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I’ve noticed an interesting fact about my successful novelist friends.
Word count matters to them. A lot.
They may have a daily word count quota or a weekly quota. But they have a target.
When you have a target, you have a chance of hitting it. If you don’t have a target, you’re guaranteed not to hit it.
Word count matters because that’s what gets you to the finish line of your novel.
You can have all sort of amazing plot twists for your story. You can have brilliant characters. Snappy dialogue. A dazzling theme.
None of those will do you any good unless you get them on the page. As words.
A short novel is around 60,000 words. A medium length novel is around 90,000. A long one might run 120,000. An epic could go 200,000 or more.
You don’t pile up that many words without putting down some serious word count on a regular basis.
My friend James Scott Bell used to talk about the “nifty three-fifty.” The idea was that you sit down to write and you don’t stop until you’ve got 350 words.
That may not seem like a lot, hardly worth doing. But at least it’s a very doable target. I can drill out that many words in about 20 minutes at my usual pace for writing first draft copy. Even a slow writer can produce 350 words in an hour.
So a “nifty three-fifty” target is easy to hit every day.
The thing is that once you’ve written 350 words, you’ve got yourself rolling. That’s a page and a half. It’s enough that your scene will be heating up nicely. And you might very well go on to write the rest of the scene. 1000 words. Maybe 2000.
The “nifty three-fifty” is a way to underpromise and overdeliver. It’s a great goal for a novelist just starting out, still trying to shoehorn some writing time into a busy day.
If you write 350 words, 5 days per week, for a full year, you’ll have 91,000 words at the end of the year. That’s the first draft of a typical novel. That’s doable and it’s pretty decent production for a new writer.
If you’re a professional novelist writing books on deadline, then you need to shoot higher than that. Typically, you’re writing one or more books per year and you have to meet the schedule laid out in the contract. If you don’t, very bad things happen to your book and to your career.
This means you need to write the first draft in a few months or maybe even a few weeks. So you have to put out a certain number of words every day. If you miss one day, then you need to make up for it later on.
Say your book is targeted to be 90,000 words long and say you write 5 days per week.
- If you give yourself a quota of 2,000 words per day, you’ll be done in 9 weeks.
- If your quota is 3,000 words per day, you’ll be done in 6 weeks.
- If your quota is 5,000 words per day, you’ll wrap it up in 18 working days, which is less than 4 weeks.
I’ve known writers with quotas of 7,000 or even 10,000 words per day.
All of those are reasonable goals for professional novelists whose main job is writing.
What’s the right quota for you? That depends on a lot of things, so there’s no easy answer. Different writers write at different natural speeds, so it really doesn’t make sense to set an unreachably high quota.
Look at how many words you produced in the last month. Did you feel like you were productive or were you slacking off?
If you felt productive, then divide that word count by 20 and set that as your daily goal for next month. (There are 22 working days in a typical month, and you have to figure that you can’t work every day.)
If you were slacking off, then make your daily word count 350.
In a month, review how well you did. Maybe you’ll decide to change your quota if it was too easy or too hard for you.
This is very important: You need to track your progress.
You can do that any way you like. Your word processor should be able to tell you the total words in your manuscript at any given time. Write that down every day.
I recommend saving it in a spreadsheet that shows you the date and the total word count. Then you can easily subtract today’s total from yesterday’s to work out how many new words you wrote today.
You can also track how many minutes you worked each day. Then you’ll know roughly how many words you generate per hour.
Why do all this?
- To keep you motivated to keep writing.
- To let you make predictions for the future.
The motivation part is clear. If you promise yourself you’ll hit your word count quota every day, you’re more likely to actually do so.
The prediction part is important after you eventually get published. If an editor buys a multi-book deal and you’ve only written the first book, she’ll want to know how long it’ll take you to write the other books. If you know that you can reliably write a certain word count day, you can make a reasonable estimate. (You should add on some padding so your estimate is conservative, because you really don’t want to ever miss a deadline.)
A word count quota is a powerful tool for helping you generate your first draft.
It’s not so useful when you’re editing, because a lot depends on how much revision you’re doing. When I’m editing, instead of setting a word count quota, I like to set a target of a certain number of scenes per day.
If a novel has 100 scenes and you can edit 2 scenes per day, then you can figure on being done in 50 working days.
All of this assumes that your life is normal. If you’re on vacation or it’s a holiday or you’re gone to a conference or you’ve just had a disaster in your life, then you probably aren’t going to hit your quota.
That’s fine. Give yourself a little space for the abnormal times in your life.
But during normal times, a good solid word count quota will make you amazingly productive.
Try it for the next month and see.