When the word gods bestowed upon a young Enheduanna the gift of cuneiform, they said unto her, “Thou shalt write for a minimum of three hours and produce at least 1253 words every day.”
That’s why aspiring authors everywhere still use those numbers as a benchmark and strive to boost their word counts and butt-in-chair time to those levels. In fact, there is no other way to become …
What’s that? You can’t find any mention of Enheduanna’s daily writing goals in the online accounts of history’s first named author?
Oh, well. If only it were that simple, huh?
The truth is, there is no hard-and-fast rule about what daily word count will make you a “successful” author. The truth is, it’s going to depend on several factors — your writing ability, your experience, and your writing goals.
Word Count Math
The math surrounding your word count goals is pretty simple, and it’s tied directly to your overall writing goals.
Let’s use National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as an example.
During NaNoWriMo, authors around the globe commit to writing the first draft of a novel during the month of November. For NaNoWriMo, “novel” is defined as a complete (though rough) work of fiction that contains at least 50,000 words.
So … 50,000 divided by 30 — the number of days in November — is 1667 words.
That means you must average 1667 words each day in November if you want to “win” the NaNoWriMo challenge.
If your goal is more grandiose or you write in a genre that demands more words per novel, you’ll have to aim higher — maybe 100,000 words for your first draft.
Given only the same month to write, your daily word-count goal would be about 3330. If you expand your timeframe to three months, then you’re looking at about 1100 per day.
Like most things in writing, daily word count is largely dependent on your goals.
When it comes to overall time commitment, though, you also need to consider …
How Long Does It Take to Write All Those Words?
If you’ve never tracked your daily word count or written on a regular schedule, those numbers may be daunting.
Just how long will it take you to write 1000 or 2000 or 3000 words, anyway?
Well, Chron says the average person can type 38-40 words per minute. Taking the upper limit there, we get 1000 words/40 words per minute = 25 minutes per 1000 words.
But that’s just to type the words. When you’re writing, you have to actually compose the sentences in your mind and then type them out. It may seem seamless to an observer, but there is significant overhead involved.
Add in stops and starts in the thought process, quick breaks to rest your eyes and hands and mind, and the fact that you may not be an expert typist (yet), and you can expect that time frame to at least double.
In fact, 1000 words per hour is pretty fast for writing fiction, at least in my experience.
To conquer NaNoWriMo, then, you’re likely going to have to devote a couple hours per day to the endeavor, or around 15 hours per week. That’s not far shy of a half-time gig, so it’s a big commitment.
The Case for Daily Writing
All these numbers might make your head swim, but they’re no reason to panic.
If the prospect of writing 1000 words per day or spending an hour or two at your writing desk outside your regular job seems daunting, just know that it gets easier.
The way it gets easier is the same way that every skill gets easier: with practice.
For me, the most beautiful part of NaNoWriMo is that it teaches you what’s possible. I’ve done three of them now and “won” each one, but I almost didn’t finish even one.
That first one, in 2014, was a real grind.
I had to find pockets of time to write that I’d never considered before, and I stressed out about hitting my word counts.
But I pushed through and, by the end of the month, knocking out 1000 words in a sitting wasn’t such a big deal. It had become my new normal — my new habit.
That’s the other big thing that NaNoWriMo taught me — if you keep practicing something for 30 days (or so), it’s much easier to keep it up. In fact, it may be easier to keep it up than to give it up.
These days, I don’t have to think much about word counts because I know I’ll be writing as much as I can each and every day. Not only do I have to in order to meet my overall writing goals, but I’m compelled to.
Daily writing has become a habit.
How Much do Famous Authors Write?
So that’s my math, and my opinion.
What are other writers doing on a daily basis? How much do they write?
Amanda Patterson at Writers Write put together a fascinating piece detailing the writing habits of 39 famous authors. You can read the whole thing here, but here are some interesting word-count tidbits from Amanda’s piece:
- Arthur Conan Doyle had a 3000-words-pers-day goal but noted that, “Anything is better than stagnation.”
- Arthur Hailey and Carol Shields set a minimum word count of 600 per day.
- Shelby Foote, a self-proclaimed slow writer, counted 500 words as a good day. He is joined in the 500-word club by Graham Greene and Michael Robotham.
- Michael Chricton and R.F. Delderfield sit at the top of the word-count heap with a whopping 10,000 words per day — each.
- Stephen King sits at 2000 words, though his specific goal is around 10 pages per day.
As you can see, the famous folks are all over the place in terms of word count, and you can see it in their book output, too.
King is one of the more prolific authors in several generations, while Foote once lamented that it took him 20 years to finish a book series.
How many words should you write per day?
It depends on your goals and your abilities, but the general answer is, “as many as you can.”
That, and writing every day, are the keys to success for most authors.
After all, you only get better by practicing, no matter what your profession.
How many words do you write each day? How much time do you spend writing? Let me know in the comments below.
Also published on Medium.