It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book for getting writing done: set a daily word count, and hit it at all costs. It’s also a cruel master, and getting to that number can drive many a writer batty. So we asked a series of seasoned practitioners of the craft how they think about the daily word total hack, and how much of that writing ever sees the printed (or pixelated) page.
Is the daily word count goal a savior or a tyrant? A magical solution to the problem of not writing consistently, or a cruel master? Their answers vary, but in each of them, we find a kernel of something that can help any and all of us get our work done.
Bryan Burrough, author of the acclaimed Barbarians at the Gate, considers the daily goal to be a novelists tool—and not for him either. Non-fiction, as he puts it, is a process in which you “go where the day takes you:
Oh, I have no daily goals like a novelist might have. In non-fiction, you go where the day takes you. And most of what I write sees the light of day. I mean, I cut a lot. I’m ruthless. But that’s about pruning, rarely eliminating entire chapters and such. Although I did, on an editor’s recommendation, cut 23 percent of `Public Enemies’ after turning it in. Did it in like three weeks.
Reigning MOOC queen and accomplished author Barbara Oakley uses the word count trick—and then doubles it when a big due date is coming:
It depends on what I’m working on and the stage of the project. I’d say when I’m book-writing or script-writing (I do scripts for massive open online courses), I’ll often sit down with a goal of 500 words in that day. If something big is due, I might set a goal of 1,000 words in a day.
Probably three-quarters of what I ultimately produce might see print. But it’s worth noting that I’m a compulsive editor, so a lot of what I write is thrown out or altered during the lengthy creative process. I don’t like it when I have to produce an article on a short deadline because I don’t have much of a chance to edit.
On days when I’m teaching or giving a speech somewhere, I don’t worry about writing.
Bestselling author and student of the writing process, Jeff Goins, embraces a minimum goal of 500 words—deliberately small enough that he can’t miss it, but still a stake in the ground to drive his process:
I try to write at least 500 words a day. When I’m on deadline, I may produce 5000 words, but the minimum output is always 500. It’s a small enough amount that I don’t have an excuse to avoid it, which is crucial for me. I have to feel motivated to write, which means breaking up a huge task like a book into small, achievable chunks.
At least a third of the words I write never see the light of day. With my last book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, I cut 25,000 words from a 75,000-word manuscript. I’m too much of a coward to delete them, though. They go into a file called “darlings.txt” which I never look at but makes me feel better that I never deleted them. Might use them some day, after all.
For celebrated meme creator and newly-minted author George Resch, the per-day goal wasn’t as important as paying attention to everything else going on around him.
I never set a goal of words per day, but when I was trying to collect more material I’d meditate more, speak more with friends with whom I had great conversations, and try to stay aware of my thought processes so I didn’t lose anything to the great sieve which is my mind.
Award-winning historian and biographer Andrea Wulf tried the word count process, but found it restrictive. Plus, how to count the words that end up at the bitter end of the delete key?
I have successfully avoided to have a word count hanging over me – I tried but it completely stifled me. I spend so much more time reading, researching, restructuring and thinking than writing that it has become meaningless to have a word count. I’m an obsessive re–drafter. I write, re–write, re–write and re–write. Draft after draft. And how would you count those words?
Pulitzer Prize-winner TJ Stiles writes until he’s spent, without a specific goal in mind—and he takes his cue on daily goals from Nobel-prize winner VS Naipaul:
I never set a word count. I write until I’m exhausted. Because writing is exhausting. In my late 20s and early 30s, I was on a chess kick, and used to play in novice-level tournaments; the hours of concentration would utterly deplete me. After I’ve written in one long streak, I feel the same way. V.S. Naipaul once said that he can only write 250 words a day, and if he does more he pays for it the next day. I am not so afflicted, or gifted, but I know what he means.
Novelist Aaron Thier gets the words down on the page–whether very many or very few:
There’s a big spread. Sometimes I write a few thousand words, sometimes much less. I try not to set any kind of goal in that respect. In any case, almost everything I write gets peeled away as I revise the manuscript. I’d guess that no more than five to ten percent of the sentences in a rough draft end up in the published book.