Thursday, October 23, 2014

Word Count Envy: A Pep Talk for Slow Writers

It’s all too easy to feel inadequate as a writer of fiction. So many opportunities to embrace self-doubt arise during the writing process it’s remarkable any writer has ever managed to complete a book.

Are the characters fully developed? Does the plot make sense? Is the manuscript riddled with continuity errors? Does the sentence structure create a natural flow for the reader? Should the story be told by a first person narrator, a third person limited narrator, a third person omniscient narrator, or a biased, secondary, first person narrator? Is my grammar flawed? Does the book I just finished writing tell the same story as the book I began writing eight months ago?

There’s almost no way to keep some of these doubts from lodging in your brain and festering, but there is one often self-imposed hurdle that should be avoided right from the start: fear of inadequate productivity.

It seems no matter where you turn for writing advice – blogs, books, magazines, chatrooms, social media – everyone has a firm idea about how many words you should write each day to consider yourself a serious writer. Two-thousand words a day and one-thousand words a day are the most common numbers you’ll see handed down as required output. They are preached so frequently and so adamantly that not achieving them can weigh heavily on your authorial conscience.

The problem with expecting to write thousands of words a day is it isn’t always realistic, particularly if you are, like me, not a full-time writer.

When I see comments by other authors on blogs or in group discussion threads in which they tout their daily word count, some reporting as much as 8,000 words during the course of a single weekend, a fleeting sense of envy often surges through me. My current work in progress is thoroughly outlined and my enthusiasm for it is boundless, so why can’t I achieve a similar level of productivity?

The answer is simple. I can’t write 8,000 words in one sitting, or two, or even three. It isn’t the way my brain works, and it might not be the way your brain works, either.

After a maximum of 1,000 words, my brain wants to go back and reread what it just produced. My brain wants to take in the latest effort and consider it, make certain it accomplishes what it should, and ensure it will lead me properly to the next thousand words. I learned a long time ago that forging ahead without the full consent of my brain yields only page after page of substandard writing.

There’s also the matter of time.

I have a job, and three teenage kids, and friends, and family, and a dog, and a house, and a life, and all of the experiences and requirements that come along with all those things. In order to remain a viable activity, writing has to take a back seat to the primary responsibilities that provide steady income and make life worth living in the first place. Not only do some days pass without my having an opportunity to write, sometimes entire weeks will pass without the first word of fiction being set to paper. If I allowed every day that passed without accomplishing any writing to impact my belief that I am a good writer with a good story to tell, then I would have given up trying years ago.

If you need a 2,000-word goal in order to keep motivated, then set that goal and achieve it. Does a one-page-a-day goal work better for you? Go for it. Is it enough that you take the time, when you have it to spare, and do as much as you can? If you don’t have a publisher pressing you to meet a deadline, yes.

The best any of us can do is experiment with writing and find a level of productivity that is sustainable. Just keep in mind, it isn’t how many words you’re able to churn out on a daily basis that matters most. It’s the quality of the final product.

2014 Mark Feggeler


  1. Isn't it possible to write something shorter but focus on quality?

    1. Exactly, Pinoy. I'm a fan of getting to the point and not stretching out a 100-word idea into a 1,000-word exercise in verbosity. I'm not sure if that's the cause of my writing style, or a result of it, but I have little patience for words that neither advance stories nor develop characters.