Thursday, 17 October 2013

How many words must a writer write down, before he can rest with a beer?

There's a writers group online (it's a Linked In group) where there's been some discussion lately about the number of words that people should aim for in a day. In so far as there is a consensus, it seems to be around 1,000 words a day.

It seems a strange notion to me. Some people have argued that you have to know the number of words you will write in a day if you are writing commercially. There is some truth in this. For many years I was a hack writer – that is, I would write pretty well whatever I was asked to write for a commercial rate. This was non-fiction and it was usually written to a very tight deadline and sometimes on the basis of a competitive tender. There would usually be a contractual requirement to produce a certain number of words. Even if there wasn't, the client had an idea of the sort of length of the document that he expected to get. Knowing roughly how much I could write in a day was essential if I was going to make a living out of it, which I did reasonably successfully. However, even in these particular circumstances, the idea that I had a general "average number of words written in a day" is misleading. In some cases, I was essentially rewriting material that was provided to me, or writing something based on information readily available online. Here I would write a lot of words in a day. In other cases, I was being paid not only to write, but to research. Typically, if I was writing a project that was going to take two months, about a month might be spent researching and the second month writing. In these cases, the "number of words written per day" in the first month could well be zero, while the second month would involve quite intensive typing.

Now I write fiction, I have a completely different approach to putting words on a page. With non-fiction, written to a deadline, the important thing is to get words down. You have to write fast, sometimes to a template and usually using a kind of business language that does not concern itself overmuch with the finer points of style. Even here, there are quite significant differences in the amount of attention that has to be given to the detail of the writing and, hence, the number of words you can produce. I had a friend who wrote documents presenting government policy. Much of her work involved putting forward ideas using language that would make people more favourable to them than they might otherwise have been. She wrote far more slowly than me but she was paid much more highly because her clients needed the level of craftsmanship she brought her work. In fact, only yesterday, another friend who writes policy for government described a long exchange of e-mails over the changing of a single word. She doesn't write 1,000 words a day, and nor would anyone expect her to.

Writing fiction, I am trying to put over ideas in the most vivid way that I can. I will spend a while thinking about a situation and getting a clear idea in my own mind of what was happening and only then will I start to write it down. Sometimes, once the words start to flow, literally thousands of them will come out at once. More often, after a few hundred, things will stutter to a halt and it is only after a significant pause looking out of the window, doing the washing up and staring aimlessly into space that the next few hundred may emerge. It's often even worse than that because I write historical fiction with a very firm basis in actual events. Before I even start writing, months may be spent reading about a period without anything more than a few scratched notes emerging in the way of solid output.

I do notice that the people who most enthusiastically espouse writing high word counts often express their views with a remarkable lack of punctuation and more than occasional typos. There is, for most people, a trade-off between speed and accuracy. One person in the discussion I've been reading dismisses anyone who does not set a high word count target and stick to it. He is even more abrupt at the suggestion that anyone should spend time editing and rewriting their work. This is a man who does not use capital letters. at all. he's not that big on full stops either. If he is getting published, some editor is putting in the hours to correct this and, once we take account of that, his average is going to drop quite a bit.

If you're writing fiction nowadays, you are also expected to spend quite a lot of time writing to promote your work. That, in the end, is what this blog is all about. If I included the words I write for this in my daily target, I would have already achieved almost 1,000 words. Does that mean I only have to scratch out a few more paragraphs and then I can put my feet up with somebody else's good book? Alas, no.

In the end, writing is not a competition, won or lost on the number of words you produce. It's a completely meaningless figure. For what it's worth, the average novel nowadays probably has about 80,000 – 90,000 words in it. (Mine are a bit longer, but historical novels usually are.) My impression is that most well-known full-time authors produce, very roughly, a book a year.  That's around 230 words a day. Does this mean anything? No, it doesn't. But if somebody asks how many words you should write a day, you can tell them that 230 is a reasonable sort of average. So I've written over four days' worth now. See you next week.

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