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Spiritual Lessons for Writers, Part 2: Write as You Can, Not as You Can’t

February 6, 2024


In my first article in this series, I wrote about the principle of “my writing is not about me”: the importance of humility in the writing life and the foundational idea that writing serves the reader, not the writer. In this piece, we’ll look at considering the writer’s experience. There are a number of “rules” that turn up in discussions of writing that all too often end up being discouraging and counterproductive, because they are presented in a way that is too specific to a particular personality or schedule. In this piece, I’m going to look at three of these so-called rules and reframe them so that every writer can put them into effect in a helpful and encouraging way. 

As the guiding principle, I am adapting a valuable piece of advice about prayer that I learned from the Fathers of the Oxford Oratory (their prayer-book, which contains a marvelously useful section on “How to Pray,” was among several titles that I recently recommended). This advice is “Pray as you can, don’t try to pray as you can’t.” What one person finds helpful in the spiritual life may or may not work for another person: the Oratory Fathers recommend trying different ways to pray, and sticking with what works. The same thing holds for the writing life, as we will see. 

Too specific:

“Get up early and write first thing in the morning.” This piece of advice is probably the most common: the idea that if you are going to be a writer, you should get up early and do your writing before the start of the day. It’s great advice for many people, who find that it allows them uninterrupted quiet time before the rest of the household gets up, or that they are most focused first thing in the morning. However, not everybody is wired the same way. Years ago, I made a diligent trial of the “get up and write first thing in the morning” principle. I sustained it for about a month, and then let it go with great relief. All that I accomplished was to make myself miserable.  

The “write as you can” practice:

Pay attention to your own rhythms. When do you feel most alert and able to write? Perhaps it is in the morning, or maybe late at night, or even in midafternoon. As much as you can, try to fit in your writing time during those hours. 

To be sure, if your other responsibilities are such that you simply can’t write during your preferred time (or if you have a pressing deadline), you may need to fit in your writing at hours that you don’t prefer. In that case, write when you can, and make the best of it. 

Too specific:

“Write every day.” This piece of advice does have a very good foundation: the idea that you need to write often, and not just wait for a burst of inspiration or a long stretch of uninterrupted time. For many people, the practice of daily journaling or some sort of writing each day, even if brief, is helpful. However, if it is taken as a rule, missing a day can feel like failure, which is certainly not good for one’s emotional state as a writer, and being unable to stick with a daily schedule can lead to abandoning the attempt to write at all. It can also lead to writing becoming a tedious task to check off one’s to-do list. If daily writing helps, do it; if not, don’t.

The “write as you can” practice:

Write regularly—whatever ‘regularly’ means in your schedule. A habit of writing allows you to be much more productive in the long run, because it frees you both from waiting for inspiration and from unrealistically high expectations of what you will accomplish in any given session, and because over time, it gives you a good amount of material to work on. But what is ‘regular’ in your schedule depends on what else is going on in your schedule, and in your life in general. 

As a general rule, I recommend writing several times per week, which maintains a habit and ensures that when you sit down to write, you won’t have completely forgotten what you were last working on. Not having those sessions be daily gives you flexibility and allows for you to adjust to the natural ups and downs of life. (Some days my brain is just tired and that’s all there is to it.) At the end of the week, look back and consider how things went. If you weren’t able to keep to your planned schedule, ask yourself why not. Perhaps you need to change some habits to make space for your writing; did you find yourself spending hours on YouTube that could have been used otherwise? Or perhaps you need to change your expectations, at least for the moment. For instance, how often I write depends on things like whether I’m traveling on a lecture tour (no writing at all during that time) and the stage in which I’m working on any given project. 

Too specific:

“Write X number of words in a session.” Some people thrive on word-count goals (500 words per day, or some equivalent.) If this truly helps and encourages you, do it. However, I find that this practice is more limited in value than most people realize. As a general practice, it can be extremely counterproductive. If you don’t make the target, it’s easy to get discouraged; word-count targets can foster attention to quantity over quality; and most importantly, word-count targets are only relevant for the drafting stage of a writing project. An effective idea generation session might generate only a few sentences, but be very fruitful; an effective revision session might result in a reduction in total word count. 

The “write as you can” practice:

Write for a certain amount of time per session. Having a set length of time for a writing session provides a certain amount of accountability: you need to be working on your project during that time. The length of an effective session is probably shorter than you expect. It is usually more effective to write in frequent shorter jogs, rather than marathons. Setting aside a huge block of time (and especially a whole day or a weekend) is often surprisingly unproductive, as the mental pressure to get a lot written during that time can undercut one’s focus. It’s also harder to resist distractions during a marathon session.

An hour is a good basic length for a writing session (I would say that two hours is a substantial session and three hours is a long one). Twenty or thirty minutes makes for a useful length of time, if you sit down and get to it. For that matter, even five minutes to make some notes is worthwhile. Do what you can, as you can. If you do have a long block of time, break it up and don’t try to push yourself too far. It’s better to stop while you are still productive, so that you are looking forward to coming back to it, rather than push yourself till you’re burned out. Also, if you are writing for more than thirty minutes, make sure to take regular breaks to stretch and to look away from your screen.  

How much writing you produce during a session will vary, depending on all sorts of factors. You might be researching or revising rather than producing new content. Even if you are drafting, the amount can vary: some people write a lot in a draft and then cut it back in the revision, while others start off with drafting very little and build up in the revision. Either way is a good way, if it is the way that your mind works as a writer. 

“Write as you can; don’t try to write as you can’t.” If you keep this basic principle in mind, it will help you to persist as a writer, despite the inevitable discouragements in the writing life, and it will help encourage you to try new approaches to see if you can find the schedule and habits that work best for you.

This principle is challenging, though. It means that we don’t have excuses. “I can’t write first thing in the morning . . . I don’t have time to write every day . . .” and so on can be ways of avoiding the actual work of sitting down at the computer or the notepad and getting on with the hard work of putting the words down and making them better. “Write as you can, not as you can’t” means that if you feel the tug of interest to write, it’s in your hands to do something about it. 

The beauty of this challenge, though, is that it allows our writing to also be an avenue of spiritual growth, as we step up to the task of using the gifts that God has given us. And one part of that spiritual growth is perhaps to reflect on how the “write as you can” attitude can also point us back to the original principle, and put it into effect: “Pray as you can, don’t try to pray as you can’t.”