Friday, November 21, 2014

What Is A Real Writer's Daily Word Count? (Also, Why NaNoWriMo Gives You Bad Habits)

I told myself I wasn't going to weigh in on the continued existence of NaNoWriMo (I said everything I had to say in this entry last year). I said this November I would just blithely do my own thing and ignore all of the hopefuls who are blazing away at their keyboards until blissful unconsciousness finally claims them. Unfortunately though there's a subject that crops up a lot this time of year, and I think it's one writers need to seriously discuss.

That subject is your daily word count. Specifically what it should and shouldn't be.

1,666 words exactly. There, done!
How many words you put on the page each day is an intensely personal subject. To use a simile it's like working out; the number of words you put down is going to reflect your needs and your goals as a writer. Walk into a gym and you'll see a lot of people doing ostensibly the same activity (exercising), but with a slew of different goals (compete in bodybuilding competitions, shape up for a movie role, look good to get back in the dating pool, improve health, etc.).

Walking into a writing group is a lot like this example. You're going to have the writer who's on deadline, so she has to get big chunks of text done immediately if she's going to get paid. You have the writer who's doing it as a side job with no deadline who's going to shop the manuscript around to publishers once it's done. Then you have the writers who are just getting into the craft, and those who are doing it to stay sharp but who are there mostly for themselves. Every writer there is doing the same thing (putting words on a page) but each one of them has different needs.

So What Does This Have To Do With NaNoWriMo?

Thanks for reminding me...

No worries, bro.
The great thing about events like NaNoWriMo is that it makes writing a more inclusive activity. It gives people who might otherwise have never attempted to write a novel the chance to try it out and see how they like it. However there's a couple of issues with the competition; mainly the word count and how writers have to chase it like a fleet-footed stag across the wastes.

The agreed-upon length of a novel is a minimum of 50k words. That's no mean feat, but in order to make that minimum in one month it means that someone has to write 1,666 words per day. No missed days, no edits, no nothing. The issue, as several writers have mentioned, is that this leaves you chasing word count rather than crafting your story. Also we're talking minimum; so if your story spirals out of control and needs 70k or 100k words to be told then that 1,666 words per day just isn't going to make the 1 month cut off. Too bad, so sad.

So what's the problem? Nothing, if you're writing for NaNo (though really any time you're left pursuing a word count instead of asking yourself if you're telling the story you want to tell it might be time to pick a different metric for your work). Most of us aren't, but the idea that your daily word count is a measure of your skill and value as a writer is something that we can't shake in the wider world of writers. This competition didn't create that stigma, but it has blown it up to the point that even rank amateurs think they can dictate how good someone is based on daily numbers.

So What's The Right Word Count?

Stephen King is reputed to do 10k words per day on a novel, whether he's feeling it or not. Kurt Vonnegut was said to have done one page per day, no more and no less, and he would not proceed until that one page was completely perfect. Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Neal F. Litherland all have one thing in common...

Aside from a love of guns and money?
Different approaches to our works. I can't speak for Hemingway and Thompson (as my Ouija board has recently developed a fickle streak), but I can tell you that depending on the project I can get anywhere from 500 to 2,000 words of fiction in a day. With the blogs and article posts I write to keep the lights on and my landlord happy I'm looking at an addition 1,500+ words of work (or more) every 24 hour period.

I'm no Stephen King, but I can put down a respectable chunk of text.

That doesn't make me a better or a worse writer than any of the other famous authors I've used for comparison. What makes you a good writer? Skill, dedication, imagery, good grammar, proper spelling... all of these things, but not how many words you can put down on a page in a 24 hour period.

Don't get me wrong, it's a nice bonus to be able to crank out work en masse because the words just flow out of you like pop fiction diarrhea. Just don't beat yourself with a yardstick that might not actually mean anything if it takes you 6 months instead of 1 to get your first draft done.

Do What Works For You

I cannot stress this strongly enough; every writer has his or her own process. It sounds like pretentious art major bullshit, but it's true to a degree. Some authors can just bang out a rough draft in a few months (or a month), get it edited, and have it on the shelves by Christmas. Some authors may take years to get their next book out. Even authors who are successful and don't really need a day job can leave their fans twisted in knots awaiting the next development.

We're not naming names.
It's a natural feeling to be frustrated by only putting down a few hundred words (or less... we've all had those days). Progress is progress though, and writers need to learn that we all have off days. More importantly though we all gain stamina. Maybe you'll never be a 10k word powerhouse but if you start out doing a few hundred words a day on one project then that can jump to a thousand words on the next project. Much like the aforementioned exercise it gets easier the longer you stick to your schedule.

So write every day, no matter how much or how little you manage to put on the page.

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