How much should you write?

If you spend any time on Twitter, and are a writer, you will no doubt be familiar with the #amwriting hashtag. The hashtag gains more prominance during National Novel Writing Month, as writers from all over the world try and complete 50,000 words of a novel in a month. It’s a tough task, and the hashtag, which is full of people struggling through their word counts, is evidence of that.

A great many tweets tagged #amwriting go something like this:

Words cannot describe how much I hate this hashtag.

Words cannot describe how much I hate this hashtag.

Many people, it seems, are focussed on the idea of the word count, as both a personal target, and a sign of achievement for the rest of the world.

When I was completing my first draft, locked away in my studio, I set myself a daily target of 2,000 words. This, I figured, would be fine for a first draft, where you can just splurge the words out onto the page, and not really care about what you’re writing. The goal, I thought, was to just get to the end. You can work the story out later, I figured. It turned out that 2,000 words a day was tough. Really tough. I found myself writing gibberish to meet it, and the first draft suffered as a result. I wrote a few months ago about the process I’m taking with my second draft and a huge reason I’m doing this is because I feel I rushed the first one.

NaNoWriMo, to me at least (and I’m sure people will disagree) does not produce good books. Actually, if you were to take part in it, you would be writing 1,667 words per day, which is less than the target I set myself. But, similarly to my first draft, the results are unlikely to be any good. The two books I have read that are said to have come from National novel writing month challenges (The Night Circus and The Snow Child) have been two of the worst books I have ever read: they felt as though they were written in too short a period of time.

Writer and Blogger, Katie M Anderson, says of stringent daily word counts like NaNo:

I actually shared a daily word count target with Stephen King, and this article breaks down a few other famous authors and their goals.

JG Ballard, arguably one of the finest English novelists of all time, set himself a daily word count, as he explains in his Art of Fiction interview on the Paris Review.

When I’m writing a novel or story I set myself a target of about seven hundred words a day, sometimes a little more.

So, why have a word count? When I was working through my first draft, when there really was no ending in sight for the book, a word count was helpful for me. It gave me a little ending each day and got me through some tough spots of the book. I realise now that those ‘tough spots’ were actually just the result of mistakes I made earlier in the book because I was rushing through because of the word count, but really, that’s what the first draft is for. I think it can be a useful tool for the individual writer.

I like it when authors are more reserved about talking about these things. When there is a true feeling of someone locking themselves away and finishing something. It’s true that I talk about writing my novel, although less so now that I’m in draft two.

If a word count holds the purpose of being there for the author’s own, personal use (ie, not for a ‘praise me’ Tweet) then it could serve a purpose. A small word count too, could potentially preserve the quality of writing that a writer aims for (after spending so long doing 2,000 words a day, I honestly cannot fathom how anyone writing this much can achieve anything of any quality), but could still lead to the forcing of plots in bad directions.

So, is there a balance to it all?

Katie M Anderson gives a useful and succinct answer to the problem:

I like that. It’s simple and easy. I try and write every day, whether its a bit of the novel, or a short story, and I’ve found that my writing has vastly improved.

So, what’s the conclusion then? I think that daily word counts, at the upper limit at least, are detrimental to writing a novel, especially if one uses it solely to get likes as though they were wearing a free hugs t-shirt.

Writing every day is healthy, writing good stuff every day even more so – maybe that should be the target.

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2 thoughts on “How much should you write?

  1. Good post, and recent experience has taught me to agree with you (although must confess I tweeted this very morning – not a word count, tho! – with that dreaded hashtag…). As long as I’ve nudged the story forwards, or found something that sparks my imagination, I consider the day a success. Better to think in terms of ‘useful words’ than just vomit all over the page, so to speak.

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