Wordcounts and time management
Never pump yourself dry, advised Ernest Hemingway
One of the things I quite like about being a writer is that you pretty much make up your own rules as you go along. Only work in the mornings? Absolutely. Draft everything in pencil? You’re the boss. Write in a smoking jacket? Be your own guest.
Nevertheless, writers do like to impose a few limits on themselves (and not just alcohol-based ones). One of the most common is word counts. While it’s all very well being an Ideas Person, you also need to focus on the nitty gritty of scribbling it all down. So whenever I’m talking to a publisher about a new book, the word count is very near the top of our discussion. It’s often quite vague e.g. 40,000-50,000, but once you’ve nailed down the deadline for submitting the whole thing, it’s good to start running the numbers.
For example, I’m working on something now that needs to be with the publisher by March 1. The content can be broken down quite easily into a dozen chunks, and then subdivided again into smaller sections. So what I’ve done is work out exactly how many ‘bits’ I need to do every week to get to the chequered flag on time, cross-referencing with the rough word count I’m hurtling towards. It’s great to write when inspiration strikes, but the sad truth that whether it strikes or not, I still need to finish up X slices of the pie by every Friday or things might get nasty.
I think this is important whether you’re a non-fiction or fiction writer. Stephen King’s routine is very regulated, sitting in the same seat and keeping his paperwork in the same place which he says helps to concentrate his mind on the task in hand. And one thing he is very keen on is the idea of writers having a definite goal for each writing session, whatever the wordcount.
To be honest, I prefer working this way. I like a deadline. It’s probably a hangover from my years as a journalist. I’ve got a much longer-term project underway too, something that probably won’t see the light of day until 2025 and while the flexibility is pleasant in some ways, I do find it quite hard to keep my focus on what I need to be doing on a regular basis.
What I also build in to the whole wordcount equation is that I usually work a little faster towards the end of a project once I’m confident about where I’m headed and exactly what I’m doing. At the start, I’m still fiddling around, thinking things over, and generally a bit slower. Margaret Atwood does this too - her daily wordcount goal is in the 1,000-2,000 ballpark, working on a new work for a couple of hours a day at the beginning, but gradually increasing the hours as she heads towards the end.
But writers’ targets for their daily tally vary tremendously and during their careers. At one end of the scale was Graham Greene who hit 500 a day, while JG Ballard aimed for double that, and Frederick Forsyth has estimated his output when underway at 12 pages or 3,000 words a day. Lee Child regards 600 daily words as a minimum, twice that as fine, and four times that marking a great day.
Anthony Trollope, author of Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now, described himself as a ‘literary labourer’ and suggested that “three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.” But he worked intensively during those three hours. “It had at this time become my custom,” he wrote in his autobiobraphy, “and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself, to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.”
Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography that as a young man he could average 3,000 words a day. This dipped towards the end of the 20th century. “In 1897, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London,” he wrote, “and I was writing the book called Following the Equator, my average was 1,800 words a day; here in Florence (1904) my average seems to be 1,400 words per sitting of four or five hours.”
However, getting stuck up on a specific figure may not be ideal. John Steinbeck suggested forgetting about any kind of target and simply writing a page a day. Ernest Hemingway also advised not to write too much at a single sitting and “never pump yourself dry”. Or as Lewis Caroll put it: “only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest.”
If you’re looking for a Christmas present for a loved one or family member, you might find my book Rooms of Their Own which came out earlier in the year the very thing. Or perhaps they would like my most recent book, The Book Lover’s Joke Book, published by the British Library last month. Of course they might like both.
I find word counts very interesting. I tend to get everything down I want to say, then come back and craft it - it may be the same day/session, it maybe a fair while later. Which makes the word count flattering to start with, but then the working on it often means I gets shorter (hopefully) which makes it seem (by the employment of word count as guide) like I have been doing less than nothing.
How much I write in a day often depends on how quickly I craft the opening paragraph. Sometimes it comes instantly - a scene, a conversation, an anecdote - but at others I sit staring at the screen turning words around in my head until eventually they come down in an entertaining order. Or not. Best thing to do then is go for a country walk or a few lengths of the local pool as the absence of distractions often leads to that elusive first sentence. Get that down and I'm on track for the rest of the day - what's left of it!