How Many Words a Day?
by James Thayer
How many words should we write each day? What should be our pace? Too fast, and it might be sloppy. Too slow, and we’ll never finish our novels. “The secret of becoming a writer,” Jerry Pournelle says, “is that you have to write.” But how much each day?
A look at the output of successful writers might offer a guide. Let’s assume a double-spaced manuscript page contains 300 words.
R.F. Delderfield, the English author of family sagas, wrote 33 pages each day, and he wrote until four o’clock in the afternoon. If he finished a novel at three o’clock, he rolled a clean sheet of paper into his typewriter, and began the next novel, and worked until quitting time. He credited a daily swim in the English Channel for his prodigious output.
Another English writer, Charles Hamilton—who used twenty-five pseudonyms, the most famous being Frank Richards—was so prolific that George Orwell accused him of being a team of writers. Hamilton responded, “In the presence of such authority, I speak with diffidence; and can only say that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am only one person, and have never been two or three.” He wrote a million and a half words a year, or about twenty pages each working day (assuming 250 working days in a year).
Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, wrote a million words a year, which is about thirteen pages each working day. Victor Hugo wrote twenty pages each day. John Grisham wrote The Pelican Brief in one hundred days, and The Client in six months. Samuel Johnson often produced forty printed pages in a day.
But these writers seem slow compared to the Greek scholar Didymus Chalkenteros, who wrote 3,500 books. He lived during the time of Cicero, and he was known as Bronze Guts due to his unrelenting word production. P.G. Wodehouse wrote ninety books, twenty film scripts, and more than thirty plays and musical comedies. Ezra Pound wrote eight books and a hundred magazine articles in six years, between 1908 and 1914.
Most authors are less frenetic. Jack London wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day. Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, “and only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.” He finishes a 180,000-word novel in three months. He says, “If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.” Raymond Chandler agreed: “The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”
And some writers are markedly slow. According to the legendary Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda, Graham Greene “without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked like an attempt to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, he wrote over the next hour or so exactly five hundred words.” Greene counted each word, and would stop for the day at 500, even if he were in the middle of a sentence.
Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full has about 370,000 words, and it took him eleven years to write it. “My children grew up thinking that was all I did: write, and never finish, a book called A Man in Full.” That many words divided by that many working days in a year indicates he averaged 134 words a day.
J.R.R. Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings as one novel, which contains about 670,000 words. It took him eleven years, which is 245 words each working day, or a little less than a typed page. Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Edmund Morris writes about 300 words a day, and says he will labor long over a single sentence. Seven years passed between Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and his next novel, Something Happened.
Many authors have other jobs or they run a household. When do they find the time to write? Wallace Stegner wrote four hours early in the morning, then went off to teach, first at Wisconsin, then at Harvard, then Stanford. T.S. Eliot worked full time at a bank. His biographer, Peter Ackroyd, says, “He would try to rise two hours earlier than was strictly necessary in order to concentrate upon his own writing, and then he would travel to the bank.” Stephen King works on his new novel in the mornings. “Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time.”
Rudyard Kipling worked in the middle of the day, from ten until four. John O’Hara would write all night, then would rise in the late afternoon. Anne Perry says, “I work probably eight or nine hours a day, six days a week.” After much procrastination, Harold Robbins would lock himself in a hotel room, hide the clocks, and work round-the-clock to exhaustion.
What to make of all this? Some writers write fast. Some slowly. Some write early in the day, some later, some all day, some at night. Maybe the great boxing writer A.J. Liebling summed it up best: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.”
If you don’t yet know your writing pace, here are some thoughts. First, for many authors, on any given day it is easier not to write than it is to write because we find writing to be hard work. George Orwell said, “Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Both Norman Mailer and Edna Ferber compared writing a novel to giving birth. The sentiment isn’t unanimous. The movie producer Irving Thalberg once asked, “What's this business of being a writer? It's just putting one word after another.”
Writing your novel will be easier if you draft a schedule. A plan--setting your time schedule for the phases of your work--will organize and prod you, and it will increase the odds you complete the novel. “The true test of whether you’re a real novelist isn’t that you’re working on a book,” says Raymond Obstfeld. “It’s that you finished one.”
Some writers believe the more extensive the plan, the more likely it will aid you in getting started and moving along with your novel. For others a detailed plan is too easy to fall behind, and then discard in frustration. A plan that works well is sparse and flexible, something like this:
Initial plotting: one or two weeks.
Research and further plotting: four to six weeks.
Drafting outline: two to three weeks.
Writing the novel: one page (300 words) a day. Finish the novel one year after starting the first manuscript word. If you work full time, 300 words a day is a reasonable goal.
Editing the completed manuscript: about one month.
Not only will a schedule prompt you to steadily produce words, it will—when the undertaking at times seems overwhelming—offer a liberation date.
This schedule is just a starting place, something to think about. Not all writers would agree with it. Stephen King believes “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and—for me, at least—the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of sever sunspot activity.”
So after some experimentation, you’ll find your own writing pace, and the time of day that works best for you, but—above all--the first step to being a writer is to get going. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The one certain thing is you must write, write, write every day.”
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).