Since I started writing I have been interested in the process and methodology of successful writers. I find other writer’s habits, particularly those of my favourite authors, intriguing, and often the way in which some writers approach their work is downright fascinating. For example, I love how Beryl Bainbridge describes beginning each novel with ‘ nice new notebook’ that somehow always ended up full of shopping lists or with ‘bits torn off to light the gas stove’; how she would wear white cotton gloves to write in to keep nicotine from staining her fingers, his she would sart writing in her notebook on the kitchen table then migrate first to to the typewriter on the first floor of her house and then up to her ‘ugly’ word processor which she kept hidden at the top of the house; how she admitted to that when writing she didn’t dress or wash, behaviour that I am sure is not unusual with writers, though many would not admit it so freely; and how she would fuel her writing with a diet of hot water and gelatine, cigarettes, potatoes and ‘something really dreadful, like a sausage. Being a writer, as Beryl Bainbridge stated so perfectly, ‘It’s not a normal sort of life at all.’*
An idiosyncrasy that most prose writer’s share to one degree or another is an obsession with word counts. We are slaves to the numbers, be it the word limit dictated by one of the multitude of short fiction competitions, or the arbitrary ideal of a neat round 100,000 words for a contemporary novel. Perhaps the most anxiety making figure that haunts most writers (after the unpaid income tax bill) is that of the word count. Most of us have a number of words that we deem sufficient to keeping a piece of work ticking along, a figure that, when not achieved, can leave us feeling grumpy and resentful toward whatever aspect of our lives has dragged us away from the page. As most writers are expert procrastinators, it is towards our own selves that such ire must most often be directed.
Over on Writers Write, Amanda Patterson recently blogged concerning ‘The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors.’ The table compiled there, which I reproduce below, is a fascinating insight into the comparative daily outputs of some of the most well know writers of the last hundred years or more. What quickly becomes apparent is that there are no right or wrong answers here, but merely what best suits the individual author.
Looking at my own process, I have had periods where I have aimed to write 1,000 words or more each day, but recently having shorter stretches of time each day within which to right, my natural stamina has adjusted to about 700-800 words. Sometimes, on those rare days when I have nothing else to do but write, I will exceed that amount, but even then, I have become a firm follower of Hemingway’s approach regards the well: ‘I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that feed it.’ Just today, working on novel #2, I stopped myself halfway through a scene, mid-dialogue. I know what the next line of speech is, I know what is going to happen next in the scene, so that will provide my first bucket of words for tomorrow. 700 words or so, at least for now, feels about the right amount for me. I get up early, before anyone else is awake and I try my best to get most, if not all of them written before i hear the footsteps of my four year old on the landing outside my study. It doesn’t always work out that well, but if I can get words on the page, even a handful, every single day, that’s a little step closer to a finished text.
Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t love to be able to crack out 3,000 words a day like Iain Banks or Arthur Conan Doyle did, let alone the frankly impossible 10,000 words of Michael Crichton or R. F. Delderfield, but, for now at least, I’m happy with beating Hemingway by a couple of hundred words each day. Let’s face it, it’s the only way I’m ever likely to best such a great writer. But, joking aside, it’s not really the counting of words that’s important but rather the writing of words that count, because, really, that’s how each and every story around the world has been written: just one word at a time.
That said, I’m off to get some sleep in preparation for tomorrow’s visit to the well. Feel free to use the comments below to share your favoured word count and the reasons why you favour such a figure, or any other word count related gubbins.
*Writers at work: Beryl Bainbridge, The Agony and The Ego – The Art and Strategy of Fiction Writing Explored, edited by Clare Boylan (Penguin, 1993)