Four Hours and Out

Karl, in the comment thread to the previous entry, says:

I have commonly read advice that writers should sit down and write for four hours then call it a day. Reading between the lines, this doesn’t seem to be the way that you work. I would love to hear your opinion on the four hour advice, ideally in entry form.

In fact, I don’t work by writing four hours a day and then doing something else; I tend to write for most of a standard work day (off and on; I do other things as well, like read and do business on the phone and procrastinate), and then I will sometimes write after that because writing is also what I do for fun. If I wrote for only four hours a day, it seems unlikely that I would actually get any real work done.

However, I suspect the “write for four hours” thing is a rather rigid interpretation of a set of heuristics that goes like this:

1. Write every day;
2. Write long enough to get actual work done;
3. Stop writing when you’re no longer doing useful work.

I don’t think trying to write for four hours a day is a bad thing for new writers to do, to the extent that they do so with the understanding that four hours is an initial setting, and that they should be paying attention to what their body and mind say about it; over time they may find four hours is too much or not enough for their natural writing pace. Likewise they ought not panic if they don’t fill in their four hour quota each and every day; people generally aren’t machines.

(As an aside: When writing for four hours, or five, or whatever, remember to stop every now and then and give your wrists and back a rest. Ergonomics wasn’t just invented by commies; you can really screw up your writing implements (i.e., your hands) if you’re not careful.)

The nice thing about saying “write four hours” is that it’s an achievable goal newbie writers can click off: Hey! I was in front of the computer, banging away from 10 til 2! Look at me! I’m a writer! And that may indeed be superficially beneficial. Also, of course, it gives the guy at the Learning Annex who is standing up in front of a bunch of people who just paid $45 to find out how to be writers something to say that sounds useful. I think this is all mostly harmless as long as the budding writer takes it as a guideline rather than gospel, and I would hope that most budding writers are smart enough to do that.

Having said that and as a tangent, I am sometimes thankful that I managed to get through the initial parts of my writing life largely unmolested by writing advice and those who dispense it because I’ve found over time that much of what passes for “advice” — i.e., specific and precise instructions on writing mechanics — is either not useful to me or would have been actively detrimental to my development as a writer. This is why, when I blather out my own advice to newbie writers, I tend to avoid specific instructions (i.e., how much to write, when to write, etc) and I also strenuously warn people that I’m writing from my own experience, some of what I say may not be useful to them, and anyway, I have my head up my ass most of the time. Indeed, my feeling is that if any writing “expert” won’t cheerfully admit to their own fundamentally sphinctocranial nature, he or she is best taken lightly, if at all.

Writing four hours a day wouldn’t work for me; it might work for you. Try it and see what you think. Don’t hesitate to change it if you need to. That’s what I think about that.

Now I’m off to ConFusion. See you all later.