Word counts, and word targets

I've always used a 1,000 words a day as my target. Which means I'm not allowed to go to bed until I've written a thousand good words. Or at least 1,000 decent words. All right, 1,000 barely tolerable words. Thank goodness for revision.

Every now and then I've experimented with a different system, but I've never found anything that worked better.

In the last few days I've tried something which might, just might, replace the thousand a day rule.

It's 500 words in an hour.

The problem with 1,000 words in a day is it's so very achievable. I fiddle around, doing research, writing a few neat phrases, thinking I can finish the thousand any time I like, until ten minutes to midnight, at which point I decide maybe I should get this done, and start writing properly. I finish by 1am, or 2am. That wouldn't be so bad if we didn't have children who needed to be taken to school.

So I've tried 500 words in an hour, and so far I've impressed myself. Productivity has gone up. (But don't tell Janet, Kathleen, Keith or Belinda, or they might start having unreasonable expectations about me getting stuff done on time...)

With the 500 word per hour system, when the hour starts I don't allow distractions and I hit the target. Every time. Amazing how much those distractions hurt.

Word count for a book varies wildly between genres. Writing historical mysteries, I've always targeted between 80K and 100K, and no one's ever told me I should do otherwise. Beyond 100K, my observation is agents and editors become skittish. Below 80K, I become skittish. Anything within that range is goodness as far as I can see. Once I'm in the zone, I don't care how long it ends up.

In theory this means I finish a first draft in 80 to 100 days. Yeah, right. Still, I'm probably not too far off that. That's not the end of the story though. Personally, if you're using a target system like this, I suggest allocating three times as long for revision as you spend writing the first draft. Yes, three times as long. I'm sure there are people out there who can get it right the first time. In fact, I know there are. But I'm not one of them. On the plus side, when I send in an ms, I know it's as good as I can make it.


30 comments:

Stephanie Thornton said...

I aim for the same ballpark with word count for historical fiction. I think established authors in the genre can get away with more, but since I don't fall in that category I err on the safer side. Of course, the first draft of Hatshepsut was around 120,000 words. I didn't know what I was doing. Culling 30,000 words took a long time, but I managed.

I aim for 500 words a day too, at least during the school year. My writing time only lasts for about an hour after the monkey child had gone to bed. Sometimes I get distracted (okay, most of the time), but I don't let myself go read until I'm done. I need to dangle a carrot (or chocolate covered pretzels) in front of my nose to get myself to work.

Gary Corby said...

The advantage to 500 words in an hour, which is easy with no interrupts, is I can do it two, three or maybe four times a day. Hence I get more words done. Of course these days I have the huge advantage of more time for writing than most people since I have some mild assurance the words will see print, but even when working full time and writing in the dark hours, I can see how the target-per-hour would have helped me.

Amalia T. said...

My target used to be 2000 words before my husband got home from work, because after that the television was on and I couldn't get anything done. I've been pretty lax with it during this rewrite though. Your system sounds excellent. I might give it a try once I stop floundering around and figure out what I'm doing with this latest rewrite!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Ahhh... I can see how the 500 words an hour would multiply. In the summer, I get about three uninterrupted writing sessions during the summer before my daughter wakes up, while she rests, and after she goes to bed. I might try the 500 words an hour to force myself to ignore distractions.

But during the school year I stick to 500 words a day. Thank goodness I get more on weekends!

DeadlyAccurate said...

I do a first draft in about 3 months, too. Revision takes about 4 months the first time, and anywhere from 1 month to 4 the second time. So yeah, sounds like our schedules are about the same.

middle grade ninja said...

I still prefer a time goal as well as a page goal per day. Sometimes I spend part of my writing time revising my outline or making notes to help me see the bigger picture. This is work that does not directly increase my word count, but I can't finish a novel without doing it. And by taking my time with the rough draft I don't have to do much in the way of total rewrites for my revision. I may have to polish a chapter, but it's place in the story is clear to me as I have the notes to remind myself why I did it that way. I still aim for 800 to 1000 words a day. Maybe I'll try an hourly goal, though. It certainly sounds like a way to maximize my writing time.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, I'm constantly astounded by the amazingly high word counts you tweet. I don't know how you do it!

Revision's a lot harder to judge in terms of words of course.

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, 500 a day and working full time is a great target, IMHO. I have memories of getting home after work; play with the kids; dinner; and then begin to write. Which is probably how I acquired the habit of being inspired at midnight. It'd be a good habit to break!

Gary Corby said...

Carla, yep, it sounds like we have about the same timetable. I tend to iterate a lot on revision, which I hope is something that will reduce with more practise.

Gary Corby said...

Hello Robert the middle grade ninja! I think this is the first time you've left a comment. Welcome to the blog!

You have a lot more discipline than me! If I tried using time-based targets, I'd whittle it all away on "research". I'm impressed you stick to the work so well.

Bron said...

That's why I need word count goals. It's so easy to get lost in research and before you know it, an hour has passed and you haven't really achieved anything.

Carrie said...

I have no word count goals. O.o

I kind of freeze up when I think of that kind of pressure, but I really can see myself doing 500 words/hour. In fact I know I'm capable. Although I'm also not doing the novel thing yet. With a two year old and a full-time job? Yes Gary, you're one heck of an author for doing just that. Take care.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Bron, I think you might be a first time commenter too! Welcome.

Yes, that's exactly what happens to me. It's like, "Research: the pleasant alternative to actually writing some words."

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie! You are doing magnificently well for someone with a 2 year old and a full time job and a drive to write. How you get any words on the page at all is beyond me.

I'm guessing you're very tired most of the time. But you're also very successful.

L. T. Host said...

I, too, don't necessarily give myself word count goals. I do give myself arbitrary time goals-- or at least I used to-- but with the wedding going on this year, along with my usual stuff, I pretty much just write when I can. I'm in no rush. But then-- I don't have a deadline to meet or an agent/ editor chomping at me to see more work. Yet. :)

However, once I do, I, too, will need to have word goals, or strict time line goals. It's too easy to put my writing off otherwise! The good news is that when I'm motivated or have time to write, I can write rather quickly.

By the way-- you'll be happy to know that that new project we discussed is coming along nicely. 24 pages in and starting to come together.

Taryn Tyler said...

I applaud your 1,000 words a day and your 500 words an hour. I usually have goals on the amount of scenes instead words so I have a chance to take a thought to its conclusion but the problem with that is some scenes are really long and can't be finished in a day so I don't feel like I've gotten anything done.

Lola Sharp said...

During first drafts my daily goal is 2,000 words/day. I find it very doable.

When I'm wallowing in Revision Hell things get murkier. I start pulling out my Famous Procrastinating Techniques. (doing so by blogging right this second, in fact)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

The only time I've successfully used word count goals was when I was drafting during NaNoWriMo, desperately trying to reach that 50k goal in a month. It was really more like:...must...type...more...words. Yeah, not so much quality. But surprisingly, after much revision, it's shaping up into a reasonable novel. Much, much revision.

Gary Corby said...

Susan, I'm pleased your NaNoWriMo novel came out well, but I have to say that personally I think NaNoWriMo is a bad idea. You just said why: quantity over quality.

I know that sounds weird from me, having just said that daily word count is a good thing, but the difference is an achievable daily target takes account of quality. 50K in a month is too much, IMHO. I certainly couldn't do it!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taryn, and welcome to the blog (another first-time commenter!).

Setting scene targets is a great idea.

I can tell you're someone who completely finishes one scene before moving on to the next. I admire your discipline to stick to it in one go!

Gary Corby said...

Hi L.T., here's what will happen to you when you sell:

You've sold a book. Yay! It took you 3 years to write (for sake of the example). In fact, you sold a series.

A series means a book a year. Great! You're feeling euphoric (believe me on that...). So next day you sit down to write the next book in the series...

You have 1 year to do what took 3 years last time. And this time you know every word you write will see print.

Which means it has to be good. And original. And fun.

And you have to do it 3 times faster than you did last time. (Just to emphasize that point.)

No pressure there!

Suddenly a daily word target looks like a good idea.


I did survive this process with a happy result. But believe me when I tell you that getting motivated for the second sold book is not a problem.


Very happy about that project, by the way!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Lola, and welcome! If you can do 2K a day with ease then I'd like to hire you.

You're not related to Amalia T by any chance, are you? Sounds like if the two to you worked together you could whip off a book every 2 months.

Loretta Ross said...

I don't use word count targets, but I find I go in cycles. I either read compulsively or I write compulsively. When I'm reading I can't write and when I'm writing I can't read.

When I'm writing I can do 5,000 or even 10,000 words a day easily if it's a day off. On days I work I'm lucky to get in 2,000 or 3,000. With the commute, a full work day takes about 11 hours and my job is very physical, so I'm tired when I get home. (I can come up with more excuses too, if you want to hear them. ;))

Right now, though, I kind of feel like I'm in limbo. I'm waiting on revision notes and not really sure exactly how the first book is going to wind up. You know?

Gary Corby said...

I totally get the limbo. If you don't know the first will sell, or don't know how it will change under revision, then why work on the second?

Sounds like time to write something different. Or short stories!

I'm stunned you can get so many words out in a day, even in perfect conditions. I think my highest ever might be 4K or 5K, but that was in a frenzy.

Loretta Ross said...

Well, I have to have a pretty good idea where I'm going with the story. And when I say "compulsive", that's not just a figure of speech. Those are the days when I forget to stop for lunch and the next thing I know it's 2 o'clock the next morning. I do that reading *all* the time. Writing, now and again.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Gary

I agree that the NaNo wordcount goal is a bit extreme, but I learned some valuable things from the process. In particular, that writing a really rough draft actually improves my quality in the end. I know this is counter-intuitive, so let me explain.

For me, drafting and editing are vastly different processes. Creating something from the blank page, versus clearing out the clutter, balancing a sentence, and making those words sing - they just somehow use different parts of my brain. I find that I edit much better when the material I start with is raw - it's easier for me to hack away at it without fear, especially if I have some remove in time from the original drafting. Similarly, I draft much better when I completely turn the internal editor off, and just let the words flow (fast!) onto the page.

Having written both ways (slower word count, higher quality drafts vs. fast word count, lower quality drafts), I know for me the higher quality in the end comes from the latter.

But this is why we each need to seek our own process, no?

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, you're a woman of intense concentration!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Susan, what you're doing sounds quite a lot like detailed outlining to me, and I can see where NaNoWriMo would help with that.

Yes, everyone certainly does end up with their own process, and it amazes me how much they vary. I would never have guessed that I'd end up writing best by the seat of the pants, but outlines kill me. So yep, whatever gets the job done.

Anneke said...

Excellent idea, it means that it'll take you only one hour to write a flash fiction story for www.rammenas.nl. Ok, and another hour to revise it, but you can do that. Looking forward to it. :-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Anneke. Is that a hint?

Hmm, maybe I should write something...