Rule #2: A Thousand Words

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Rule #2: A Thousand Words

TypewriterIn my younger and more vulnerable years, I was given a piece of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (And no, it is not to shamelessly rip off The Great Gatsby‘s opening line; that I do all on my own.) The advice was this: Write a thousand words of your work-in-progress each day. No more, no less. Just a cool grand.

Here’s the why of the advice:

  • A thousand words is a fair bit, to be sure. But it’s not so much that you can’t see the end of your target when you sit down to begin. It’s not so much that you can get lost in those thousand words. It’s not so much that you’ll have to set aside hours and hours of your day that really should be spent working for a living or cleaning the house or reading other people’s books or petting the cat. It’s just enough that you can do it in a good hour or so of work. That is to say, it’s eminently doable.
  • A thousand words a day means you can draft the entirety of a seventy-thousand word novel in three months. Not in a NaNoWriMo blaze of ill-considered prose, but in measured thousand-word bites.
  • If you’ve noticed that my math is off in the above calculation, that’s because I’ve allowed for mistakes and blind alleys and pages that have to be burned. Did your characters lead you on a long digression that has no bearing on anything else? You can cut it easily and go back. Why? Because even if that bit is, say, seven thousand words, that’s only a week’s work, and you will quickly make up that lost time thanks to your daily thousand words.
  • After that three-month draft is complete, you can then revise the work three times in the remaining nine months of the year. Me, I rekey the entirety of the manuscript every time so that I weigh every line and nuance to make sure I want it. Other people find this tedious. But however you work, again revising only a thousand words a day, you can push through three serious revisions of your novel in the remainder of the year.
  • And why stop at a thousand? This is the question I most hear from people. “I’m writing in a white heat! I don’t want to stop! I want to finish this section!” But that is precisely when you should stop. Why? Because the next day, you will know what comes next. You’ll sit down to your work and know the next page or two because you already had them in mind. And by the time you reach the end of what you’d had in mind yesterday, your head and momentum will have given you the beginnings of new material. Stopping after a thousand words ensures that you never write to the end of your inspiration and face that dreaded blank page. You leave your desk having prepared yourself for the next day’s work.

A thousand words is kind of an arbitrary number. It is the number my long-ago advisor chose, but you can adjust it to suit your needs. Graham Greene wrote exactly eight hundred words and boasted that he would stop mid-sentence when he’d reached that number. (He had a finely calibrated internal word counter, apparently.)

But he wrote every day—the set number of words—no matter what was going on in his life. Writing every single day makes it easier to beat a path to the well, makes it easier to re-enter the fictive dream of the manuscript as though the preceding 23 hours haven’t intervened. And that piece of advice—”Write every day”—is why today’s post is Rule #2.

Do you all write to set word count? Does it work for you? Or do you sit at your desk for hours on end, laboring over every single sentence until your eyesight dims and your family forsakes you?

  1. I do write to a specific count every day now that I’m working on a new draft. It’s a little more than 1k, but not by much. I do agree though, the steady pace every day keeps me coming back to the story like I never left, but with fresh ideas and perspective to carry forward.

    Excellent post. It really got me thinking.

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  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LS Murphy, Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: A Thousand Words http://tinyurl.com/28sczs9 […]

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  3. Good advice. Word count keeps me on track. I agree with Holly. One thousand to twelve hundred words is best for me. Any more and I burn out too quickly.

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  4. Interesting. On good days, I always let myself go way beyond 1000 words because I feel like I’ll forget what to write about next. Never mind that I’ve got a ton of Post-its in the house and a million little notebooks to remind myself.

    I never said it made sense. I’m going to try limiting my word count and see what happens, though. I think it’ll make sitting down to write the next day a lot less intimidating.

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  5. This is good advice. The only reason I don’t follow it myself is because of time constraints. So when I do have time I finish up 2000 words+, but I make it a point to complete 500 words minimum at a time.

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  6. Great advice. Just setting a reasonable goal makes the experience of writing more positive, because you can actually feel like you’ve accomplished something in the middle of a mire of revisions.

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  7. Is this 1,000 words a day with a chapter-by-chapter outline? Or 1,000 words teased from where the sun don’t shine?

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  8. Great write Michael,

    Setting a goal can really help someone. When I first started, two-thousand words a day became my daily goal. After a while, I stopped setting word count goals. Now, I set aside time blocks and make that my goal. Either way, you should spend time with your family and on other endeavors. Good blog,

    Draven Ames

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  9. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Your timing was perfect. I have been struggling for some time now and your simple but shrewd advice was exactly what I needed. The perfect bite-sized goal.

    I’m on day three of my new regime and so far so good.

    To thank you, I will be sending you my first query, no question

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    • Well, Brent, I am no longer accepting queries nor clients. But please feel free to query Chris or Danielle, both of whom are still looking at new submissions.

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  10. Great advice, Michael. Having an accessible number of words target would put the ‘procrastinate bug’ back in its box, quick smart!

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  11. My only problem with this is the first bullet point. You say that you won’t have to set aside hours, and maybe that’s true for some people, but I can guarantee that for me, most of the time pulling a thousand words is a four or five hour task.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, but it’s true. Particularly near the beginning/middle of a book. I’m just a slow writer as a general rule. Now, as I get closer to the end, I can often pull out two or three thousand words a day with very little effort, but it takes me quite a bit of time to fall into the voice of a book and get the dialogue right and the characters right, etc.

    I tend to aim for about five hundred, but truth be told, some days the most I manage is two or three. I consider that pretty pathetic, but if I spend two hours working on something and between my writing and erasing and writing and thinking and writing and rewriting that’s all I get, that’s all I get.

    I think there’s more value to be found in having a specific goal to motivate you than that goal being a thousand words exactly. I might not finish a novel in three months, but I can finish one in eight, and I don’t think that’s all that bad.

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