In online discussions with other writers, the “big Q” question sooner or later pops up: “What’s your daily writing quota?”
Well, let’s get that out of the way immediately, so that we can focus on the how’s and why’s, which are more important: I don’t have a daily writing quota—that is, a daily word-count goal.
Some days (albeit rarely) I write 5,000 words. Some days I write 50 words. There can be days or weeks with 0 words.
But I always get the job done and, more importantly, I like the result.
So, let me proudly declare it right away: I am vehemently against daily writing quotas, and I believe writers do not help themselves by obeying a daily writing quota.
That statement by itself is useless without some elaboration, so perhaps it’s more fruitful to explain why I don’t believe in such self-imposed goals and, more crucially, what there is to gain from not having a daily writing quota.
Well, judging by my own experience, art is the part of a person that 12 years of university couldn’t kill …
But more generally, art is the expression of one’s innermost thoughts, emotions, and states of mind—which I refer to as elements of affect.
As a fiction writer, I try to put into words precisely such subjective elements of affect, that are inspired by experiencing the world around me. Readers of these words might have a similar or different reaction to the same experience—and quite often the same reader might have a different reaction during a subsequent reading. But if the writer has succeeded, there should be some reaction. This applies to all kinds of writing.
Whether writing a fictional story or a professional analysis, an autobiographical piece or an academic essay, authenticity is essential. And as creativity is a prerequisite for authenticity, a writer should strive to maximize it.
In a way, therefore, the writer acts as a medium of sorts; a filter between the noise of the world and its parts that matter. I often like to think of art and writing as a funhouse mirror: The reality it shows you might be distorted, exaggerated, or possessing a certain quirk (in fancy words: ideology). But it still is reality.
And just as the funhouse mirror exists solely because of its distortion—otherwise it would have been just an ordinary mirror—writing has meaning only because of its function as a vehicle of artistic expression.
But how is this related to having or not having a daily writing quota?
If art is about affect, it goes without saying that experiencing precedes it: Before authors write about something, they need to subjectively feel it and be affected by it. In other words, a writer cannot exist in a vacuum, disconnected from the world.
Instead, a good writer must experience the world, reflect on their experiences, and only then attempt to “translate” them into words. A good writer should also reflect on others’ experiences—those who claim a good writer should first and foremost be a good reader are absolutely right.
And here is the little detail that complicates matters when you must write—that is, when you have a daily writing quota.
A writer (or anyone, really) cannot conjure up emotions and states of mind “à la carte.” Some days people feel sad and tired, some days they feel happy and inspired. Then there are many days when a writer feels content in some generic way, without any strong emotions of any sort. This latter case is the worst time for writing.
“Hang on!” someone might say, objecting. “Writers can make things up, right?” If they don’t feel like writing, but have to write about an experience, can’t writers put words on a page and call it a day?
They can, but that’s the problem. If non-writers were asked to put imaginary emotions into words, the most likely outcome would be that of surrender: They would simply close the laptop lid and give up. On the other hand, writers would fight it through and come up with something, which, most likely, would be substandard to their full potential.
A phrase commonly—and likely erroneously—attributed to Ernest Hemingway is “write drunk, edit sober.” The true meaning behind this quote is this: Have emotions when writing (and leave them out when editing).
Most skillful writers can write what their narrative or personal essay requires no matter what mood they are in. If I am asked to produce 500 (or 2,500) words in one day, I’ll do it.
However, it took me years to realize that sometimes I shouldn’t write even if I could.
Writers evolve. They don’t write now the way they did 10 (or two) years ago. I’m no exception, and as a result, I can confess I used to have a daily writing quota. This was long, long ago. I’m not young, though not exactly old, either (though I suppose claiming that would classify me as old!).
And so, naively, I used to think the best strategy for writing and completing good books was to write every day; to “get into the zone,” so to speak. The problem is, getting into the zone is useless if you leave your experiences and emotions outside of it.
I was 20 or 21 when I began to write a novel for the plot of which I only had a very vague idea. I basically had just a premise and nothing more. Still, naively, I felt that I should just keep writing every day, no matter what. I remember feeling smart when I started modestly, with a daily writing quota of 500 words, then doubled it when I saw how easy it felt.
Indeed, it worked pretty well at first—that is, while I only needed to introduce characters, settings, and the overall background of the story. It started to stall a bit at some point, but I still remained within my daily writing quota, coming up with ad hoc subplots and such.
And then at some point, having written about 30,000 words, I hit the wall of writer’s block. I had no clue how to proceed, still keeping the narrative together.
Worse still—and more important for the current topic—I felt aghast when I read what I had written. It was lackluster, boring, mechanical. It was the natural outcome of someone attempting to create art without emotion—a contradiction in itself.
Back then, I was too young and naive to learn the lessons involved, that is, to realize how my daily writing quota had been the source of my writing woes. Much later, I realized what had gone wrong. Forcing myself to write had sealed the fate of the novel. I had become unable to keep up the self-imposed pace, and most of what I had written had been mediocre. I never finished that novel, unable to undo the narrative knot that I had so unwisely rushed to tie.
There are cases where a daily writing quota is necessary. The most classic cases would be those involving a deadline, but there are two important factors here:
But besides those, there are legitimate reasons why you could have a daily writing quota—at least partially.
No novel can be a peak-performance affair from A to Z. Indeed, sometimes an author needs to simply conclude certain transitioning segments before proceeding to something more important in terms of content. In a way, such segments are mere cohesive glue.
Let’s assume an author has three segments—or chapters/scenes—A, B, and C. Let’s then assume that the author’s narrative plan calls for something important to occur in A and C. Inevitably, B is a transitioning segment.
Crazy as it might sound, it would be better for the overall balance of the narrative if the transitioning segment were merely “ordinary.” Such a strategy would increase the contrast between it and its surrounding segments.
And so, when a writer must deal with segments that don’t need to be rich in affective expression, self-imposing a daily writing quota could potentially be a productive choice in practical terms. This is particularly the case when a writer needs to balance between creativity and practical considerations, such as deadlines.
For example, when composing an academic essay or an article for a newspaper, there will inevitably be segments that must function as an introduction, an epilogue, or a summation of existing knowledge.
Such excerpts are rarely the best place to experiment with creativity, since they function as referencing points for the audience. This means that they are excellent opportunities to work on using a daily writing quota, saving time that can be then used for the parts that really matter.
I have to admit, I don’t believe in self-imposed limitations, resolutions, or quotas in general, and not only for writing.
To say something like, “From now on, I’ll only eat one chocolate bar per month,” is pointless, without any other lifestyle changes. And so is, “From now on, I’ll eat at least five fruits per day.” If self-imposed limitations can affect our lives in such trivial ways, one can imagine how detrimental these limitations can be for creativity.
Art is too complex and multifaceted to be contained within defined borders. Writing is too great an exercise in freedom to be forced. I’d much rather not write at all than be forced to write when I don’t feel like it.
At the same time, it is perfectly understandable that authors come in many … flavors. For some, the transition from discipline to freedom might be awkward. Personally, as a result of my own long (and painful) experience, I have found the following useful for learning how to be OK with less self-imposed writing quotas.
A great strategy is to think not in absolute words, but in segments. A narrative is a living organism, and just as a human heart is not the same size as a human nail, the parts of a novel need not be equal (or even similar) in length.
Some scenes need to be longer, some shorter. Some chapters might be one page, some might be 10 pages. Telling yourself “I’ll write 5,000 words this week” is not very helpful, but “I’ll finish the wedding scene this week” gives you something to aim for without limiting creativity.
What also helps break from the daily writing quota prison is to base productivity on time, not quantifiable results. Instead of having a daily writing quota of words, it would be much preferable to try a daily writing quota of hours.
Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be uninterrupted. Sometimes I write half an hour, take a break for three hours, and then I continue. Sometimes I write four hours nonstop.
Basing my productivity on time rather than results allows me to be both consistent and free. When I don’t feel pressured by having to complete a certain word-count goal, I allow my creativity to flow.
Having decided to write for a given amount of time also helps me concentrate. Sometimes the result is 3,000 words, sometimes it’s 30. But whatever it is, it doesn’t feel forced.
Even with temporally-based quotas, it’s important for authors to be flexible and kind to themselves. It just doesn’t work on some days, and that’s alright.
If I’m just staring at the screen, or I delete something again and again, that’s a sign to take a break. Importantly, self-imposed quotas are also easy to change, postpone, or adapt.
Although concentration is important, it also needs space to move. If things don’t work as planned, taking a break and doing something else can often bring the peace of mind necessary for creativity to come back.
I can’t count the number of times my doctoral supervisors told me that. And yes, I’ve come to realize it’s good advice when writing fiction, too.
Creativity can’t exist in a continuous state of ever-present ignition. Rather, it comes in bursts.
Sometimes, and especially if I’m not certain where my narrative is going, I prefer to let it rest for a while. Such breaks can last days, weeks, or (rarely) even months. It doesn’t matter how long you let it rest, as long as personal excellence is the ultimate goal.
I just mentioned that creativity comes in bursts. The reason? Because it’s based on experiencing, which varies from day to day.
Sometimes days just fade into one another without much happening. And then suddenly, everything happens at once, which can be overwhelming.
But, and here’s the crux of the matter, overwhelm is good for a writer. Days like these help authors produce their finest work.
To write a pivotal scene because of a daily writing quota, being bored and uninspired, is to lose the opportunity to write it when one is brimming with creativity. Or, to put it less prosaically (quite literally): One might sit down to paint a peaceful bay,/ and he may try for twenty years in vain/ Upon a cloud the Muse descends one day,/ and helps the man a masterpiece attain.
In the end, all writing is about expressing a subjective perspective on something. Whether writing a fictional story, a personal essay, or a non-fictional analysis of a situation, there is a common factor: There is always an author. The more authentic and true-to-itself the author’s voice is, the more genuine the text. And for a voice to be authentic, it has to be free.
For better or for worse, our lives are limited by temporal constraints. We are forced to have schedules, clocks, and deadlines.
To an extent, this is a necessary prerequisite for a functioning society. But when such constraints begin to affect areas that are by definition unregulated, such as writing, few good things can result from such choices.
In a sense, writing is about dreaming a better reality, wanting to instigate a change. To have, then, a daily writing quota is to allow this existing, humdrum reality to creep into the very process that attempts to change the situation.
As writers, we should try to resist this. We should allow writing to be an exercise in freedom. And we should write not because we must, but because we can’t help it.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.