Your Daily Quota
By Jim Denney
“I try to write a thousand words on a good day, about three pages.”
—Historical novelist Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
Holly Black is best known for her children’s fantasy series, The Spiderwick Chronicles. Her middle-grade novel Doll Bones was a Newbery honor book, and her YA novel Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie won the Andre Norton Award from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Since 2002, Black has written more than two dozen novels and many short stories. She attributes her prolific output to her daily word quota, and she posts her daily results on her blog.
Black said of Doll Bones, “It might be the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, but I am really proud of it. … I gave myself the goal of 500 words a day. After all, in my mind this was a 40K novel, so it seemed like I could get it done very quickly at that pace. … Oh, and I was going to take weekends off. Ha!”
She began writing Doll Bones on September 26, 2011—and she struggled at the outset. During the last five days of September, she’d write a few hundred words—then discard them, write a few hundred the next day, then discard those. Her net word count for those five days: 400 words.
Black persevered into October, and in spite of family days, revisions on other projects, convention appearances, and a sick day, she managed to produce 9,000 words for the month. She added another 8,000 words in November, another 7,000 words in December (despite time off for the holidays and a brief illness), and netted almost 13,000 words in January 2012. She also started editing the early chapters of the book while still first-drafting the final chapters. She turned the book in to her publisher on February 10, 2012.
Posting to her blog in March, she said she wrote the book over a 114-day period (though only 90 days were actually spent writing). With almost two additional weeks of editing and revising, the book took a total of 127 days to write. Her net average: 310 words per day. Black concludes:
You people who have day jobs, look—310 words a day! You could do that! You could do that at lunch! You could do it on the train ride home! You could do it in the dark of night while watching television! Okay, yeah, it’s harder than it looks sometimes, but still! … This book was written … just a little at a time, almost every day.
Some writers set higher daily goals. When Noah Charney of The Daily Beast asked Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Message in a Bottle) if he had a quota, Sparks replied simply, “Two thousand words.”
YA fantasy writer Justine Larbalestier (Magic or Madness) used to set a goal of a thousand words a day, but recently announced “a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.” Why? She decided the larger goal set her up for defeat. She explained:
At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words … I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. …
On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! …
The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.
Some writers ignore word counts altogether. Daniel Woodrell (Give Us a Kiss) told an interviewer, “If I can concentrate, deeply concentrate for two or three hours, then I feel justified for the day. Word count means less to me than knowing that I made contact.”
And novelist Karen Russell (Swamplandia!) says:
I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day, but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. … Volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? …
Writers are such excellent self-saboteurs. … I can hijack my own writing day in a hundred ways—I can eject myself from a story because I’ve decided it’s “going good.” …
I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours. … Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.
Personally, I like setting high goals and competing against myself to meet them. Stephen King, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and John Steinbeck all set daily goals of around 2,000 words per day—and I find that’s usually a good number for me. But that goal isn’t for everybody.
Every writer is a unique individual, and there’s no one-size-fits-all for writing goals. If daily quotas make you more productive, get after ’em. If quotas interfere with your creativity, let ’em go. Be yourself, write for yourself, and do it your own way.
“I notice that most writers have quotas of some number of words per day. I envy this approach, because it seems so clean, but it has never worked for me. I often spend an entire day editing, restructuring a narrative, or researching. There are no new words on the paper, but it’s still progress. I think. It might also be a really elaborate way of procrastinating.”
—Nonfiction writer Susan Cain (Quiet)
Jim Denney is a writer with more than 100 published books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series. He is the author of several books on writing, including Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly and Write Fearelessly: Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence.
He has written books with supermodel Kim Alexis, Star Trek actress Grace Lee Whitney, and two Super Bowl champions, quarterback Bob Griese and “The Minister of Defense,” Reggie White. He has co-written many books with Pat Williams (co-founder of the Orlando Magic), including Leadership Excellence and The Mission is Remission. Jim is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow Jim on Twitter at @WriterJimDenney and follow his blog at http://jimdenney.tumblr.com/.