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Word Count Kings: How much to write per day? Fine-tuning your productivity takes more than willpower and a high number

Charles Harold St. John Hamilton wrote 100 million words in his lifetime. A word count of a million and a half a year. Hamilton, the world’s most prolific author, used twenty-five pseudonyms, one for each of his long-running series, and scribbled 20 printer-ready pages every day.

When George Orwell charged that he was, in fact, a team of writers, Hamilton replied “In the presence of such authority, I speak with diffidence; and can only say that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am only one person, and have never been two or three.”

Speed demons

Hamilton wrote series about boys’ schools. But prolificacy is genre independent. Joyce Carol Oates wrote 33 books and two plays by the time she was 40. This in spite of the fact that she agonizes over revision and extensively revises, sometimes even after a book has been published. Isaac Asimov wrote 506 fiction and nonfiction books in his lifetime. That’s about 20 double-spaced, revised, ready-for-print pages per workday over the course of his career.
His nonfiction books – highly praised – he claimed to have written in three days apiece. Word count = ??

Different writers used different tricks and rituals

Hemingway affixed a piece of cardboard to the wall and kept track of his daily word count on it. If the previous days’ output had fallen short, he felt guilty enough to make it up the next day. When he had plans – usually fishing on the Caribbean – then he would roughly double his output the day before. There’s no use trying to relax on a fishing boat if your mind stays behind with your unfinished work, now is there? So his per diem output fluctuated between 450 to in excess of 1000.

But he recorded each and every day, to keep himself honest.

By contrast, Harold Robbins, after a marathon procrastination binge, would lock himself in a hotel room, hide all the clocks, and work round the clock to collapse. Word count? No counting of words there.

NanoWriMo

A modern approach most folks already know about is NanoWriMo. This writing frenzy every year spurs writers to write a novel in just 30 days. Their bar graph evokes Hemmingway’s wall chart.  This fantastic tool tracks your daily output as well as your percentage of the total.

You have to write 1667 words per day to win NanoWriMo

I work on a word count basis, so I have to write three thousand words a day. I can write them in the morning, I can write them in the evening; as long as they get done.

~Cassandra Clare

Slowpokes

Is every successful author fast, though?

Let’s have a look:

  • Helen Hooven Santmyer penned …And Ladies of the Club over a period of 50 Years. The charming story spans, well, 50 years.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor took 78 Years to finish The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, the third volume of his yearlong journey across Europe.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien took 16 Years to write The Lord of the Rings at a word count of 245 per day, less than a page.

So which is right for us? How fast should we go?

The secret: Word count all depends on where you want to go with your writing. Not just on your wish for speed.

What sort of writing do you do?

Pantsers are people just sit down at their word processor and type whatever comes into their head. Some people who do some planning still claim to be pantsers.

Your word output will also depend on the type of writing that you do.

  • How much research do you do?
    For instance, how much research do you do? If you write nonfiction or historical fiction, your average word count may be much lower. You will spend a lot of time hitting the books. The same goes for fantasy or science fiction that emphasizes world-building or scientific accuracy.
  • How much time do you spend on backstory?
    As an example, let’s just take Tolkien, above. Years of his time went for meticulous planning, the creation of whole languages, even calculating the phases of the moon for various characters in different locations and subplots that wound up in books one and two separately, but actually happened simultaneously.
    Naturally, you can divide research time and composing time if it suits you, and control your word production count in the active writing time. If you want to actively compose every day, you can work on one project in the composition phase in the morning, for example, and on another in the research phase later in the day.
    Hamilton, mentioned above, had strategies for dealing with backstory. He penned several unending series, so once he finished world-building for the first installment – setting and characters – he had all his background prep ready. As he progressed, each installment contained the updated backstory. Freeing himself from planning, he could jack up the word count.

    Outliners may not only outline, but create in-depth character profiles beforehand

  • Will you create an outline?
    Also, just like research or world-building, outlining and revision can limit your average word count per day. One leads to more work at the beginning, the other to more work at the end. This will reduce your daily output in that stage of writing, and should not be a source of angst. Outliners may not only outline, but create in-depth character profiles beforehand.

Balance your goals with your natural capacities and schedule.

The prolific and popular Isaac Asimov increased his output by focusing on simple, straightforward prose, streamlining characterization and ignoring critics in favor of fans. What kind of fiction will you write?

What floats your boat as a writer? Do you like outlining or pantsing? Character or plot-driven stories? Will your work contain secrets for the readers to puzzle out, or will you lay it all on the line? Will you favor ornate prose or down-to-earth narrative? These play a role in how much you will manage per day. You cannot – cannot – ignore them just pick a number and say that is it, because, say, ultra-success and icon Stephen King says that is his number. He strikes me as an inspiration-is-my-only-god kind of guy, but your personality may follow a different drummer. It depends on your personality, literary aims and genre.

But let’s not forget to mention your other priorities, some of which you cannot avoid:

  • Work
  • Family
  • Sleep

How much do you need of each? Balance them off. You probably cannot fit in any other priorities. Just three. Hobbies, Netflix, more than minimum fitness, all must go. Drop them if you want to increase your word production goals. Find out more about this here.

The Stunning Conclusion

Find the right pace for your type of writing, your writing strategy, and your other priorities in life (fewer than four.)

Let’s wrap this all up into a comestible package:

  1. Find the right pace for your genre and its special needs
  2. Consider your writing strategy, style.
  3. Series or one-shots?
  4. Weigh your other priorities (if possible, fewer than four).
  5. Find or create a system, one online or provided by a software package or website that tracks your word-count and your progress you toward your goal.
  6. Once you have set a goal, keep it. If you find it unrealistic, revise it officially, and then keep that. This is a natural occurrence – don’t use it as an excuse to quit.
  7. Set off on the road to productivity.

 

I write everywhere. I’ve written books while I was on planes, at Disney World, and in multiple countries of which I am not a native. It can be a struggle to make word count sometimes, but I will persevere!

~Seanan McGuire

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