Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why 2,000 Words Per Day is Unnecessary


Wayne Hoffman-Ogier, a wonderful writing teacher at Bennington College, used to remind us that if we wrote only one page a day, that would produce a 365-page novel at the end of the year. He’d hold up his palms as though holding a weighty manuscript and say into your eyes, “That’s a hefty book.” It would also be more than Hemingway or Joyce could be relied upon to supply daily at points in their careers.

I’ve thought about Wayne and his stories of writing processes since writing The Brutal 2,000-Word Day. There, I explored why the fast pace of e-publishing is likely harmful to most writers. But today I’d like to explore why it’s simply unnecessary.

In mocking Scottoline, tweeters pointed out that at 2,000 words per day, seven days per week, she would accumulate 730,000 words per year. The average SciFi or Fantasy novel is somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 words range, with most genres measuring in shorter. Such productivity, tweeters chided, was god-like and almost certainly a lie. At that pace, Scottoline would have to shelve five or six novels per year.

To me, the simple math also debunked the need for the 2,000-word day. At 1,000 words per day, taking one day for rest per week and the occasional extra day off when your mother catches fire, you could hit the 100,000-word mark in four months. That’s shorter than the NFL season, and yet would create something as long as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

If you aimed for ceaseless productivity at that 1,000-word pace, you could produce a rough draft of N.K. Jemisin’s entire trilogy in just one year. I doubt anyone has the chops to produce that kind of quality work at that pace, but it’s worth reflection.

Even at 500 words per day after work, a school teacher could produce a similar door-stopper Fantasy novel more than once per year. And because so many bestselling authors still have to work second jobs, that’s likely the schedule for some of the writers you admire.

I write faster than that. It’s been pointed out that I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum from who Chuck Wendig was mocking, as I produce over a novel a year, sell short stories and flash fiction, and produce daily content here. But it’s necessary that fast-producers respect slower processes.

Why?

Well firstly, some day your words will probably come slower. Then you’re either going to delude yourself that they aren’t, or self-loathe. I’d head that off if I were you.


But thirdly and most simply, because many vital works take time. Right now traditional publishing is pressuring writers to produce faster. If self-publishing takes over like we expect it to, it shouldn’t adopt the same Mean Girls approach. We’d have a legitimately better landscape if those people whose platforms thrive from quick production help out slower produces.

Just imagine the next generation’s John Locke marshalling his followers to check out the next David Foster Wallace. The former is comfortable and successful churning content, and can subsidize the latter not with cash, but just with a public interview and some tweets. It would perpetuate both extreme paces of production and vary the market, and that would be worth our time.

31 comments:

  1. Well said, John. Being firmly planted in the slower producer camp your words are encouraging.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wayne was certainly on to something.

      Delete
  2. Isn't it a waste of time counting words when you should be writing instead? But I guess some authors can writing so naturally fast that it wouldn't matter to them. But to those of who are much slower, it's still better not to count at all. For me at least.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Given that the industry measures products on word count, breaking them down into short stories, long shorts, novelettes, novellas, novels, doorstoppers and such, I understand many people's desire to comprehend their art numerically. In my case checking my work daily lets me know how hard to push, which is crucial with my health problems. The cycle has worked out pretty well for me so far, though I wouldn't push it on another.

      Delete
  3. "Write faster! Write faster!" This is the same ethos that has led to the preponderance of pre-digested crap in most media markets.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They are not folks I have particular respect for.

      Delete
  4. I used to be one of those writers who collected metrics at the end of the day and blogged them. I don't do that any more. What matters is what I get done on my own time. If it's been a rough week, I'm happy when I can get 350 words down (what I average per page handwriting) Last night, I got one thousand words, and it made me ecstatic. I hadn't gotten that many in one stretch in a few months. If it's a difficult scene, I'm not going to push through it just to meet a quota. I'm going to work on it and let it come naturally as possible and tweak it when and how I have to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will continue measuring and sharing my progress just for the sake of transparency. Both when I'm slow and fast, struggling or productive, it's worth knowing that it happens, and reflecting on why. If other writers see the habits and challenges of others, they can learn. I like that aspect of it.

      Delete
  5. I agree with you. There has to be respect on all sides for all writing paces. I have a real issue with anyone suggesting that there is an optimum daily word-count. It is up to each and every writer to discover how much they want to write and when. That's it. No shoulds, no "proper writers write X words every day" - pah! It drives me insane when I see people in various nooks of the internet "advising" new and emerging writers to write x, y and z words a day when, in my opinion, all it does is make people feel inadequate unless they are 'lucky' enough to have the same rhythm.

    I share my experiences as a writer openly in my little nook, but I always take great pains to say it's just what I've developed for myself, and it isn't the right way or even something to aim for or try to beat. I think attitudes about what an author should or should not produce in any time frame can do more harm than good. And who / what is it serving to criticise people for writing fast or slow or whatever pace? What is beneath that? Jealousy? Scorn? The need to belittle others?

    Oh dear. I seem to have ranted like an impolite guest. I do apologise John! Far too many people in this world seem to think they have the right to tell each other what to believe, what to think and how many words a day to write. I for one, will always want to find my own way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I see nothing impolite about the above opinions, Emma. Thank you for sharing them in detail.

      Now, I have advised people to find a habit that works for them. Maybe that means trying to write 300 words per day, or fill ten pages of a notebook every weekend, or try my method of at least 1,000 words six days per week. I think habits of productivity are good for us, as they ensure we routinely get the work done.

      Like you say, it's professionals insisting everyone work the same way that drives me nuts. I don't know why Scottoline sits at a desk all day to reach her 2,000 words, but if it's what she needs, leave her to it. The backbiting won't help.

      Delete
  6. I think the quality of the words produced superior to the quality, no matter the genre, no matter the mode of publishing. It is rather easy to produce 2000 words a day; much more difficult to produce 2000 coherent, specific, and concise words.

    The shitty first draft is a lot of words wrangled into place by later drafts. The subsequent drafts is where one really writes. To be honest, a lot of what I have read in self-pub land is full of sloppy writing; I fear that is because the writer was more focused on the quantity vs the quality of her/his words. In fact, even in 'traditional' publishing, the more books a writer produces in a short period of time, the crummier the writing. The only exception I can think of is Joyce Carol Oates.

    I also don't think self-pubbing will lessen the pressure; if anything, the greater need to self-promote in self-pubbing will prod writers to write more. That is, for those who are traying to make a living at it. For the hobbyist, self-pubbing may provide a more leisurely route.

    Anyway, back to work. Provocative post, as always. peace...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I speculated that most people who have no problem hitting high word-counts daily don't fathom quality in the original article. Some are capable of quality composition at astounding productivity, but for many others it's just a mess, especially in the sample of works I checked out from such advisors. Nothing more obnoxious than hacks condescending on your craft. One interesting thing in the debate thus far is no writer who is both incredibly fast and whose quality I envy has chided rookies for being too slow.

      Delete
  7. I think the word count thing only really applies to the first draft, and the quicker you get that down the better. Once you start rewriting you can't quantify it so easily (which is why people only do it for the first draft and say nothing about the the others).


    mood

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. oh i've seen plenty of people post revision count, and i've done it myself. it's hard to do if you're doing basic proofing, but when you take away a chunk of something or add a chunk, that's easily counted.

      Delete
    2. I do tabulate how far I am through draft revisions, but it can be different. At the same time, much of the Twitter and Blogosphere discussions have conflated composition with readiness to publish - hence all the inane insistence that you need to get as many books to e-market per year as possible. It's a little worrisome.

      Delete
    3. You can do a word count if it's appropriate, but since rewriting isn't always literally rewriting (you may be restructuring, editing, cutting and pasting, rewording etc) someone who has written 2000 new words, and someone who hasn't written anything new can't be compared directly. It becomes dependent on the specific context.

      My point being you can't say to yourself 'I have to do 2000 words today' when editing and revising because it would only be possible occasionally. The numsbers would be meaningless most of the time.

      Delete
    4. well yeah. occasionally. but i don't see a problem with that. i don't have and won't have and don't want a word count every day.

      Delete
  8. My goal this year was actually to write 10,000 words a week, thus 5 days of 2,000 or a few 1,000 and a couple 3,000. The words do come differently on different days, and there I do try to go with the flow. But my word count isn't solely based on first draft works.

    It takes me a good three drafts before I have most of my prose/grammar down solid, and then its just a few minor tweaks after that. But often on a second draft, I've rewritten nearly every paragraph, so I count 60% to 90% of the total word count for that story or chapter. Writing must be editing too.

    Since I've kept track of my word count this year, I've been much more organized in my writing and have come across a few patterns that I tend to have. Knowing those will only help me to optimize my best writing time, schedule, count, etc. When an agent comes to me (someday, someday, right?), I'll know exactly what I can and can't promise. I'll be ready.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't have so streamlined an editing tabulation yet. I seem to break it down into parts that feel manageable in a day - 25 pages of revisions on Monday, or 50, and then going through and rooting out this list of crutch words on Tuesday, and checking this list of possible continuity errors on Wednesday. The messy editing process may be effective, though. It made quick work of many of my drafts of The House That Nobody Built.

      Delete
  9. It's not just the writer it's also the project.

    For example if I'm writing a piece, maybe first person, where I've gotten into the characters head and they have a chatty style. 2000 words a day might be cool. But if I'm writing a piece where I'm excavating the story buried in my unconscious then it takes a lot longer. I'd be lucky to do 1000 a day in that case.

    And poetry! I can't really do poetry myself but I imagine in that game, 5 or 10 words a day might be pretty epic.

    ReplyDelete
  10. With my work and family life, I can't meet a daily goal, hell some weeks I can't words at all. I wish I could write more consistently, but that's just not where I am in my life right now and that's okay.

    I agree with Mood above that I think the 2K/day is refrencing new words/first drafts. Revisions go at a whole different pace and revisions based on beta reads is different than that. Also, it depends on what kind of writing you're producing. Depending on the genre I'm writing in, I write at different paces. I did Nano in 25 days once upon a time, so I can force the words to paper, but at what cost to quality? And at what cost to more my poor family?

    If I ever have the priveledge of writing full-time, I'd have to maintain daily goals to keep me on track, but for now, I'm just happy when I can get any words down...be it 2K in a weekend or 300 a week.

    ReplyDelete
  11. 2000 words a day is fine when you're writing your first draft, and I don't think that's a big deal.

    But 2000 words a day, EVERY day will kill you. (Note: no medical basis for that fact - but I write fiction and I'm getting pretty good at making shit up.)

    I try for a nine month gestation for the thrillers I write - a little less for some, a little more for others - and because I don't have a publisher harping about pages (do they really do that?) and deadlines that nine months might stretch to ten or a year.

    I think, counter-intuitively, the better I get at this the longer I"m taking. At the rate I'm going, my tenth may take a couple of years...

    ReplyDelete
  12. I still like Nicola Slade's idea: set a goal of 50 words per day. The idea is to get yourself doing something, and it might get some momentum going.

    My pace doesn't exist. Some days, I don't write anything. I've had a few days when I've thrown down 3000 words or more in an afternoon/evening. After those monster sessions, I was mentally and emotionally wrung out — but it could have been relief at getting a particular scene or story out of my head as much as any exertion. Productivity-wise, I'd consider a 1000-word day a darn good one, especially when working a dayjob.

    I think one reason there's pressure to get a lot of books "out there" in the self-pub world, is that people with multiple works tend to have better sales. To me, though, it's not a you must kind of thing — like others have said, quality over quantity. Keep plugging and the quantity will come.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My new goal is to show up to work everyday, irregardless of word count achieved, as long as I've opened up my document and thought about it for a bit. I have a full time job and managed 1k a day for a while, but couldn't sustain it (first draft only mind you). I also find that I need a lot of drafts before getting something polished enough to show anyone. I may be able to write fast for a first draft, but certainly can't produce something polished in that amount of time. Waiting for beta feedback alone can slow down a book by several months.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. i give my readers two months. they expect this. when it's time to send something out, i always ask them if they have the time. if not, i look for other people.

      Delete
  14. I'm always confused by how quickly some people can produce. You can write daily plus produce yearly books, daily flash and blog content, and it's all GOOD. Yet, I read others who put things out so quickly, it's obvious they've skimped on the editing as I'm continually brought out of the story by the multiple errors and typos. It's frustrating. I'm STILL working on my 2nd draft of my novel that I wrote November 2010. And I see at least another year before I'm ready to submit. And then I'm sure I'll have to do more edits if I sell it. It's not Shakespeare, but that's my pace.

    Anyway, I digressed, but my point is that the creative part of writing, when you're riding high and just putting your thoughts down, can be great and really quick. But the editing part, at least for me, is what takes more time. And I greatly suspect many of the high-producing authors skimp on that important process.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Good stuff. On occasion, I've pressured myself to produce more words per day than is comfortable. It doesn't work out well. Generally, half the words are unusable anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Oh, now that I'm at a computer, I wanted to add that it's a lot more than just putting words on a page. You also need to be spending time re-writing and editing. If you spend 2-3 hours a day getting 2k words, when are you going to have time to edit?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At the end, when you're finished with the first draft.

      Delete
  17. Thank you for this. I get pretty sick of all the statistics, all the focus on quality instead of quantity. It also only inspires a certain style of writing -- one that produces poorly-edited doorstoppers. I suspect Samuel Beckett would not be impressed.

    ReplyDelete
  18. It can't be said often enough: different writers, different paces--and the different writer can be you on a different day. First draft, revision drafts, final draft--as different as larva, pupa, butterfly.

    ReplyDelete

Counter est. March 2, 2008