When you tell people you’re a writer there are some questions that almost always get asked. The most annoying is ‘do you have a publisher?’, not because of the question in of itself but the reaction to anyone who says no. That ‘ohh’ with declining intonation and the subsequent changing of topic is well-known code for ‘so you’re not really a writer then?’ Musicians don’t get this reaction when they say they’re not signed to a major record label yet.
In any case, I digress. When people choose not to be annoying, there are two questions that are more common than all others. Number one is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. After that, the favourite interrogative is, and this one usually comes from the genuinely interested, ‘how many words do you write in a day?’.
I’ve had this discussion with other writers and read some things on the topic and I have to say I find a lot of it very curious. You see things like Somerset Maughan supposedly saying he wrote 600 words a day without fail. I find that somewhat implausible but it may have worked for him, I can’t say.
Now I’m not claiming to be a writing God or some such but I can fairly say that I’m well versed in putting words on a page. In one series of books, I worked out I’ve already written over a million words, so whatever other failings I may have, prolificity isn’t one of them. All the same, when writer friends of mine ask me how much I aim to write in a day I feel that it is in part the wrong way of looking at it.
I understand the need for a metric. We want definitive proof of progress and a word count provides that. Over a longer period of time, I too set myself word count targets as a way of making myself really get down to the discipline of putting in the hours. Likewise, word counts can give you a fair estimation of how far into a novel you are or even at what point you should finish it. Word counts can be useful; just not on a daily scale.
Why do I think this? For one, not all words are equal. Which words are easy and which are difficult may vary from writer to writer. Personally, I find dialogue reasonably easy to write. Therefore on a day when I’m writing dialogue I can probably get a high word count without much trouble. Other things take more work. Action scenes can be exhausting to write and often you can spend a lot of time on choreography to see if what you’re writing is actually physically possible or plausible. As a result, word flow can be choked.
Equally, some chapters are more difficult than others. I get chapter block far more often than full-on writer’s block. I can always write something just not always where I need to write it. Those 300 words you bled to get out may be the ones that bring a breakthrough and get you to a part of the story where the flow becomes much easier again. They are the chiselling that produces cracks in the wall of inertia.
By the same token, not all days are equal and this is where arbitrary daily goals become most absurd. If I wrote 1,000 words a day, every day without fail that would mean there would be many days where I have to stop mid-flow and many where I have to exclude all other life just to get them done. Neither makes sense. Writers have to be human beings too.
I understand that daily goals are about discipline. I just think that there are better ways to employ that discipline. If word count is your sole measure of productivity what do you make of those days where you get a lot of research done? What about the days where you write a ton of notes and plan out chapters to come? Both of these can be the platform that launches you into another cycle of creative outpouring but they may very well be days where you increase the word count of your current chapter by a sum of zero.
None of this is to say that judging yourself by word count is without merit. Just as the person who has made the choice to eat less and do more exercise may well find their weight goes down, so too is there a correlation between word count and overall success. By the same token, weight loss is only one way of looking at progress and in of itself might not be that meaningful, so on an individual day it might be with your word count.
What then can you use to apply discipline to yourself if you accept that word counts might not be the thing? Where I think the aim of a daily word count is going right is that it recognises that writing a novel is a labour that you have to stick at and put into most days, certainly all the days you can. Instead of focussing on the number alone, it is equally useful to think about how much time you are putting in. Likewise, effort is harder to quantify but you know when you’ve expended it. Any day where you’ve dedicated yourself with all your energy to making what you’ve written better than it was yesterday is a day you’ve been a real writer.
In the end, the way to be a writer is by writing things. It can be a slog, it can be isolating and can often feel fruitless but if you persist you’ll get to the end of the story. How you get there each day is a matter of what works best for you.
Long-term, word count matters. Generally, if I’m working full-time on a novel I do average about 1,000 words a day, on average being the important point.That average will include crazy days of 9,000 words done and painful days of a few hundred. It will also include days where I went for a walk or watched TV instead.
It’s right to treat writing as a job but what kind of job never gives you days off? Of course, there is a flip side to this: few jobs give you more than two days off a week. So if you’re a writer and this is your third day on a break, stop worrying about the word count and get back to work.