A Slightly-Irreverent Guide to Writing Less

The advice I’m about to give you goes against a fundamental method to becoming a better writer, namely, writing like mad.

In fact, I pretty much gave that advice this past Monday.

But seasoned writers recognize you’re going to run the machine into the ground if you don’t do this on occasion…

Write less.

Robert Bruce made that point today in How to Create World Class Content by Never Writing Again.

And in response to Monday’s post Don Sturgill wrote, “Writing exercises are for those who don’t write enough. What writers need is a walk by the river (think I’ll take one now).”

Maybe we’re on to something.

1. Overkill

Write too much and you start to repeat yourself. Do I need to say any more?

2. Counter-Productive

This past summer I took an accelerated biblical Greek class. The idea was to compress 16 weeks of a normal grad-level course into five.

It was hell.

I had to memorize 40-60 vocabulary words three times a week, 4-6 memory paradigms three times a week and take a quiz every time we met. No joke, but I routinely studied for 17 hours straight.

Here’s the sad part: I failed. I wasn’t being efficient with my time or resources and became counter-productive. The same can occur with writing.

If you never take a break from what you are doing to rest or exercise or relate to a human being then the law of diminishing returns will curl in and crush you. And you lose.

3. Revise More

Writers don’t make their money off of rough drafts. They make it off of tightly-focused, rock-solid refinements.

That’s called revision. Editing.

So if you never slow down the pace of your output, you may be prolific but you won’t be profitable. See point 5.

4. Fill Your Resources

At some point every writer comes to that point: exhaustion. Emotional, possibly physical, exhaustion.

But don’t forget mental or intellectual exhaustion.

Write yourself silly without a break and you’ll reach the end of the idea road. When you do, ride your bike to the library, university or book store. Cram as many books into your head in a evening as you possibly can. Watch a movie. Talk to strangers. But fill up your resources. See point 6 for more ideas.

5. Demand More Money

Being a professional writer is not scalable. Meaning, you get paid for the work YOU do.

Sure, you could hire a couple of copy cubs to farm your work out to, but why manage other people and trust them to do as good as a job as you could?

That means you have two choices if you want to make more money: increase your volume or increase your prices. I vote for B. But you can only vote for B if you are worth it. Are you?

6. Enjoy Life

Do like Don did and go to the river. Or shoot some hoops. Grab a 12-pack of IPA [which is my favorite beer, by the way, if anyone wants to get me something for my birthday] and hang out with your neighbor [the one you don’t like].

Hang out with your wife, the children. Draw. Hunt. Toy with a psychic. In other words, enjoy God’s green earth, people.

7. Teach Someone

I said this in my post 7 Ways Writing Saved My Life: “Learning to write well doesn’t terminate on you. It terminates on those who need it most. Those who suffer. Who hope. Who beg. Who read.”

I’ll add to that, “those who want to learn how to write.”

Teaching someone how to write well will make you a better writer because you will uncover concepts you forgot about. You’ll see old ideas in new ways. And that interaction with another human will fill your resources, too.

8. Pursue Solitude, Rest

Yeah, the writer needs fixed times of solitude to become the world’s greatest copywriter, but he also needs solitude so he can rest. Writers are typically introverts. Introverts recharge by being alone. Sometimes when you are working. But other times when you are not. Get some rest.

9. Someone’s Dead

Perhaps it was Anthony Trollop. I’m not sure. But there’s a writer out there [“out there” meaning “among the living and dead”] who’s devotion to the craft is revered because he skipped his OWN son’s funeral when it conflicted with his writing time.

He’s not devoted–he’s demented.

As much as it pains me to say this, people matter way more than words on a page. Trust me.

10. Simplify

One of the risks of relentless writing is you lose focus.

Banging out that novel in 30 days takes some serious pressure–and not a whole lot of time to step back and say, “Am I going in the right direction?” Or how about this: am I even working on the RIGHT things?

Should you have accepted that assignment?

Taking a break from writing allows you to evaluate your life, your schedule and sanity. All good things to keep an eye on.

Your Turn

What other reasons can you think of for writing less? Share your thoughts in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you.

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  1. says

    I keep a writer’s notebook, but not in my pocket. It’s on a shelf in my room. I write in my writer’s notebook whenever something brilliant, or something that seems brilliant, comes into my head. I never force myself to write in this notebook. That way, it’s always from my heart, never from my head. I’ve been adding to this notebook for several years and have only now started another; so, there’s nowhere’s near enough for a novel. But the quality of what’s there, which I rediscover when, from time to time, I glance back over pages, is remarkably strong. Maybe sixty percent of it surprises me for its insight and beauty, and I sometimes think it could have been written by a great writer. Writing less, for me, yields much more good work.

      • says

        I haven’t often dated the entries, but the earliest with a date is from 8/21/2007, which sounds about right for when I began the notebook. I haven’t often taken words or phrases from it, I think because the difficulty in getting traditionally published dampened my enthusiasm for finishing work. E-books have changed that for me, though, and I now have a couple of titles out there with more to follow. It’s very exciting.

  2. says

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post, Demian. I’m too tired to have anything to add. Plus, I think you covered the bases pretty well yourself.

    I will comment on numbers 8 and 9 though. You do need to remember to rest. It’s often difficult to remember that & the repercussions can be painful. And yes, that guy is demented. And whoever revered him for skipping it, IMO, is even more demented.

    – Jennifer

    • says

      Yeah, I like to get a solid 8 hours a night if I can. I LOVE sleep. Rest. And reading. Sleeping well also means you are probably dreaming well and what writer hasn’t had a wacko dream and thought “I need to use that”? Take care and hope you got some rest. 😉

  3. says

    This reminds me of working out at the gym. You have to let the muscles recover from a session of breaking them down so they can be built back up. Writing non-stop doesn’t give you time to build up your proverbial writing muscles.

    On another not, is the word proverbial overused? Hell, did I even use it correctly?

    Great read Mr. D!

    • says

      That’s a great point and a nice muscle-related metaphor…I’m a big fan [because I only have two drives: full bore and off] of workout until you fail…then lots of recovery. By the way, can you spot me? 😉

  4. says

    “By the way, can you spot me?”

    Sure, as long as you’re not asking for money….Even then I may drop the bar on you due to my ADHD…

  5. says

    Hey Demian! Thanks for that highly reverent Guide to Writing. Sooo many great points – Number 3 come’s to mind first – have to empty that notepad and keep it moving, 6 and 8 are spot on

    Thanks blessing

  6. says

    #4 contains my best resource for keeping it fresh. Reading other people’s work (books, blogs, etc.) can bring new ideas that just have to be written.

  7. says

    I love this post. “Everyone” says that blogging at least 1 or 2 posts/week is key; but I’ve found that this leaves no rest-time for the blogger [that wants quality] with a bunch of kids home for summer….must enjoy the summer. Thanks for writing.

    • says

      Yeah, it’s tricky. The content quantity v. quality issue. You’re traffic naturally goes up the more you post…but that’s a drain. I’ve also learned to take sabbaticals, entire months off. Without guest posts in position. It’s always healthy even if traffic numbers dip.

  8. says

    Practice make perfect. I think the more you write the better you get. But also, never force your self to create. It should be natural. But never rely on inspiration alone because creativity is 99 percent perspiration.

  9. says

    Gotta feed something to get output. For a writer, consumption is as important as production. There is the seed of a narrative in every interaction you’re a part of in a day. If you only spend time with your face poked in a machine, fingers pecking away, you aren’t fostering the interactions that plant seeds into the spirit.