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Writing Advice: No Zero Days
This month’s question comes from @email@example.com on Mastodon:
“How do you feel about the "No Zero Days" approach for writing? I've heard from a few people on either side of it before so I really like hearing what people think.”
I had never heard of “No Zero Days” by that name, but I was able to guess pretty accurately what it means, and then confirmed it with some basic research. Thanks Internet! Anyway, to save you one Internet query: the “No Zero Days” approach basically means you have to do a little work every single day. The first link I found said “The only day that’s a failure is a day on which you don’t do anything,” which excellently captures my main objection to this approach, but there are lots of good things about it, too. This won’t be a “thumbs up/thumbs down” post, but rather an examination of what this method is good for so you can decide if it’s right for you.
The point of the method is to instill the habit of working. That’s a thing it’s good for. It’s very easy (in writing but also in other things like going to the gym) to skip a day and then skip another day and then forget and skip three more days, and by the time you get back to it, it’s harder than before and you feel like you’re sliding back to square one. If you’re trying “No Zero Days,” then you have to do a little bit of something every day, and that routine becomes a habit.
This kind of thing works very well for someone like me, who loves to create routines and habits. It may not work well for you, but fortunately we have a whole lot of habit-assisting electronic devices now. You just have to listen to the Calendar reminder when it comes up.
The other thing the “No Zero Days” approach does is stops you from getting that feeling of going back to square one. Making a little progress every day is a positive feeling, and it keeps you engaged with your writing. That’s valuable! One of the most common problems people ask me to help them with is losing interest in their story before it’s done. If you’re engaging with it every day, I think that goes a long way toward keeping your interest up in a story.
Now, the pitfalls of the “No Zero Days” approach. The first is up there in that mention I found. Do you see it?
“Failure.” That’s a tough word. For some people, it might be motivation, something to avoid. But there are going to be days, maybe (hopefully) infrequent, when you can’t or don’t get anything done. Thanksgiving, Christmas, the day you have to take the car in and it takes three hours longer than usual and then when you get home the garbage disposal is broken. These days happen—if they didn’t, we wouldn’t need a “No Zero Days” approach to discourage them—and your mindset about them is important. Calling a “zero day” a “failure” might be okay, or you might (like me) have spent a childhood being told how bad failure is and how you didn’t want to be a failure under any circumstances, and so if you have a “zero day,” calling it a “failure” might be pretty difficult to handle. It might make you say, “Well, I’m clearly a failure, so I might as well give up on this whole thing.”
That’s kind of counter to the whole point of “No Zero Days,” isn’t it? Ideally with an approach like this, you’d want to start with what you’re actually trying to accomplish. If you’re doing a five-day liquid body cleanse and on day two you forget and grab a granola bar, then yeah, you have to start all over again. But in a writing context, the point of all of these strategies is to put words on the page. If you miss a day, start again with the next day. Missing a day is not going to take words off the page. That makes sense, right? But “No Zero Days” has an absolutist feel to it, and that can often obscure the main point of why you’re doing it in the first place.
(But it’s also important to not treat zero days casually, because that too is counter to the whole point of the approach. So you have to figure out some psychologically healthy way to say, “Well, I missed a day, but I’m going to start another streak tomorrow.” Maybe keep track of your consecutive days or something, I don’t know. I’m not you! That would work for me, but you know best what would work for you.)
The other potential pitfall is similar in that the approach can become more important than the goal. If your goal is “words on the page,” then how many? People set different goals: 50, 250, 1000. You should set them according to how quickly you work and what you want to accomplish. But just saying “No Zero Days” can lead you to run to your computer while waiting for the plumber to arrive, scribble down one sentence, and then say, “At least it wasn’t a zero day,” and move on to other stuff. How many days will you write down a few words and call it done without really engaging with the story?
And I believe that engaging with the story can take place without any words appearing on the page. Thinking about your story while not at a keyboard is important, too! If you spend half an hour while commuting working out the next scene in your story, that’s engagement! That’s work! That’s not a zero day in my book—but is it a zero day if no words appear on the page?
Eventually, of course, you do have to write down something, unless you’re aiming to revive the oral tradition, in which case good luck to you. But the same rigidity of a system that helps you build good working habits with writing can also be unforgiving and inflexible in places where we need forgiveness and flexibility.
So ultimately, my opinion on “No Zero Days” is the same as any other writing advice: try it! See if it helps you get stories written. If so, then it works for you. If not, then it doesn’t. Tweak it as you need to, make it more forgiving and flexible, and see if that works better. But don’t lose sight of the goal, which is to get your stories written. If you keep that in mind, then whatever approach you use to get there is the right one.
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