There are plenty of examples of (bad) advice to writers that state something along the lines of “write 1000 words per day” or “I write 2000 words a day” or worse, “if you’re not prepared to get up an hour early and write 1000 words, you’ll never be a writer.” It’s all useless advice to a poet where the aim is to use the best words in the best order as succinctly as possible. But it’s also useless advice to prose writers whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction. Here’s why:
- 500 edited words of publishable standard are better than 2000 words of free writing; quality beats quantity.
- The pressure of a useless target is not going to make you a better writer. Find a more productive target such as half a dozen poems of publishable standard by the end of the month or polish a piece of flash fiction to meet a competition deadline (even if you decide not to enter) or get that review I promised written.
- Some writers don’t write in regular daily amounts. Some are writing around a day job and/or family commitments. Some will write in a concentrated burst over a few weeks rather than daily.
- Getting up early doesn’t work if you’re a night owl or if you have caring responsibilities because it assumes you can get to bed early enough to give yourself enough sleep: skipping sleep will not make you a good writer.
- Similarly, staying up late doesn’t help larks. Best to try to organise you day to fit in writing when you write best.
- Some with disabilities need to prioritise self-care. Stretching yourself to reach an unobtainable target will be counter productive. Do as much or as little as you can and don’t feel guilty.
- On rare occasions, the laundry is more urgent than writing.
- It’s natural to compare yourself to others, particularly during NaPoWriMo or NaNoWriMo ((inter)National Poetry/Novel Writing Month), but make sure your comparisons are productive ones rather than destructive ones. I submitted more poems this year than last year is good. I haven’t written as much as poet A is bad: you weren’t meant to write as much as poet A.
- Remember too, people tend to post good news on social media. They’re going to tell you about the days they achieved their target, not the days when they didn’t.
- Do the writers who say “write x number of words a day” actually do so? If they do, are those words any good?
The main reason it is lousy advice is that writing, especially creative writing, is not about getting words into a document. The mechanics of typing out x number of words can be done by a transcription service or software or a bunch of monkeys. That’s when word or line counts are useful, it ensures poems are short enough to publish in magazines, it differentiates between a short story and a novel, it helps editors ensure that they’re not publishing haiku alongside epic poems or flash alongside a novella. Typing is not writing.
Writing is the reading, thoughts, dreams, research that happens before typing starts.
It might happen on your commute, during your walk, whilst you’re out running or swimming. It might be the thing that woke you up so you had to scrabble for a notebook or phone to capture the idea before it was lost. It might be the notes you scribbled between appointments. That compelling image you snapped. An overheard fragment of conversation. A phrase that became an earworm. The idea that linked to another idea that became lines of a poem or a scene in a story. The things you can’t measure in word counts.