in this case) by peer pressure and ideas about ‘what a writer does,’ it’s something that needs to be questioned!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 7, 2016, 13:55
  2. Thanks Isabel for another thoughtful post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Since I’ve become a full-time writer, guilt about not putting pen to paper comes very easily.

    However, I completely agree with you on needing downtime and thinking time. And in my opinion – and this might be controversial – when I’m thinking about my plot I’m actually ‘writing’. I might not get my word count up that day, but I’m moving my Work In Progress forward. So yes, it might look as if I’m out for a walk in the sunshine, but I’m really writing (honestly). Writing is not the same as typing.

    Posted by Anja de Jager | May 6, 2016, 12:53
    • Thanks, Anja. What you say isn’t controversial to me – it makes perfect sense. I do very little creative thinking (getting ideas) in front of a computer – almost all of that happens elsewhere and when I sit down to WRITE it’s very much about finding the words.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 7, 2016, 13:59
  3. I DO write every day but this is a function of being pressed for time as I have only 2 and a half precious hours I can squeeze in before my day job and weekends are golden for this reason. I don’t always produce word count. Sometimes it’s my Process Diary or working on language or research. But I do turn up everyday. I would however never think to suggest that as a sure fire thing. People’s minds and rhythms are different. Previously and because of different work hours I would work from Friday evening through to early Monday- a chapter a weekend and then edit in the evening Tues-Thurs. “Writing tips” unless aimed towards the confidence of those asking for them are pompous and useless.

    Posted by Fiona Melrose | May 6, 2016, 14:03
    • Fiona, I am in awe of your commitment to writing and I don’t think I know anyone who can match you for it. But it’s reassuring to hear you don’t advocate this for everyone. One of the reasons ‘Writing Tips’ are so problematic is that we’re all so different. That’s when the value of really great editorial, mentoring, etc asserts itself: the support is tailored to the writer and the work, hopefully coming from someone who understands both. SO looking forward to reading MIDWINTER!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 7, 2016, 14:04
  4. I think when I’m writing a 1st draft I try to write something every day, even if it’s only a dismal couple of hundred words. I think when you first begin to write creatively it’s worth pushing yourself to create that habit.
    In my day job I might be required to write on demand with someone badgering me feet away for some words – voice-over scripts; shooting scripts.

    But I think once you’re writing creatively in a professional mode as it were, once you’re an utter obsessive and you actually ‘have’ to write it no longer is necessary to write every day. Then I think you begin to write because there are a pile of words banking up that MUST come out, or because you have a deadline, or you don’t write at all because you’re all dried up and need to wait a while either for brain to engage or else something needs working out.

    The writing tip that makes me want to commit murder is – write what you know. That’s the one I really hate. Draw on what you know is more accurate but even then it’s not always necessary. The imagination is vital for creating fiction.
    So many tips but I think being angry about them is a good sign in a way that you’ve crossed over a kind of writerly line whereas an aspiring, less practiced writerly self might have needed those tips to get going or be prompted to think about process.

    Posted by Annette | May 6, 2016, 14:38
    • Interesting comments, Annette. They made me wonder if I might have a different perspective if, for example, I’d done an MA. (I have no writing qualifications at all.) I’ve often heard people say those programmes gave them ‘permission’ to write. I agree with what you say about when you ‘have’ to write – I’ve been through this turning in drafts to my agent and publisher and that’s easier because there is no option but to get on with it (and that feels better than the anxiety of not getting on with it!) At the moment I’m busy with publicity and can feel ideas for a new book incubating in the back of my mind, but until they’re more developed, there would be no point me trying to get started. The only time I have written almost every day (6/7) was the six months in which I wrote my first draft. I felt very pressured and my thinking time (see my reply to Anja) in between sessions practically disappeared. Need to be in top form to go through that again!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 7, 2016, 14:12
  5. Oh God thanks for this. I had a terrible day this week where I kept thinking “I don’t want to write” and then “YOU HAVE TO” and then “Look, if you don’t want to write, you’re probably not a Real Writer anyway”. It was awful. Antonia Honeywell was incredibly kind and encouraging via Twitter, which made me feel a lot better, and this makes me feel a lot better too. *Try to*: yes. *Succeed at doing so*: not so often. But the trying counts.

    Posted by Elle | May 6, 2016, 15:52
    • Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad my post and lovely Antonia’s words made you feel better. Of course the trying counts. Caring about it as much as you clearly do counts! And as Anja (see her comment) and I firmly believe, even thinking about your WIP counts. Sometimes mulling something over on the Tube or in the bath is worth hours at a screen, and when you do finally sit down, the words come more easily because of it. Another thing I’ve sometimes found helpful is blocking out time to write – putting it in my diary makes it feel like plans to see a friend.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 7, 2016, 14:19
      • It’s literally on my to-do list for Saturday: “write a bit”. I like the idea of making it something like planning to see a friend!

        Posted by Elle | May 7, 2016, 17:29
  6. Fabulous rant, Isabel. Here’s a tip for everyone: do it the way it works for you. End of. 😉

    Posted by Annecdotist | May 6, 2016, 18:51

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