The Problem With Daily Word Counts



This list of the daily word counts of famous authors has been making the rounds. The top producers, by far, are the late thriller writer Michael “Jurassic Park” Crichton and the late British historical novelist R. F. Delderfield, who both apparently wrote 10,000 words a day. Then we’ve got one 6,000-word-a-day chap (thriller writer John Creasy), a few 4,000 and 3,000 words-a-day producers (Anne Rice, Iain Banks, Frederick Forsyth), and a host of 1,000 to 2,000 word producers.

On the low end, we’ve got Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene (one of my idols), and Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who all clock in at a meagre-seeming 500 words a day.

There are huge problems with this list.

First, it’s a hodgepodge. It contains famous writers and obscure ones; literary novelists and formulaic pop-fiction ones (plus, as noted, at least one historian); those writing by hand and those using computers; privileged Victorian and mid-century-American white male writers and less-privileged contemporary female writers of color.

The list is so random it would be a mistake to deduce anything from it except that some people like to count their words — or will do so, if asked — and others like to compile lists of those counts. The quotation listed for each writer does little to clarify his or her approach, and in some cases obscures it. (So Maya Angelou apparently once said, “Nothing will work unless you do.” Huh?)

Here are a few people who aren’t on the list:

Gustave Flaubert (pictured above), who famously labored over his prose. There’s a famous story about how his bohemian friends stopped by, one day, and invited him to go out for a debauch. He declined, saying he had to write, so they went off and returned a few days later. (Those 19th century bohemians knew how to debauch!) “How did your writing go?” they asked. “Fantastic!” Flaubert replied. “I put the semicolon back in.”

Or Philip Roth, who, in his Paris Review interview, said: “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive.”

Or James Joyce, who took seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake.

And yet, lists like this are fascinating and seductive — especially to perfectionists who like to measure their output against others’. The problem is not just that the comparisons are meaningless, but that perfectionists use them as tools of self-shaming: “So-and-so writes X,000 words every day! Why can’t I?”

However, no two writers are alike, nor do any two writers share exactly the same circumstances. Nor are any two projects alike! So, even a balanced, nuanced comparison of word counts — which isn’t what the piece in question offers — will be of limited use.

For these reasons and others, I measure my own writing progress not by word count, but time worked. Most mornings, I set a timer for around three hours, and run it down while I write. (It typically takes five hours, including breaks and other work interspersed.) I do track my word count, but only to have a sense of how far along a project is. I don’t judge my output for any particular writing session, but trust that a liberated, nonperfectionist writing process will take me where I want to go.

Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, is similarly unconcerned with his daily output. “How many pages have I produced?,” he says of his daily writing sessions. “I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got.”

And bestselling author John Scalzi, whom I recently interviewed, said this when I asked him about writing speed: “I question whether for non-journalists writing fast is a virtue; the most important thing is finding the pace that works for you in terms of the quality of your work. Rather than focusing on writing fast, I would suggest people find their optimum speed for writing, and then build their schedules around that.”

About Deadlines

Now, I know many of you reading this have deadlines, and this advice of “find your own pace” would seem to conflict with that. However, perfectionism will always be by far your biggest barrier to productivity, and a nonperfectionist writer will always be able to write vastly faster than a perfectionist one. In that sense, word counts are a red herring even for people with deadlines: what you really should focus on is achieving a truly nonperfectionist writing process in which you:

And here are some other tips.

Faster writing will be a natural result.

None of the above, by the way, should be construed as an attack on formulaic fiction either as a pastime or a career. Rather, it’s a caution against seeking to create thoughtful literary works with the same speed and ease that some writers write formula. (Or the reverse, I guess — if you want a formula writer’s output and rewards, you can’t labor over every semicolon like Flaubert.) Here, for the record, is the work process of an author who truly emphasized output over all other concerns:

He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders….Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.

It’s from a New York Times article entitled, “My Dad the Pornographer.” (You’ve been warned.)

Antiperfectionism is, more than anything else, about getting honest and real — about yourself, as well as your goals, abilities, constraints, and the system you’re part of. Perfectionists are often terrified of that honesty because they’re afraid it will constrain or condemn them, but the reality is that it will only set them free.

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