When you first take the plunge and decide to write as a career—or at least a side hustle—you start by asking yourself several questions. What is a semicolon, anyway? How much money can I expect to make? How much should I be writing?
I started taking writing seriously as my career three years ago. That meant writing every day. See, when I was starting out, one of my mentors lent me a copy of On Writing by Stephen King, a prolific writer and renowned proponent of writing every day. I took this book as my bible and ran with it. For a long time, that meant my method was to write 2,000 words a day, every day, including weekends and holidays. One year, I even wrote on Christmas—Mom wasn’t a fan.
I was able to keep up that routine long enough to finish a novel, but after that, I faltered. My daily word count went up and down, and sometimes I spent months without writing anything.
Is this starting to sound familiar? Have you gone from prolific one day to completely exhausted and beaten down the next? Maybe you’re still finishing a piece that you started, but it doesn’t feel quite good enough.
That might be because you put your daily word count on a pedestal like I did. You might be obsessing over the quantity of words you could bang out in a single day, then finding yourself unable to write that much again.
You have a consistency problem.
Let me share what I learned from my own struggle with consistency, and we’ll have you writing regularly in no time.
One of the reasons I started with a daily goal of 2,000 words was literally just because Stephen King did it. I figured that if it worked for King, it would work for me. After all, the only way to get better at writing is to write, and the more you write, the better you’ll be, right?
See, the thing about writing is that, like any other creative field, it’s not linear. It doesn’t get proportionally better the more work you put into it. It’s more complicated than that.
Sometimes, you’ll be working on a piece for days, and realize halfway through that you took it in the wrong direction. You’ll scrap your work, start chasing a new way to write the same idea, and end up with a much better piece. The only way that kind of “aha” moment can happen is if you’re regularly getting in the chair and putting words on paper.
And that’s why, while you need to write a lot, writing as much as you can in a single day isn’t necessarily going to make you better.
Take a look at this table.
No one would argue that these aren’t extremely successful writers. You’ve probably read stories or pieces from many of them. I want to call your attention to the range of daily word counts—all the way from 500 for Ernest Hemingway to 10,000 for Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park).
When I set my daily word goal of 2,000 words, I thought it was a magical number. If I just wrote that much every day, I’d be a famous author. But the number itself doesn’t have that power. It’s setting the goal that does.
When you set a writing goal, you start thinking of ways you can accomplish it, whether the goal itself is two words or 2,000. You’ll plan out where and how you’ll write. You’ll block off time in your day, maybe when you wake up or after the kids have gone to bed for the second time. And if even if your goal is two words, usually you’ll get done much more than that.
Setting a daily word goal drills home the importance of writing plenty and often. But if it’s set too high—like 2,000 ended up being for me—it’ll just discourage you, and might stop you from writing altogether.
And that’s the enemy, because …
I’m not sure if it’s related to COVID-19, but I’ve been getting more ads for MasterClass lately. I’ve never taken one, but I have to admit I’m tempted by their writing classes. Here’s a quote from Joyce Carol Oates’ MasterClass:
“What we all need is the satisfaction of this little uplift that we get psychologically from finishing something.”
If you’re a writer, you know exactly what she’s talking about. This feeling is the exact opposite of that dread we feel in front of the blank page, when all the realms of possibility—including many, many wrong ones—are stretched out ahead of us. Finishing a draft is when you conquer the blank page.
Finishing the first draft of my first novel felt a lot like walking out of the tattoo parlor after getting my first tattoo. Dopamine fills your bloodstream and you think to yourself: “I could do that again.”
And, of course, having a portfolio of finished pieces is how you make progress as a career writer.
A daily word goal is a great way to get things done. But it’s not the number of words you write that allows you to finish things. It’s showing up to write with consistency.
You could write a novel, an article, or a blog post by riding a single, short wave of inspiration. But you can’t do that every time. If you’re a blogger, you need to give your readers consistent content. If you’re a novelist, a single novel isn’t going to give you the dream career you want. You can’t just sit around waiting to be inspired.
And that’s because there’s more to writing than the first draft. Getting a first draft done is about gathering as many words as you need to until it’s done. With a novel, that means months of putting words on the page until you’ve made it to the end of the story. For a blog, you’re looking at days of filling in those blanks between the subheadings that define what you want to say.
As you get closer to that final draft, it becomes less about how many words you can put on the page and more about picking the right ones. You’re not just getting your thoughts out there anymore. Now you have to organize them in a way that makes sense. You have to worry about getting the grammar right and cutting out the fat.
These are skills that you will improve by writing often. Because while you could potentially write an entire script in 72 hours—like Sylvester Stallone did for Rocky—figuring out your story structure and getting your dialogue sounding just right takes frequent, consistent work.
Consistent work is how you improve your craft and get work done. Even when I had a writing goal of 2,000 words a day, I needed 50 days to finish a 100,000-word novel. That’s 50 early mornings, 100 cups of tea, and probably 5,000 moments of uncertainty and fear.
And getting that first draft to a place where I felt confident sending it to agents? Took me a year.
But I showed up every day. And even if my goal had been much lower, I would have finished the novel as long as I kept showing up.
Here’s the big reason why pure output isn’t the be-all and end-all of writing. Set your goal too high and it can break you.
Hemingway didn’t stop at 500 words a day because he was lazy.
I kept my 2,000-word goal for maybe a year and a half. It served me well; I wrote two novels, a dozen short stories, and countless blog posts and articles.
Then I hit a wall.
I sat down at my typewriter, ready to bang out my next short story. But I had nothing. The well had gone dry. I had no inspiration, no motivation, and no ideas. Worse, I had no discipline.
I immediately entered existential crisis mode. “What if I’m not really a writer?” I asked myself. “Maybe I’ve been kidding myself; maybe I can’t do this.” I kept looking at the stack of blank pages next to me—because using a typewriter means you have more than a single blank page to deal with at a time—and dreaded the 2,000 words I needed to produce.
Some days, I did produce. I’d hastily throw something onto paper, only to realize after a few pages that I wasn’t really writing anything of worth, and that I needed to scrap it and start over.
That process went on for weeks. Until I just stopped.
I stopped writing for nearly three months. In that time, I read a lot, streamed a lot, exercised, went on walks—name it and I probably did it.
While I felt intensely guilty in that first week, that feeling eventually lifted. And guess what? The ideas came back. I kept on writing, and after adjusting my writing goal, I got back to writing consistently. These days, I’ve slashed my writing goal in half, but I’m hitting it every single day.
The daily word count is not the be-all and end-all of the writer. No word count will magically make you a better writer the way sitting down and writing regularly can.
I managed to finish my first novel pretty quickly because I wrote regularly. But guess what? It didn’t get published. After making the rounds of every reputable agent I could find that takes fantasy novels, the book got 50 rejections and still sits in my drawer. But I took it out again recently and read the first few pages. What did I learn? That it wasn’t that great, even after all that work. Why? Because I’ve written consistently since then, and I’m a much better writer for it.
If you want to improve as a writer, there’s no substitute for finishing a piece. When an idea goes from just existing between your neurons to a physical text that you can read and touch, you have something you can work with. It becomes something you can work on, improve, and learn from. A word count won’t get you there.
Nick wrote his first story at the age of nine when living in New York. It had a troll, a cave, and a magical voice, but not much else. There’s more to his stories now, but he can’t quite stay away from the monsters and dark places of the world. He does his best writing on a powder-blue typewriter—which he snagged for $25—despite the protests of those around him. Some of his best writing (and the occasional gushing post about the Marvel Cinematic Universe) can be found at whiskeyandstardust.com.