The Secret To Being A Productive Writer

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I’ve always been impressed by writers who produce a lot of work, and one of the most productive ones just left the scene. On January 27 a giant of American literature, John Updike, passed away. He was 76, and except for a two-year stint on the staff of The New Yorker magazine, he had been a self-employed writer for his whole career. Updike wrote novels, short stories, poetry, criticism, memoirs, and nonfiction.
I love reading Updike’s work for the sheer pleasure of his command of language. In everything he wrote there are always moments when you shake your head in admiration at his graceful phrasing and just-right metaphors.
However, even the folks who can’t stand Updike’s work have to admit one thing: the man was prolific. By any measure, he was a productive writer. For the New Yorker alone he wrote 327 book reviews, 170 short stories, 154 poems, and 158 Talk of the Town commentaries.
His work for the New Yorker was only one facet of Updike’s career. Besides publishing his work in magazines, he also found time to write no less than 50 books, including 25 novels, a dozen short story collections, poetry, literary & art criticism, and even children’s books.
It sounds impressive, but it’s even more impressive when you consider that Updike, like every other writer under the sun, didn’t sell everything he wrote. I once read an interview with him where he said that he still got rejection letters even at the height of his career. It didn’t happen on a regular basis, but there were times when editors turned down even John Updike. If you add all those unpublished works to the total, and figure that there must surely have been times when Updike had to abandon a novel or story because it just wasn’t working (another thing that happens to all writers), it’s even more impressive that he found the time to produce so much.
How did he do it?
It’s no secret. He sat down every morning, without fail, and wrote. His daily goal was to produce three pages of writing that were up to his standards. He stuck to that goal for decades; through all the ups and downs of daily life, John Updike produced his three pages every day.
And it added up. Over the course of years, those daily three pages added up to a body of work that is truly monumental.
It’s a great lesson for every writer, and it’s one that all the great writers preach: write every day. No matter what happens in your life, no matter where you are or what else is going on around you, write something every day. It doesn’t have to be thousands of words — even a few hundred words a day will add up.
Updike said once that he got the idea for his daily production from George Bernard Shaw. Shaw wrote five pages every day, rain or shine, and once he reached his daily goal he would stop — even if he was in the middle of a sentence. Hemingway also stopped in the middle of a sentence when he reached his goal, and he said it actually helped to get him started the next day, because he could just finish the sentence and be back in the writing mode.
There are all sorts of theories and advice about how to be a successful writer, and each has its good points. The one rule you should always follow, however, the most important rule of all, is simply to write.
Every single day.


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