The short answer? You’re going to have to figure this one out for yourself. But there are two main schools of thought.
Write every day
This is the standard advice found on countless websites, heard at conferences, and pushed in workshops. And it’s not terrible advice. If you want to be a writer, you have to write, of course. And if you’re working on something long — say, a novel — writing every day (or nearly every day) keeps you in the flow of your story.
I’ve talked to writers who pursue this goal in different ways. A friend in my writing group has a goal of 500 words per day, five days a week. Another has a weekly word count goal. And a successful published novelist I know writes for 30-45 minutes a day, and doesn’t worry about word count at all.
The danger of setting a daily goal, though, is that inevitably you will miss a day. It could be the flu, Christmas, a road trip, family emergency — or maybe you just have a bad day. Things happen. The real test is what happens the next day. Can you shrug it off and put it behind you? Or do you feel so rotten about not meeting your goal that you descend into the Pit of Shame, not writing anything at all for days or weeks?
Write when you feel like it
A recent post on Seven Scribes talked about how the first step in writing is forgiveness. If you can stop blaming yourself for not writing, you can climb out of the Pit of Shame and re-engage with your creative work whenever you feel like it. We’ve all heard people say things like “I only write when the muse is with me” or “I write when inspiration strikes.”
This attitude has great romantic appeal. And it avoids the Pit of Shame. You never experience the discouragement that comes from not meeting that daily goal, and every writing experience is a positive one. What’s the downside?
The middle path
Neither of these approaches completely works for me, and believe me, I’ve tried both extremes. In college and grad school, when I was writing mostly poetry, I rarely scheduled writing time — it just happened when it happened. I never felt bad about not meeting goals — but I wasn’t nearly as productive as I could have been. Later, when I got serious about writing fiction, I tried rigid schedule after rigid schedule. And I probably wrote even less.
The advice I find the most appealing comes from Alice Walker in an interview she did for Writers Digest: “Because part of writing is not so much that you’re going to actually write something every day, but what you should have, or need to have, is the possibility, which means the space and the time set aside — as if you were going to have someone come to tea.”
So I’ve tried to make space in my schedule almost every day for writing. Some days it happens, and some days it doesn’t. But I’ve found that if you put out the tea things every day, most days someone will show up to enjoy it with you.