Writing manuals unfailingly tell you two things: (1) Write every day; (2) Establish a minimum daily quota—two pages, five hundred words, what you will—and meet it, come hell or high water.
For years I struggled against these tyrannical injunctions. To me the daily quota requirement felt like a small payment on a credit card with high interest rates—it doesn’t matter how often you meet the payment, you end up owing more and more. Quota = bankruptcy.
I suspect you’re just like me, passionately opposed to tyranny. And up to your eyeballs in credit-card debt.
Know what? Tyranny will always be with us, but there are ways of avoiding writer’s bankruptcy. Stop thinking like a debtor, start think like a saver.
Forget about the quota. Instead of making fixed, obligatory decisions about how much to write beforehand, look back upon the work day and survey whatever you did write. Buy an elegant little agenda covering a week on two pages—an Italian design, say, with a soft black cover and a silk page mark. Every night before you go to bed, make a brief entry on it recording what you wrote that day, with an emphasis on newly written pages. Then your output agenda will work like an old-fashioned passbook savings account, showing you the steady progress of your wealth.
I used to be an irregular writer, sometimes not writing for weeks in a row, and never knowing exactly how much I was writing and when. After I chucked the quota paradigm and started using an output agenda, I’ve become much more productive. I write new materials every day without fail; I can visualize the unfolding of each project on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis; I can catch trends, positive and negative, such as neglecting a particular project for too long. I get so much pleasure flipping through my agenda and seeing how much I’ve “earned” over the months that I feel compelled to continue writing every day.
I first read about the output agenda in Breakfast with Sharks by Michael Lent, a sympathetic writer who knows how to give constructive advice.