How often — and how much — should we write?

I would have thought that one of us would have a done a post on writing pace but a search through the archives doesn’t turn anything up that’s directly related. (Correct if I’m wrong here, fellas.) Unless I’m overlooking something it does seem odd that we haven’t discussed this point yet as it is rather important. And very personal, which is the thrust I’ll take in the musings that follow.

I have often heard and been told that a writer needs to be at it daily, the focus being not so much on quality or your satisfaction with what’s been put down, but rather on reaching your goal of X words per day. In a blog post to this effect, James Thayer lists a number of authors who wrote fast or slow and what their daily production rates were. As the post indicates, Thayer takes it for granted that a writer needs to write everyday, though his focus is solely on writing novels and that may inform his perspective more than anything as an extended narrative is an altogether different beast from other kinds of compositions. (Not all of the famous writers whose output he covers in the post were novelists, but most of them were (or are) and Thayer himself is a novelist and teaches novel writing.)

My own thoughts on the matter are that while setting goals and deadlines are of course very helpful, forcing yourself to achieve X words per day is an unnecessary stressor and more likely to lead to the necessity for heavy editing later than to anything else. I can see the advantages of establishing a daily habit, particularly if you’re writing a novel or a similarly long piece that has at its core fictional characters who need to have life breathed into them and reified out of the abstract notions they germinated from. Even in such a case though, setting a mandatory daily word target strikes me as being a bit contrived. What is the point of locking yourself in a room and ignoring the people in your life for the X number of hours that it takes you to write Y words? Just to be able to emptily pat yourself on the back as you finish, knowing full well that nearly all of what you’ve just added to your work in progress will be deleted and/or completely rewritten later?

A project has its own life, as well it should, and as writers we know how quickly we can become obsessed with what we’re working on and how it becomes a major part of our lives during the time it takes us to go from initial idea to finished product. That’s part of who we are as people, it’s how we tick and is much more of an asset than a detriment. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to artificially inflate the process into a deformity of the shape that it naturally takes. To my mind, spending time on a project is spending time on a project. If I happen to not write a single word in a day but have outlined an additional aspect of what I’m working on, turned over in my mind a troubling point to its conclusion, or even simply sketched out in greater detail some of the nuances that have come to form foundational features of the greater whole, I find that to be a day well spent. And a day of progress towards my goal.

But that is, of course, just me, and there are many writers who swear by a daily count as the only way they can work. This is where a writer must know herself: how do you work best and what do you need to keep at something? Do you need a (externally) set deadline? Do you need an uncompromising daily goal? What will push you towards completion? The experience of the process is perhaps the only way a writer can really learn what they need to write, and to get to that point a daily target may be necessary. Once you’ve reached that point of self-knowledge though, don’t feel bound to the gimmicks that got you there — unless they’re still what you need.

Next week, Nick Cody on the burgeoning North Korean banana farming cottage industry.

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9 Comments

  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted April 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Good post. I used to try to write every day (and did for a few years). The big fear was getting sucked into a cesspit of idleness if I ‘broke the chain’. Now, though, I feel it’s totally unnecessary to write or even think about a project every single day. If I’m too busy, there’s always tomorrow. I was never concerned about word length: just sitting down to write for however long was possible each day. Either way it’s self-imposed dogma, the kind of myth that perpetuates from places such as this

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted April 6, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I assume your link to Outliers is in regards to its mention of the 10,000 hour practice “rule”. Is that right? It’s probably fair to question the necessity of that, at least to that degree of specificity, but I think the broader point that Outliers makes about success partially stemming from a large number of contextual and uncontrollable influences (family background, connections made, chance meetings, fortuitous breaks, etc.) is valid.

    As you say though, something like a mandatory daily writing session or daily word count does boil down to self-imposed dogma, and a fairly arbitrary dogma at that.

  3. Nick Cody
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    A thoughtful post Andrew and thanks for that Thayer link. An interesting quote by Liebling, which I take to mean a writer can’t have it both ways, speed and quality. It kind of begs the question of what “good writing” looks like since it is never defined by Thayer. Probably some combination of brilliant ideas (content), and sentence-to-paragraph quality (form). I know very little of aesthetics so I will shut up now. But I do have some ideas about quality reading which I hope to post on soon.

  4. Andrew Oberg
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Nick. What makes for “good writing” is another topic that I don’t think we’ve dealt with, and I’m likewise unsure what the objective qualifications would be, if there are any (but surely there is a lively debate on the topic somewhere?).

    At any rate, I’m looking forward to your post on quality reading. I have some small ideas on that topic too.

  5. Paul j Rogers
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Re: Outliers, I’ve never read it and was, as you said, referencing the 10,000 hour ‘rule’ that has become engrained in popular culture. That practice makes perfect is common sense. But what of the writers, musicians (*insert creative pursuit) who’ve clocked up their 10k and awake tomorrow to stock shelves at Walmart? I guess they don’t count as they were just unlucky or born into the wrong socio-economic demographic.

  6. Andrew Oberg
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I think the lesson to be taken from Outliers is that success depends to a large degree on forces that are beyond any of our control, and that while one needs to work hard and make the most of the opportunities available hard work itself is never enough. This is probably misunderstood if people are referencing the 10,000 hour “rule” in the way you indicate popular culture has taken it on. Those who’ve clocked their hours and are still stocking shelves are legion and in very good company!

  7. Nick Cody
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    I hate how this society and civilization measures success. William Blake, an unknown in the early 1800’s, was at that time a madman and a loser, but now he is considered one of the greatest poets in the language? You gotta swallow that pill. And I’m referring to Malcolm Gladwell and others. Number of copies sold? Nonsense. You were on Oprah? Irrelevant. You write something that makes your inner taste-0-meter jump and spike, now you’re on to something worthwhile.

  8. Posted April 23, 2014 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Hi Andrew, I’ve been trying to contact you. I had to close previous e-mail account. Hope you are well… Mark

  9. Andrew Oberg
    Posted April 24, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve still got the same email address and sent you a mail to your new gmail account yesterday (which I got via Eric). Did you receive it?

    Likewise, all the best as always,

    Andrew

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