Successful Writing: A Weekly Quota of Words

I’ve been re-reading The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell.

The following statement got my attention:

“There is one discipline that stands above all else in the quest for writing success… It is the single biggest reason I was published in the first place, and have produced the books I have. It is, simply, this:




The daily recording of the number of words you write is an invaluable incentive to get your work done. But set your goals on a weekly basis…If something comes up on one day that prevents you from writing your quota, you just make it up later in the week.”

Quota of Words Written or Hours Written?

I love the idea of setting a quota. However, the quota of “words written” only works for me for rough drafts, when you’re pulling words out of thin air and creating new pages of your novel. So little time, though, is spent writing that first draft.

Before that come hours of planning and writing character sketches and researching settings. After the rough draft stage, there are months of revision. Some days you might proofread five whole chapters. Other days, your entire writing day might be spent figuring out what’s wrong with your first chapter. Several more days might be needed to fix it. How many words would that be?

For those reasons, I like a quota of hours spent writing (instead of words written). My only restriction is that the time must be spent on my current work-in-progress. Not blogging, or reading writer websites, or Twittering, or being on Facebook, or answering email, or anything except working directing on the new book.

Nuts and Bolts of Setting Quotas

If you try setting a quota, keep track of time using a timer. I use a kitchen timer, but you can use one on your computer. When I am ready to actually start work, I hit the “start” button. I turn off the timer if I get up for a drink of water or to answer the phone. I only log in the minutes actually spent working. Each time I write sixty minutes, I log in another hour in my little notebook.

My quota right now is to average four hours per day, five days per week. That’s a quota of twenty hours per week. If I don’t get it done M-F, I make up for it on the weekend. (Last weekend we had a packed schedule that included much driving, so I finished my quota for the week in the car. The day I watch my baby granddaughter, I write before she gets up, when she plays, while she naps, and later that night.)

Success Rate

Do I always make the twenty hours quota? No, but I get close, and sometimes I go over. But the increase in writing hours is what amazes me. Before I decided to do a quota system, I was writing as much as I could (I thought). I worked around interruptions and marketing and babysitting and volunteer work, always believing that the writing was the most important thing.

But how much writing was I actually getting done? Maybe four or five hours per week. That’s right–per week. No wonder I was so frustrated!

Prioritizing Made Easier

With the quota system, knowing that it’s Thursday and you still have a lot of hours to work before you make your weekly quota helps you say “no” to a lot of other things that tempt you. It helps you get started earlier. It’s fun to mark off the hours and add them up in your notebook. It helps me not get behind earlier in the week too, as I don’t like working through the weekend.

But mostly, at the end of the week now, I love seeing how much progress I’ve made on a novel. I like how the book lives on in my mind after I finish for the day. Because I am finally spending enough actual time writing again, ideas and solutions routinely come to mind when away from my desk.

Set a Reasonable Quota

If you have a day job and/or have small children around every day, don’t copy my quota numbers. Be realistic about how much time you can set as a weekly quota. Don’t set yourself up for failure.

On the other hand, don’t aim too low either. You can write before kids get up, during naps, after they go to bed, while cooking supper, on lunch hours at the office, sitting in a car in the parking lot, in doctors’ waiting rooms, in bleachers…wherever and whenever. I know because I’ve done it. Push yourself to claim time for writing that maybe now you are wasting.

Your quota is personal to you, based on your unique circumstances. Don’t compare your quota to anyone else’s.

Commit to It

Your quota won’t help unless you make a commitment to doing it. If you need someone to hold you accountable for your weekly quota, find someone.

Reward yourself for the weeks you make your quota–which will be more often than not. Reward yourself on any given day that you meet your daily quota as well.

The more I read about successful writers with busy lives, the more I run into this idea of the weekly quota. It’s a tried-and-true strategy. It’s worth trying!

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