How Much Should You Write Each Day?

By Daniel McAdam.

I am certain that the question posed above will inflame the passions of some, and we know why. We are talking about fiction writing, which is a creative - and, one could claim, artistic - pursuit.  How, then, can one even attempt to quantify such effort? Additionally, there will be prominent exceptions to any rule proposed. 

I agree, in principle, with all such anticipated objections. But here is the problem: you are new to fiction writing, you want to write a mystery novel, and you have no clue (pardon the pun) about how much time you should devote to your novel. The easy answer, of course, is, "As much time as it takes to do it properly." But, amazingly, you don't find this answer to be all that helpful.

I am not proposing rules, or even guidelines. I am offering food for thought.  and I am not the first to tackle this subject. Articles on this topic appear now and then in magazines geared toward writers, and in how-to books on fiction writing. Dick Lochte discusses productivity in "On Work Schedules," which is included in Writing Mysteries, using his own schedule as one example.

One can phrase the question of productivity in different ways, depending upon what one hopes to quantify.  Thus, we can ask:

"How many days per week should I write?"

"How many hours per day should I write?"

"How many words (or pages) per day should I write?"

Let's start with the ideal; or, at least, my ideal. In this ideal, my only job each day is to work on writing a good novel, and there are no other demands upon my time. I rise early, walk a few short blocks to a tastefully-furnished office that is entirely free from visual and aural distractions, and sit down at my computer and begin to write around 8 am. The work flows smoothly until about noontime, when I get up from my desk and walk to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Back at work again around 1 pm, I write steadily until 5, at which time I get up, go home, and forget all about writing until the next day. Saturdays and Sundays are, it should go without saying, spent with family and friends, and a rollicking good time is had by all. Oh, and one more thing; I take the entire month of July off as vacation.

If you're thinking to yourself, "This guy isn't a mystery writer, this guy is a fantasy writer," I understand. Let's get back to reality, and make a few points here:

  1. If writing is not your full-time job, then you need to work around the other demands in your life. There is only one decent way to do this - a written schedule.  Figure out what hours on what days can be devoted to writing, and then write that down and stick to that schedule, come heck or high water.  Bear in mind that larger blocks of time are worth more than smaller blocks; thus, you'd rather have one 3-hour block of time on one day than two 1.5-hour blocks of time on two different days. On the other hand, if all you've got to work with is one hour per day, take it!  Your schedule will get much better once you're a published (wealthy, famous) author.
  2. When you are writing, write. Don't play computer games, don't talk on the phone, don't pet the dog, don't eat, don't check stock quotes. Writing time is sacred. If you find yourself completely unable to write a word of your novel, write something just for yourself that's related to your novel; like "The Secret Diary of Character X."
  3. When you are not writing, think about your writing. At least, do this when you can. Don't think about your writing while you're at work, especially if you're an air traffic controller bringing in a jumbo jet for a landing. But if you take a bus or train to and from work, make notes to yourself about your book while commuting. Time in a waiting room or an airport terminal is valuable time, especially if you've got your notebook with you.
  4. Don't go too long without writing. I know, some authors can do this, but I can't, and I think it's risky for writers to spend any significant length of time not writing. You're an artist, you say?  Fine; go ask that concert pianist who is also an artist how many days in a row he or she spends away from his or her piano each year. Writing, like composing and playing great music, is both an art and a skill.
  5. If you can write full-time, but if your writing turns to mush after about four hours in any given day, then there's your answer; write six days a week, four hours a day. If your writing doesn't turn to mush until after you've written for six hours straight, then so much the better. If your writing turns to mush after one hour, I'm not buying it.
  6. Try the old trick of quitting in the middle of a sentence; it makes it easier to dive right in the next day.
  7. Don't rewrite until you've written; which is to say, first you write the novel, then you rewrite everything, then again, and again . . .  Otherwise, all you'll end up with is a smoothly polished chapter one and a nonexistent chapter three. 

 I've talked about time, but not about pages or words. Actually, let's forget pages, because we all have word processing software now and can measure things in words with that handy little word count feature. 

Most modern mystery novels are between 75,000 to 90,000 words. Thus, even if you only wrote one word per day, every day, you could have your novel completed in 205½ years.  But let's say you're a bit more ambitious than that. If you wrote 206 words per day, every day (this doesn't count outlining, rewriting, or anything else), you'd have a novel consisting of 75,190 words at the end of the year. 

Only want to work six days per week?  Then you need to churn out 240 words per day to get that book done in one year. (Incidentally, as of the last sentence, I've written 1,030 words on this topic. I started this an hour ago.  Maybe I'm inspired . . . )

Most serious writers that I know shoot for something like 2,000 or 2,500 words per day if they use the word count method. I don't, because it's too mechanical, but I do sometimes check word count just to be sure I'm somewhere around where I want to be in terms of daily productivity. 

By now, you've guessed my prejudice. I believe that "great writing" and "productivity" are not mutually exclusive terms.The idea that you have to choose between the two is something you needn't waste time worrying about. Now get writing!


Food for Thought . . .

"For forty years of his life, Buffon worked every morning at his desk from nine till two, and again in the evening from five till nine. His diligence was so continuous and so regular that it became habitual. His biographer has said of him, “Work was his necessity; his studies were the charm of his life; and towards the last term of his glorious career he frequently said that he still hoped to be able to consecrate to them a few more years.” He was a most conscientious worker, always studying to give the reader his best thoughts, expressed in the very best manner. He was never wearied with touching and retouching his compositions, so that his style may be pronounced almost perfect. He wrote the 'Epoques de la Nature' not fewer than eleven times before he was satisfied with it; although he had thought over the work about fifty years. He was a thorough man of business, most orderly in everything; and he was accustomed to say that genius without order lost three-fourths of its power. His great success as a writer was the result mainly of his painstaking labor and diligent application. “Buffon,” observed Madame Necker, “strongly persuaded that genius is the result of a profound attention directed to a particular subject, said that he was thoroughly wearied out when composing his first writings, but compelled himself to return to them and go over them carefully again, even when he thought he had already brought them to a certain degree of perfection; and that at length he found pleasure instead of weariness in this long and elaborate correction.” It ought also to be added that Buffon wrote and published all his great works while afflicted by one of the most painful diseases to which the human frame is subject."
-- Samuel Smiles, Self Help





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