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From 2000 to 300—Why You’re Writing Too Much

photo by Jon Fife

Odds are, you’re trying to write too many words a day.

You’ve probably heard that you should write a thousand words per day. Or two thousand. Or five. Or ten.

Or maybe you signed up for a program in which you (supposedly) write a novel in a month. But for whatever reason, you’re trying to hit an arbitrary “word count” each day and if you don’t hit it you end up feeling somehow disappointed in yourself.

I tried that routine for a while.

One day in ten hours I pumped out six thousand words and I felt way ahead. Amazing! So productive! If I could do that every day…

Oh, yeah.

So then the next day I spend the same amount of time writing, and wrote exactly one word.

Yes.

One.

In ten hours.

Of course, I typed in more words, and then revised, deleted, rewrote, and so on, ending the day just one word further into the book.

That was the last time I tried to hit a certain word count. It was just too depressing and the ups and downs of good days and bad days wasn’t helping motivate me.

The whole paradigm strikes me as an odd way to go about producing works of art.

I’ve even heard authors say, “I’ll write until I reach my word count and then stop. It might be at eleven o’clock in the morning, or at eight o’clock at night. I know the book will be eighty thousand words, so that means I will be writing eighty days.”

Think of asking a song writer “How many notes do you write in a day?” Or asking a carpenter how many cuts he makes, or a painter how many times she dips her brush in the paint every day.

I’m guessing most composers, most carpenters, most painters don’t keep track. And yet, when it comes to writers, word count has become a big deal, a measure of progress, and even of proficiency.

A movie director doesn’t say, “We’re going to shoot ten minutes of the movie today and then we’re going to stop. We might get done at eleven o’clock in the morning and then you’ll have the rest of the day off. Every day we’re going to shoot exactly ten minutes of the movie. This film will be precisely two hours and ten minutes long, so it will take us twenty-six days to shoot.”

How could you know exactly how long a film will be until you’ve filmed it? How can you know how long it will take to get a scene right or how many takes you’ll need?

A composer doesn’t say, “I will compose exactly one page of music every day. The symphony will be forty pages long, so I will be done in forty days.” How can she know how long the work of music will be, or how to resolve all of the musical progressions before she has written them?

So, as far as I can see, writers are unique in this mathematical approach to producing art. I should say, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about the technique, but I do think it can be restrictive, arbitrary, and doesn’t take into account the realities of the unforeseen, the bursts and surges and bubbles of creativity. In short, I think it puts an artificial constraint on the artistic process.

 

(1) Try AMTs.

If you need to set small goals to keep yourself moving through the book, try timing yourself. Set a goal for the day: two hours, or six, or ten, or whatever you decide, and then set a timer. If you check your email, get a cup of coffee, or step away from your desk to reply to a text, stop the clock so that you’re counting only Actual Manuscript Time.

(By the way, it’s terribly difficult to hit ten hours working like that. When I use AMTs I consider that hitting five hours by one o’clock in the afternoon is a strong start to my writing day. Then it’s nap time.)

 

(2) Focus on progress, not word count.

Most readers are more interested in logic than length. Some novels are too long already at ten thousand words, while some are enthralling all the way to the end of a hundred and forty thousand. Or more.

But, as long as the book is entertaining, well-written, and enthralling, readers will stick with it. Create an intriguing voice. Tell a unique story in a gripping way. Give your readers what they want or something better and stop worrying so much about word count.

 

(3) Write smarter, not faster.

If you can’t help but keep track of your word count, try this: write 300 words a day for 300 days this year. That gives you 65 days off for weddings, Sabbaths, trips to the rodeo and the beach. You’ll end up with a 90,000-word book every year. Do that for a decade and you’ll produce more enduring works of art than most of the world’s greatest novelists ever produced.

All at 300 words a day.

That sounds realistic, doesn’t it?

In short, strive for quality, not quantity. Rather than tracking word count, make sure every word counts and create work you can be proud of and that will entertain and impact readers for years to come.

 

About Steven James

Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels. He serves as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest Magazine, hosts the biweekly podcast The Story Blender, and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”Steven’s groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules won a Storytelling World award as one of the best resources for storytellers in 2015. When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches Novel Writing Intensive retreats across the country with New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.

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