I have an on-again, off-again relationship with a routine writing practice. I’m good in spurts–I’ve successfully reached the 50,000 word mark in three NaNoWriMo Novembers–but the rest of the year is a puzzle to me.

Many writers do well with daily word quotas, and for about 8 months during my senior year of college, I did, too: 500 words a day, every single day. I liked the predictability of it and the fact that I could feel it getting easier. The first day took something like two hours. Later on, I could knock out my words in under 30 minutes on a good day.

What went wrong was that I didn’t have a way to account for editing. I was obligated to produce those 500 words, but what if I was editing a scene? I might write a paragraph or so, change some words, but a large part of my editing involves playing with order, deleting, and doing exercises to probe into areas of the story I’m missing. An hour’s solid, productive editing might result in 200 actual words entered onto the page. I couldn’t find a good conversion for what 500 words of writing “equaled,” so I fell off the wagon.

I’ve also tried daily writing schedules–15 or 30 minutes a day, usually. I’d get up early in the morning or set aside some time in the evening, and for a few weeks it would go well, until I got sick or had a terrible day and skipped. I’m motivated by goals, you see, but I’m also very hard on myself when I don’t meet them. After midnight, those 15 minutes are gone forever and I have a permanent black mark on my record.

What I need, I am learning, is a goal to push toward that will also allow flexibility. My goal should account for my life: the fact that I have new-found weekend time after quitting my job at the church, but that all I want to do when I get home after class is relax. I’m strong and focused on Mondays, drained on Fridays. I need to break away from the idea that if I can just be disciplined enough, I can make every day feel the same.

What I’m trying this September is a monthly goal: 1000 minutes of writing. It comes out to an average of about 35 minutes a day, challenging but achievable, and I can use weekends to my advantage to gain time in case I need a breather. It’s not quite a daily goal, although if I know what’s good for me I’ll be butt-in-chair at least 6 days a week! I’m currently at 118 minutes, and I’ve been excited to see how much gets done in each session. It’s been nice to be able to choose a 40-minute power stretch or 15-minute bursts separated by lunch with Andrew or a long walk.

Of course, I’ve learned over the years that writing goals and needs change, sometimes unexpectedly, and that part of learning to write consistently is learning when to fight the impulse to do something else and when to listen and adapt. For those who are struggling with a consistent daily routine or word-count quota, I’d recommend trying out a weekly or monthly goal instead.