The Project Writer Vs. The Process Writer

Scott William Carter   March 27, 2008  

I wrote a post not long ago about my recent realization that the number of words I wrote on a daily basis over the past six years amounted to a little over 500, or about two pages.  And while I meant this to be heartening, in the sense that you really can accomplish quite a lot even in tiny bits so long as you’re consistent, I realized it may have left people with the impression that I personally have been consistent in my writing habits.

In fact, the truth is far from it. 

I averaged two pages a day, but there were many, many days I didn’t write at all.  These were balanced out by the days that I wrote between 5000-10,000 words.  There were some days I wrote more than what I had written in some months.  This is not something I’m proud of, but it’s partly due to the state of my life and it’s partly due to my personality.  When I really get into the throes of a project, not just with writing but with anything, I tend work on it obsessively until it’s finished.  In other words, my tendency is to be a project-oriented person rather than a process-oriented person.

What’s the difference?  A process-oriented writer usually writes every day, some fixed amount like two pages or five pages or ten.  A project-oriented writer often may not write for days or weeks at a time, but when they do, they may work around the clock until the project is finished.  There’s no right or wrong to either approach, and actually, most writers are probably a mix of the two.  The beginning writer is probably best served by being mostly a process writer, because the beginner hasn’t yet developed the writing skills or stamina to be able to sit down and crunch out 10,000 words.  Building those writing muscles takes time.  This is why you hear so many writers telling you to write every day.  But I do want to say that not all writers do this, that, in fact, a huge percentage don’t, and if you’re one of those people, you shouldn’t beat yourself up all the time that somehow you’re failing to become a Real Writer because you’re not writing on a daily basis.  The real truism, if you want to get better, is that you must write more, however you go about it, and that in most cases the more you write the faster you will get better and the sooner you will achieve success.   (I should also add that whether I write 1000 or 10,000 words a day, my actual writing speed is pretty consistent).

There are dangers in both approaches, however.  The problem for the project writer is that it’s easy for those stretches between projects to get longer and longer without you realizing it.  This is especially the case if you have a challenging life which can prevent you from getting to the keyboard as often as you’d like.   One of the chief dangers for the process writer is burnout.  Writing daily can soon feel like drudgery.

The solution?  Well, as I said before, I don’t think any writer is just one or the other.  Most are a mix of the two.  When I got very serious about the craft six years ago, I made a commitment to write every day, and that commitment was necessary to breakthrough all the inertia that had built up over the years.  But over time, I’ve drifted into becoming more and more of a project writer, which is probably closer to my personality.  My problem lately is that life has become so challenging that it’s easy for a few days between writing sessions to turn into a few weeks.  This is not good.

So my life, right now, dictates that that I veer back into being more of a process writer who occasionally allows himself to be a project writer when I’m in the throes of a particular project and want to finish it.  Translation:  I need to write at least a couple pages every day, but now and then I’ll schedule all-day writing sessions.  In my mind, this gives me the best of both worlds.  I keep my writing muscles sharp by writing on a near-daily basis, but I don’t keep myself chained to it.  I’ve also come to like the fallow periods of not writing, because I’m able to re-charge my writing batteries.  Of course this only works if there’s writing on both sides of that fallow period . . .

So if you find that writing has become drudgery, or that you’re not writing enough, try varying your project/process approach a bit.  I’m doing that now (back to a thousand words a day for me), and I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.   

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