Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Many Words a Day?

Today I perused an interesting article by James Thayer in Author Magazine entitled "How Many Words a Day?" The question posed, discussed, and answered by Mr. Thayer regards how many words each day on average an author should attempt to move from his brain onto the blank page. The article provides many amusing anecdotes about famous authors and their work habits.
English writer, Charles Hamilton—who used twenty-five pseudonyms, the most famous being Frank Richards—was so prolific that George Orwell accused him of being a team of writers.  Hamilton responded, “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.”  He wrote a million and a half words a year, or about twenty pages each working day (assuming 250 working days in a year).
Prolixity of this magnitude is astonishing to say the least! Mr. Thayer goes on to talk about other writers who produced prose at a slower rate.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one novel, which contains about 670,000 words.  It took him eleven years, which is 245 words each working day, or a little less than a typed page. 
Some writers manage their time by devoting certain hours of the day to authorial pursuits. T.S. Eliot had a full time job at the bank, so he made time to write by rising "two hours earlier than was strictly necessary." Rudyard Kipling had his own daily pattern of writing "in the middle of the day, from ten to four." Stephen King writes only in the mornings and reserves the rest of the day for other tasks. Detective fiction author Anne Perry writes "eight or nine hours a day, six days a week."

After discussing the writing habits of many famous authors, Mr. Thayer suggests his own answer to the question: how many words a day? "Writing your novel will be easier if you draft a schedule," he says. "A plan...will organize and prod you, and it will increase the odds you complete the novel." Here is the schedule he proposes:
Initial plotting: one or two weeks.
Research and further plotting: four to six weeks.
Drafting outline: two to three weeks.
Writing the novel: one page (300 words) a day. Finish the novel one year after starting the first manuscript word. If you work full time, 300 words a day is a reasonable goal.
Editing the completed manuscript: about one month.
I could not read Mr. Thayer's proposed schedule without immediately wondering: how does my writing measure up to this? Whenever I spend time writing my novel, I generally get anywhere from 500-1000 words on the page. Unlike Anne Perry and other disciplined writers, however, I most definitely do not write six days a week. Usually, it's more like one to three days a week. Crunching the numbers, it seems that I am a little slower than he recommends, and it will probably take me longer than a year to write my current novel, Road from the West.

Would setting a stricter writing schedule increase my speed? Not necessarily. Mr. Thayer himself remarks that for some people, "a detailed plan is too easy to fall behind, and then discard in frustration." A strict schedule may inspire some authors to keep going with their writing, but for me, it's something else entirely. I have the special motivation of having a husband who asks me about my progress almost every day, who reminds me that I should be writing whenever I complain that I have nothing to do, and who eagerly anticipates the completion of my next book so that he can launch it into the marketplace of publishers. I don't need a schedule; I have David. Which reminds me...I need to stop blogging and get back to working on that novel in case he asks me about it when he gets home tonight.


  1. I think people are certainly the best motivation.

    I normally don't get anything done unless I have a word quota. In the days it can't happen, I just have to realize God a different plan. In the days when it does I feel amazing and can go on to doing whatever else I want to with no nagging that I should be writing.
    Of course I haven't really accomplished anything yet. ;-)

    I think it's different for everybody and it changes as life goes on.

    I really enjoyed this post, the quotes, and your thought.


  2. How large of a word quota do you give yourself?

    I would love to see some of your fiction writing sometime!

  3. I would love to hear your opinion on it. :-)

    Right now I have a 1,000 word quota for Monday-Saturday. I know some writer's do a lot more and some do a lot less, but it seems to be working for me. A couple Saturday's I've managed 2,000 or more. A few week days I only make it to about 800.
    If I can get a hour of totally uninterrupted time when I've still got some brains in my head, I'm good. On a good day I'm done in 45 minutes. (Obviously there is a lot of rewriting

    Sometimes it's harder and I really have to force myself.
    A couple years ago I had a 300 word quota, but it just didn't work. I would barely get into the story. I got discouraged and gave up. Maybe I just wasn't ready yet.

    It's getting started that's hard for me. In the days I don't feel like writing I just make myself and about 300-400 words in I'm having the time of my life. I have to force myself to stop and get on with life when I reach my quota.

    So, yeah...anyways. :-)

    Have a good weekend!


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