Very few writers like to be asked how “it’s going.” The question usually comes from well-meaning friends or family, and it is innocent enough. The person who asks it is showing interest (which writers like) and support (which writers need). And they very likely be would satisfied with an answer along the lines of, “Great, thanks.”
Nevertheless, questions about how the chapter/article/dissertation/blog post/conference paper is coming along sets us to wondering how to measure our progress. There’s the problem. Writing isn’t like hanging drywall or improving your golf swing or invading a country. There aren’t always (or usually) definable steps in the process by which the writer may measure his progress. If a deadline lies crouched around the corner or if, by some misfortune, the writer is trying to make a living by writing, then he probably asks himself constantly, Am I getting anywhere? The rest of the time, it’d just be nice to turn off the lamp at the end of the day able to say, “Look what I accomplished!”
So what does it mean to have a good day of writing? How do we know if we’re getting somewhere? Here’s a list:
Sometimes a good day of writing involves brainstorming, mind-mapping, outlining, or otherwise organizing your thoughts. Draft an outline. Jot down notes on a napkin. Think and doodle. You may not compose sentences or paragraphs. But this is real work.
Sometimes a good day of writing involves getting some of these thoughts on a piece of paper. There’s time later to worry about what order the words ought to go in. If you start with a blank white page and end the day with something—anything—on it, that’s a victory.
Sometimes a good day of writing results in clearly articulating a single important concept or thought. It’s not glamorous, but the most important part of writing is often finally being able to say what you mean. Maybe it’s the thesis you’ve been struggling to formulate, the payoff you’ve failed to make tangible, or the crucial connection you’ve been unable to articulate. If you finally pin one of these down, even if you walk away with only one good sentence, it’s a good day.
Sometimes a good day of writing is spent cleaning your desk. Or washing the car. Or mowing the lawn. Almost without fail, I do my best writing in my head while I’m doing something else. Then there follows a mad dash somewhere—to find a notebook or computer—to capture the words before they escape. The point is, sometimes a good day of writing doesn’t involve any “writing.”
Sometimes a good day of writing includes reading good writing that helps you find your voice. There are days when I feel like I have plenty to say, but by the time I try to put words to paper, they feel stilted and unnatural. Often the solution is to just keep writing; you can revise tomorrow. Other times the solution is to read someone who helps you speak naturally. True confession: when I sing along with “More Than a Feeling,” I feel like a rockstar. When I read Flannery O’Connor, I feel like a writer. Sometimes Sister Flannery (and others) give me the boost I need to speak for myself.
Finally, sometimes a good day of writing results in quantifiable forward progress: you type actual words—words that you like and may well keep—into your document and save them. These are good days. For me, these days usually follow several days like the ones described above: days spent doodling, turning out bad prose like beef through a meat grinder, slowly—slowly—pulling together clear, finely-tuned sentences here and there. Then there’s a rush of productivity when things finally fall into place, and I might compose several pages at a sitting.
Those are the days I like best, of course. But I’m learning to consider the other days good days of writing. That way when someone asks me how it’s going, I can say, “Great, thanks.”