A Thousand Words a Day?

In 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.