What I Learned from Writing 500 Words a Day

For this entire year I’ve been saying how I thought writing every day would be the most impactful thing I could do for my business. But I still never did anything about it. Instead I’ve been creating new courses, running old ones, and swanning about the globe. So at the start of October I got my shit together and started a new 28-day challenge: to write 500 words every single day, including weekends (because, Christ, apparently I am some sort of masochist).

Conducting 28-day experiments to test new habits I’m considering incorporating into my life is something I started doing last year and I’ve found it insanely helpful (and fun). But this time? There was a difference: I wasn’t doing it alone.

After I hinted at the fact that I was planning to make my next experiment a daily writing one, a few people commented and said they’d love to join in. So I asked around and found out that yes, this was something a whole bunch of people were interested in doing! So I did what any sane person would do: I invited everyone who wanted to take part to join me in a Facebook group.

The plan was simply this: each morning I would post a new thread in the group, which people could comment on once they’d done their writing (myself included). People could simply say ‘Done!’ or they could go into more detail, sharing a little bit about what they wrote, why they wrote it, or even a link to a published piece. Each week I would post a recap thread noting how many people had written each day and giving a shoutout to everyone who wrote every single day (actually that wasn’t part of the plan, but whatever, I did it anyway).

So, how did it go? Well, I want to talk about two things in this post: 1) What I learned from writing 500 words a day, and 2) What it was like running the group challenge.

What I Learned from Writing 500 Words a Day

I Can Easily Write Every Single Day
I’m not surprised by this because when I commit to something, I do it. (It may not appear this way to the outside world, especially if you’re a close friend of mine, because so often I will say I’M GOING TO DO THIS and then never do it. But I know for myself when I have truly committed to something. Usually I’m just airing my thoughts and working things out when I share my ideas with friends, but when I publicly announce it, I have decided for real. Wow, this was way too long for brackets.)

ANYWAY, I wrote every day. There was only one day when I didn’t quite hit 500, but I was happy with the 400 I did manage – it’s more about the act of building the habit than the 500 words themselves. Sometimes what I wrote was a load of repetitive shit, but the point is that I did it. Every. Single. Day. And sometimes it wasn’t crap. Sometimes it was good.

I didn’t allow myself any excuses, ever. I wrote late at night after I’d spent the whole day packing up my shit, cleaning, and moving out of my flat. I wrote before flying out the door to meet someone (on multiple occasions). I wrote the day before my flight to Lisbon (hey, I’m in Lisbon now. Did I mention that?) when I still had SO much stuff to organise for my trip. So yeah, I wrote. Every single day. Including weekends. I think including weekends was actually a genius move, because it’s so much easier to keep doing something when you literally do it every day.

I Usually Write in the Evenings or Late at Night
I think there was one occasion when I felt compelled to start writing as soon as I woke up in the morning. I made a cup of tea, grabbed my laptop, and settled back into bed to bash out some words I couldn’t keep in. A couple of other mornings I made coffee, fucked around on my phone for a while and then sat at my desk and started writing.

But on most days, I wrote in the evenings or late at night. I often wrote after midnight. (I’m writing this at 10pm.) It became a pleasant way to spend my evenings. Hot shower, then pyjamas, tea, incense, writing. It was incredibly rare for me to write in the afternoons, which is my known braindead zone.

Now I know what you’re thinking: this is just because you were procrastinating, Karen! But hear me out. Yes, sometimes the exceptions to this tended to be when I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it later in the day (such as if I was meeting someone for dinner) and therefore couldn’t procrastinate on it. But the other exceptions were when I wasn’t having a particularly productive day. Odd as it sounds, I used my writing as a form of procrastination. Like how you wash your dishes when you’ve got some work to do that you really really don’t want to do. By doing my writing, I’d still feel productive and accomplished, even though I was avoiding doing my bookkeeping (a common occurrence in the Untamed Writing office). And, of course, by doing the writing I’d be much more likely to continue on with the rest of my work. Gets me in the mood and all that.

It Doesn’t Really Matter Where I Am
I did most of my writing in my flat during this challenge, usually sat at my desk. Sometimes my dining table. Just once in bed, I think. I went to a coffee shop a couple of times. And after I’d moved out of my flat and was spending a couple of days at my mum’s place before flying to Lisbon I did my writing late at night sprawled out on the sofa or perched on the edge of my bed.

Having said that, I do prefer to be alone when I write – or at least anonymous. Back when I had a desk in a co-working office, I would never go in when I had something to write. I mean, I can do it, I just prefer not to. Cafes and pubs are fine because you don’t know everyone in there. And I frickin’ love writing in airports.

It’s Fun to Mix It Up
I mostly wrote stuff for Untamed Writing, whether it was blog post material or something for my newsletter. However, I did also dabble in fiction, which is something I’ve never done before. I never thought I was imaginative enough. But fuck it, I was doing a writing challenge and I was going to be writing every day anyway, so why not try it? Spoiler alert: writing fiction takes WAY longer than non-fiction. Honest to Christ, I can write 2000 words of non-fiction in like 30 minutes flat. But fiction? TRY SIX GODDAMN HOURS. (Not actually complaining though, because it was fun.)

I didn’t include handwritten stuff like journal entries towards this challenge. I don’t need a challenge to help me with my journalling, which I only do when I feel like it and am okay with that. And everyone knows journals are just full of shit anyway. (Hmm, did I just quote Bridget Jones?)

500 Words is the Perfect Amount for Me
I briefly considered the idea of upping my target word count over time, but then I realised that would be dumb. The whole point is that 500 words is EASY. I can do it when I’m not in the mood. As evidenced above, I can pretty much write 500 words no matter what. Why would I increase the amount if it meant I might end up skipping days? That’s just silly.

I can see it now: if I raised the limit to 1000 words, that would be TOO MUCH and I’d just give up. So I’m sticking with an easy breezy 500. To be honest, I often did write over 1000 words – but not always. And I don’t want to force myself to write so much if I’m really not feeling it. At least with 500 words I can squeeze it out no matter what. On one day I even wrote 3800 words! Mental. I haven’t figured out my average word count for the period, but I’m betting it was easily over 1000 a day. Once you start writing, it’s easier to keep going. But with a scary word count looming over you, like 1000 words, it can be much harder to get started.

I Prefer Having a Word Count Over a Time Limit
I actually did a writing challenge last year, too, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Last year’s challenge was to write stream of consciousness stuff every morning. You know, Julia Cameron/Morning Pages-style. I didn’t like it. For one thing, I resented having to do a specific thing at a specific time of day. And for another, it felt fucking pointless. (See above notes re. journalling.)

Another option was to write for a certain time period, say 15 or 30 minutes. But that doesn’t appeal to me either. I have always hated arbitrary shit like time constraints (LIKE HAVING A JOB WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE THERE FROM 9–5 EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN DO ALL YOUR WORK IN 3 HOURS???). So I guess that’s why that doesn’t appeal to me. It worked for others though, so that’s cool. I reckon for some people just sitting your butt in the chair and staring at an open Word doc for 30 minutes is better than trying to force 500 words out that just aren’t coming.

But having a set word count – one that I could complete at any point during the day? LOVED IT. I liked the fact that I knew I could stop after 500 words. I like the fact that in a pinch I could get my writing done in under 10 minutes. I liked the fact that it was a solid goal to aim for, at the end of which you have something to show for it. I just liked it, okay?

Ideas Beget Ideas
There was only one day I struggled to hit my word count. But the rest of the time, I didn’t struggle at all. I might even say it got easier as the challenge went on, because my brain got into write-every-day mode. S’all about building the habits, folks! It gets easier the more you do it, as with pretty much everything else in the world. (And new ideas ALWAYS spring from old ones.)

Writing Daily is Kind of Soothing
I don’t know if it was the act of writing 500 words itself or the fact that I was doing it as part of an awesome community (I suspect both) but either way this challenge helped me feel grounded and soothed. Perhaps it was the repetition of doing something worthwhile every day in an otherwise hectic life. Perhaps the contentment of having accomplished something. I don’t know. But writing every day and then sharing it in the Facebook group made me feel comforted, somehow. I suspect this will be the case even more so now that I’m living out of a carry-on bag in a strange location and don’t have all my home comforts around me.

It Didn’t Help Me Publish Much More
One of my hopes with this challenge was that I’d get back to a twice-weekly blogging schedule, like I had for the entirety of 2015. (You can read about why I decided to stop doing this here.) But it didn’t end up happening. I always wrote my 500 words, sure, and often more than that, but everyone knows the really hard part is the editing. Editing is more intensive and time consuming, for me at least. I write incredibly quickly normally – the words just flow out of my fingertips. But I often put off editing and publishing because it requires more care and attention. Having said that, I did publish more regularly than I have been doing so far this year.

I also do now have a lot of good material to work with (if I say so myself, cough). Lots of 500+ word things that just need expanding and shaping. So this makes me think I might need to shift my ‘rules’ slightly on Mondays and Thursdays (which is my ideal publishing schedule). The thing with editing a piece is that it doesn’t exactly count towards your final word count. It’s harder to quantify something you’re editing than something you write afresh, so I usually just started writing something new instead of perfecting something I’d already written. Which, yeah, meant I didn’t end up publishing as much as I wanted. Essentially I just ended up with a bunch of random unfinished articles.

What It Was Like Running the Group Challenge

Apparently Accountability Actually Works On Me?
I’m not sure if this is true or not. And I don’t know if it’s really to do with accountability. More like responsibility, maybe, since I was the one running the challenge. Though is that just another form of accountability?

I’m sure if I’d joined someone else’s challenge I wouldn’t have made it to the end. Or given a shit about whether I made it to the end, more to the point. (One of the downsides of not giving a shit what other people think of you is that it’s really hard to get people to hold you accountable to stuff.) But something was different here. I actually DID care what the others taking part thought of me. But it was more to do with being seen as a good leader rather than doing the actual writing each day. I’m positive I would’ve done the writing even without the group, because my motivation was – still is – intrinsic. Hmm, I don’t know. I’m having a hard time expressing this.

But anyway, I’m on board with the group thing. It made it a lot more fun.

I Got the Warm and Fuzzies
The sense of community that grew within the group just… I don’t know. Blew me away. Gave me all the feels. A month ago, most of these guys didn’t even know each other. But this loving community spawned so fast.

On the final day of the challenge, I got so many warm and fuzzies from people thanking me for running the challenge and from some of the heartfelt things people said about the group. And just throughout the challenge in general, to be honest. It’s been fun to take part in an active, positive challenge every day and to get to know my readers (and non-readers, since I know not everyone who joined reads my blog – anyone’s welcome!) better.

It’s been so nice to feel connected to a group of caring, interesting, intelligent, supportive people every single day for a month. Now that I am living and working on the road, it feels like being part of an online community is more important than ever. I’m lucky that my work makes that very easy for me, of course, but this Facebook group and the community that’s formed within it is just like, an ultra-concentrated version of my general online community. Working on something together has something to do with it, too, I suspect.

Here are a few of the things people said that made my heart melt:

Hey, all y’all are becoming extended family. I will be morose and inconsolable to have all y’all go your separate ways, leaving me sitting in a puddle of tears, sucking my thumb, when the month is over. Sigh. Another deep sigh.

No, I don’t want the challenge to be over today!! I’m going to do my best to keep writing on a daily basis.

I am glad to be on the same rocket to the moon as you fine people and will definitely participate [in future challenges].

I think it would be nice to keep going. Haha, I really felt like I’d miss this. Maybe I’m just being too sentimental.

Did 600+ words today. Took an hour though. Had missed the last seven days – bad news, emergencies, illnesses… basically more bags of lemons by 2016. Yet, on this last day of the challenge, when things got momentarily in control, I’m glad I found it in myself to get up and write, instead of giving up completely. And I think my participation in the last 3 weeks played an important factor today… felt a sense of belonging, and just couldn’t vanish without saying a goodbye!

Karen, I cannot thank you enough for setting this up. My patchy participation may not seem like much… but in what has been one of the most challenging times of my life so far, this simple exercise has grounded me in so many ways. I joined this challenge to support my professional growth as a writer, but the outcome is far more personal. This writing challenge turned out to be a serendipitous opportunity to find my deepest reserve of strength, when I needed it the most.

Had a bit of an emotional day today at my last antenatal class today so I wrote about that. I wrote four pages of fears and hopes which has made me feel a bit better. Then I come here and everyone is making me emotional again!! I’ve really loved this challenge and I’m definitely up for keeping up with this. I’ve written more than I ever have in such quick succession. I think a monthly challenge would be great. Then you can dip in and out. Glad so many people are up for it too. Thanks so much to Karen for starting this challenge at a very transitional point of my life, I feel like it was kismet. At least we know we’ll be able to hear from you every day on your travels if we keep going. Biggest hugs to you.

Join Us Next Time

You may have figured out what all this was leading up to. Essentially: we’re going to keep doing it! I didn’t want it to end. Neither did many others. It would be such a shame to let this budding little community of friendly, lovely writers die out from lack of use. So we’re going to keep it up. I’m not 100% certain what form this will take yet, but right now it’s looking like we will run official 28-day challenges intermittently, while perhaps keeping up a daily/weekly accountability thread the rest of the time.

In fact, it’s looking like we’ll start the next challenge on Monday (7 November) so if you want to join us, please do! You can set your own rules with regards to word count, subject matter, etc. – the only rule I supply is NO CLIENT WORK. You can read more about the challenge here.