I’m not sure how he did it, but the late Michael Crichton supposedly wrote 10,000 words a day, which is the equivalent of about 40 pages. His keyboard must have been on fire by day’s end.
But don’t be discouraged by such examples of insane productivity. His output is pretty unusual.
This leads to one of the most common questions that I hear: “How much do you write per day?” But before I answer that, I should state the obvious. There is no single approach to setting writing goals. For example, some people (such as “Almost An Author” founder Kyle Young) are binge writers, sitting down to write dozens of pages at a time, but with no established daily goal.
I am the opposite. If I am going to binge, I’d rather do it with ice cream than words.
I aim for a target word count each day, and then work to meet it, six days a week. I make room for a Sabbath rest because if God saw the need to rest after six days of creation, I figure I should push the pause button at least one day per week.
There is no right or wrong between the two approaches—binge writing or setting a steady daily goal—just as long as you meet two things. First, you need to meet your deadlines, and secondly you should allow yourself time for editing. If you are a binge writer and you wait until the last minute before a manuscript is due to binge on the final 20,000 words, chances are you have not allowed yourself enough time to edit. But if you give yourself enough time to polish up your stories, then binge away.
But if you’re like me, and you prefer to set a daily goal, how many words per day should you aim for?
My target is 1,000 words per day, which translates into roughly four pages (double spaced) per day. If I can maintain that pace, I can write 6,000 words, or about 24 pages, per week. It’s not a hard and fast rule, however. Sometimes I write less, especially when I’m doing research—an important part of writing historical novels. But when I’m on a roll, I can write more than 6,000 words per week, especially when I’m into the home stretch on a novel. As the novel picks up speed and races for the climactic ending, so does my writing pace.
Because I do other writing in addition to working on novels, such as feature stories for the University of Illinois, I try to get in my 1,000 words before noon—although if I have time later in the afternoon, I might try to get in some bonus words. (By the way, I’m not counting my university writing as part of my 1,000 words per day.)
While I was working on my last novel, I was inspired to boost my word count after reading Stephen King’s book, On Writing. He said he aimed for 2,000 words per day, and he usually got it done by 11:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. So, just to see if I could do it, I tried to boost my output to 2,000 words per day as I moved into the final stages of the novel. And I actually succeeded…for a brief period, at least.
I’m now back to about 1,000 words per day. Sorry, Stephen.
I was at a writer’s conference this year where one of the teachers listed the daily word counts of well-known authors, and their word counts ranged from 500 words per day (Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene) to the whopping 10,000 per day of Michael Crichton.
Here are some other examples from the list:
- Arthur Conan Doyle: 3,000 words
- Norman Mailer: 3,000
- Anthony Trollope: 3,000
- Nicholas Sparks: 2,000
- Jack London: 1,500
- Mark Twain: 1,400
- Lisa See: 1,000
- Somerset Maugham: 1,000
- Shelby Foote: 500
As you can see, there is a wide variation. So find out what works for you, and don’t feel locked into the daily routine. Some days you might need to do extra research or outlining, and your word count for those days might be zero. A daily word count keeps you disciplined and focused, but don’t let it shackle you. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and the same is true for word counts. “The word count was made for the writer, not the writer for the word count.”
However, if you are a person who has a difficult time finishing a manuscript, a daily word goal might be just what the doctor ordered to keep you on target. A daily goal could help to push you over the hill that writers often face when they’re stuck in the mushy middle of a story,
Then again, you can always do what comedian Steven Wright does if you’re having trouble getting inspired to write:
“I’m writing a book,” Wright said. “I’ve got the page numbers done.”
* * *
5 for Writing
- Get writing. Find the time to write. Then do it.
- Learn by listening—and doing. Solicit feedback, discern what helps you.
- Finish your story. Edit and rewrite, but don’t tinker forever. Reach the finish line.
- Thrive on rejection. Get your story out there. Be fearless. Accept rejection.
- Become a juggler. After one story is finished, be ready to start another. Consider writing two at once.