Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How much should you write every day?

with 5 comments

According to his own autobiography, the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote a thousand words an hour, between 5:30 and 8:30 every morning, and if he finished a novel before the day’s work was done, he took out a fresh piece of paper, wrote Chapter One at the top, and began another. Max Brand, the incredibly prolific author of westerns, wrote fourteen pages at a sitting—and in only two hours per session. More recently, in his book On Writing, Stephen King advises beginning writers to write at least 2,000 words a day, which is also the recommended pace for participants in National Novel Writing Month. (And judging from King’s legendary productivity, it’s likely that his own pace is much higher).

Of course, not every novelist is a writing machine. Jerzy Kosinski wrote a page and a half per sitting. Nabokov famously wrote his novels one perfect paragraph at a time, on individual index cards. Even the most modest pace will eventually produce an entire book, like water wearing away stone. At one point, when I was struggling to balance my writing life with a full-time job, I reminded myself that a hundred words a day—that is, something substantially shorter than this paragraph—would produce a novel of 100,000 words in just over two and a half years. For all my good intentions, though, I never actually stuck to that schedule, and ultimately decided to quit my job first. Still, the principle seems sound enough.

These days, when I’m working on a first draft, I write a lot. Yesterday, which was my first serious writing day in a long time, I wrote an entire draft of the prologue of my novel, which is about 3,500 words long, over the course of seven hours of work. Now, I’m not saying that all these words were great, or even good. I had the luxury of writing from a detailed outline. And I expect that the prologue will eventually be cut to something like 2,000 words or shorter. But like John le Carré, to compare small things with great, I like to write a chapter every day. And I do believe that there are good reasons to push yourself to write, if not an entire chapter, at least a fully realized unit of your story at each session—whether it’s a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph, if you’re a writer like Nabokov.

In something so long and complicated as a novel, it’s crucial that its units hang together fairly organically, and writing the first draft of each unit in one session strikes me as the best possible way to do this. In my own novels, the length of each chapter is largely determined by how much I can write in one day, which also happens to approximate, conveniently enough, the amount of information that a reader can process before pausing for a break. (Poe says something similar about the ideal length of a short story.) And there’s something gratifying about crossing an entire chapter off my outline when a day’s work is done, even if I know that the real work of revision is only beginning. When I’ve got fifty chapters or more to write, that kind of pace is often all that keeps me going.

So I guess I’d better get started again.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2011 at 9:02 am

5 Responses

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  1. To plagiarize Woody Allen, “Enough to reach the ground.”


    March 8, 2011 at 8:05 pm

  2. My aim most days is 1500. Whether I reach that is a whole other question. Recently, mostly not – anything from 50 to 1000 depending on what else is going on. Even if I write nothing, though, I at least try to check the files so they’re still current in my mind.

    Jon Vagg

    March 9, 2011 at 8:25 am

  3. If anything, I’m actually trying to write fewer words per day. The experience of working on my first novel, which I literally had to cut in half, tells me that I have a tendency to overwrite. If I could write a tight chapter of 2,000 words the first time around, rather than a sloppy one of 3,500, I’d be a lot happier.


    March 9, 2011 at 9:09 am

  4. Love this article – came to it from looking up Tina Feys “never cut to a closed door”

    Thought you might like this article comparing writing prose with the output of someone who writes songs… Think it comes out pretty much the same in terms of quantity!

    All the best


    March 17, 2012 at 4:32 am

  5. Thanks, Neil! I love the link, and the Guardian story behind it. Here and elsewhere, it all comes down to productivity…


    March 17, 2012 at 11:31 am

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