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Ugh – I’ve only written about 700 words of my big project since this time last week. It’s not great compared to the previous week’s 3000 – although anything is, I tell myself, better than nothing.
One of the tutors at Birkbeck – I think it was Toby Litt, but I may be wrong – told us that he’d recommend not having the word-count visible anywhere while you’re writing. I think he felt that word-count was not a good guide to progress, and could actually hinder it.
He’s probably got a point. Maybe obsessing too much over the quantity of work you’ve produced might be a form of counting chickens before they’re hatched, encouraging you to assume that you have something decent just because there’s loads of it. Maybe it’s a distraction from creativity.
By the time I heard him say it, however, it was too late for me. I write articles for newspapers and magazines with half an eye on the word-count at all times, and have been doing that for over a decade. I think it allows me to keep some kind of grip on this unwieldy, how-long-is-a-piece-of-string thing that I’m trying to produce, usually on the basis of somebody else’s brief.
Similarly, I feel best about the creative project when that number ticks up a little every day. I think it’s because editing feels easier to me and more under my control than writing – and I can’t do that until the thing has a certain bulk. I’m keen just to get it out onto a screen as soon as possible, so that I can rearrange it and turn it into something (hopefully) a lot better. At that point, there will be a time for deleting things on a grand scale – but at this stage, noodling around for three hours and finding myself with 47 fewer words than I started with is totally depressing.
How do you feel about word counts? Many of my guests on the podcast have had daily targets, and some of them have struck me as faintly terrifying. The novelist Holly Bourne told me she does 2000 words a day, which she completes in three 25-minute bursts – though she does consider this a vomit draft (she talked me through her approach back in May).
I can write journalism fast (working for The Times has helped in that department – yesterday I was asked mid-afternoon to write something for today’s newspaper), but in fiction, 2000 words would only happen on an exceptionally productive day.
That’s nothing however compared to Brandon Taylor, the Booker-shortlisted author of Real Life. He said on the podcast, ‘I think comfortably, I can write about 8000 words a session. If I push myself, I can hit 10,000 words a session.’
There is no universe in which this is ever going to happen for me – comfortably, or agonisingly, or in any other manner at all.
John Lanchester’s approach is more my speed. He writes 500 words a day when he’s working on a novel, Monday to Friday. Here’s what he said:
You know, in journalism I write three times that – I write 1500 words a day if I’ve got a longer piece to do. But if I were to try and write a novel like that, I might have a week of work and then conk out and not have another idea for three months.
The other thing is that 500 words a day isn’t an especially challenging target, and when it’s going well you can get that done quickly. When it’s going less well, when it’s sort of hand-to-hand combat – when you’re having to slightly gouge it out – it’s not too much. There are bits of books that resist you. … Often, by the way, they’re things that readers really like – you know, it’s not a sign of it being good or bad. You can’t tell. But if it’s pushing back at you and it’s heavy-going – well, you can do 500 words of that.
Also, it’s not nothing. If you do a working week of 500 words a day, that’s 2500 words [a week] – that’s quite a lot. You know, if you write 2500 words a week, you write a book pretty quickly. If you take off weekends and have four weeks’ holiday a year and do your 500 words a day, you’ve written 250 days that year – that’s 125,000 words. That’s a fat novel every year for your whole life. So it does add up.
The difference between me and John (one of a few, another being that he’s written many, many books) is that he stops on the dot of 500, regardless of where he is. On the days that I manage to write, I coax myself to 500 and then run on a little bit more, hoping that I won’t notice that I’m doing so – a bit like Wile E Coyote running off a cliff. My average on a writing day, Scrivener tells me, is 620 words.
Sometimes it wouldn’t even be accurate to say that what I’ve done is bad, because actually, it’s just incomplete. I try then to feel good about forcing out 500 words that I can fix later, even if the only way I’ve been able to manage it is like this:
‘Blah blah blah,’ she said pointedly SOMETHING ABOUT HER BEING PISSED OFF ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED AT THE PARK, WORK OUT LATER.
He was taken aback. ‘I can’t believe you’re bringing that up now.’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out a RESEARCH WHAT KIND OF CHOCOLATE BARS YOU COULD BUY IN 1992
To be clear, that’s not a real quote from my forthcoming novel, Arguments in Parks with Snacks. I’m just saying, where writing a first draft is concerned, I really do believe that anything is better than nothing.
Am I right? Am I wrong? (Neither, because it’s just whatever works.) Tell us how you do it in the comments.
And good luck with your writing this week!
Loved this, and enjoyed seeing how other writers approach it! I used to pressure myself to write 2000 words a day, but I found that I was sometimes writing past the point of constructive work. Now I have one rule, and that is to touch my MS once a day, no matter what. Sometimes I write a very good sentence and other times I write for much longer, but the book gets finished.
I have an end goal of words that I aim for having decided that my life is just too hectic to count daily words. I tried to do daily counts but I can’t. I know the novel can’t have more than 110,000 words so I try to make that my goal, after much editing. I’ve never liked structure but I find it rather freeing... as it turns out.