How Important Is Word Count? 7 Writers Discuss Their Output


Anyone who’s read my previous columns exploring different facets of the writing life knows how interested I am in writing routines, rituals and habits. This month I’m investigating how much writers write and just how important a daily (or weekly) word count is to each author.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones, who recently released Mongrels via William Morrow, was until recently known for releasing multiple books per year. As he explained on a recent episode of the This Is Horror Podcast, he slowed down his publication schedule after his agent and editor advised he make each release more of an event, but This Is Horror co-host Bob Pastorella reckons it was to give everyone else a chance. Here’s what Stephen had to say about his time spent writing each day:

If I'm able to steal a straight hour per day, that's a complete treat. Usually I have to cobble that hour together from two or three smaller chunks of time. Then once or twice a week, I can hide away for two or three hours, just write.

So next time you think you don’t have enough time to write, remember that Stephen Graham Jones often has less than a single hour to get the work done. If you’re struggling to fathom how you might get the work done in, say, twenty-five minutes, check back to the article I wrote last week on the Pomodoro Technique. As to how each hour writing session translates into words and whether this is important Stephen said:

I’d guess [each session is] two-thousand or so words. But I worry more about getting to the next part of the story than the word count.

Margaret Atwood

I shared Margaret Atwood’s advice on dealing with self-doubt a couple of months ago, now I’d like to take a closer look at her daily output. She said in an interview with The Daily Beast that she writes between one thousand and two thousand words daily which enables her to feel like she’s had a productive day. This suggests a certain level of importance to the word count itself. When asked in the same interview if she planned books out ahead of time she said, “Never map it out. Just get into it. Jump in, like going swimming.”

Kristi DeMeester

Kristi DeMeester’s latest release Split Tongues, a limited edition chapbook from Dim Shores, has already sold out, which is testament to Kristi’s popularity and excellence. Fortunately she’s also published a variety of short stories in esteemed publications such as Black Static, Shimmer and Shock Totem. She’s completed her first novel and has had a short story commissioned by Richard Thomas’s forthcoming Gamut magazine, so the good news is, if you missed out on Split Tongues, there are plenty of opportunities now and in the near future to pick up Kristi’s work. Kristi explains her writing routine and daily word goals.

Last summer I set a daily word goal for myself. One thousand words a day at minimum. I usually make the word count by writing in short bursts. One hundred words here. Two hundred and fifty there. Answer an email or do something else in between until I hit that one thousand. Some days, I don't make it, but most days I do. I usually allow myself one day off per week to recharge my batteries. I lapsed a bit this month, but I'm back on the routine now. I'm trying not to beat myself up too much about those three and a half weeks off. Even if I have no new ideas or I'm not working on a lengthy project, I do my best to force myself to sit down and get the work in. It's tough with a full time job and a toddler and a husband, but I squeeze those hours in however I can. In the early morning or late night when no one else is awake yet. Stolen minutes while I'm waiting in line. Wherever and however I can.

Stolen minutes and short writing sessions bring to mind the previously mentioned Pomodoro Technique, but sometimes a more stop-start approach can make resuming work tricky. Not for Kristi though: “I can usually jump back in pretty easily. I've found I need those periodic breaks. It helps me muse and get phrasing just right.” Often Kristi will write 250 words and then reward herself, checking email or Facebook. It’s “like a mini award for getting to my goal.”

Perhaps the key to how long one should write is how long you can sustain concentration. Kristi’s method is perfect for her attention span. “My concentration lasts for fifteen, twenty minutes tops. On good days, I can go thirty without stopping or getting distracted. My concentration improves if I'm not writing at home but somewhere else. A coffee shop or a cafe.”

Anne Rice

According to a number of articles, including an article exploring word count on The Writers Roundtable, Anne Rice writes five thousand words per day. While I have not discovered anything directly from Anne verifying a specific word count, she has spoken and written at length about her writing method and process. In a 2003 blog post entitled ‘Messages from the Beach 2003’ Anne explained just how meticulous she is:

There are no drafts. There is intensive editing. And that's the way it is. You are not presented with a single sentence that has not been read and re-read, and read again and again.

The process of carefully sculpting each sentence of her story appears a bigger priority than any number of words written. This should be unsurprising given, by her own admission, she’s been writing most of her adult life and “very steadily since about 1970.” After receiving final edits from her copy editor Anne says, “I may even add lines or even paragraphs in ink. I read every single solitary word. I re-edit, exhaustively. Then and only then, do I return the manuscript.”

When it comes to writing itself, Anne’s advice—from a 2009 blog post—is simple:

Write. Writing is what makes a writer, nothing more and nothing less. … Go where the pleasure is in your writing. Go where the pain is. Write the book you would like to read. Write the book you have been trying to find but have not found. But write. And remember, there are no rules for our profession. Ignore rules.

Max Booth III

If you’re a regular LitReactor reader you’ll know Max is a columnist here. He’s stirred up a fair bit of controversy over the years with provocative columns such as ‘Every Stephen King Novel Summarized in 140 Characters or Less’, attracting praise and admiration from LitReactor readers worldwide: “The writer of this article is an asshole”. In addition to his LitReactor columns, Max is the co-founder of Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. He’s also a damn fine fiction writer. Here’s what he had to say about his daily word count:

I usually feel awful if I don't get at least one thousand words in a day. I'm always working on multiple books at once—not including internet articles—so what I typically get accomplished in a series of small word counts adds to each project in any given week. So three hundred to five hundred words on this book, one thousand on this book, twenty-two on this other pain in the ass … I don't have a specific target each week, but if I don't have something FINISHED by the end of the week—a short story, a novel draft, an article, whatever—then I feel like shit. FYI I constantly feel like shit.

S.P. Miskowski

S.P. Miskowski is a two-time Shirley Jackson Award finalist and NEA Fellowship recipient. Like Kristi DeMeester, she has recently released a limited edition chapbook from Dim Shores. The good news is it hasn’t sold out yet, so quickly head on over to their online shop and pick up Stag in Flight. I’ll be waiting … All right, now let’s get to S.P. Miskowski’s writing process: 

When I have work in progress I like to meet an objective each day, aiming for a moment or a shift in the narrative. As a rule, I write every day but I don’t set a minimum daily word count.

Every story demands its own structure and point of view. If I’m struggling with the POV, no matter how much material I produce it won’t work. So I might start and stop writing a few times until the POV seems right. Then I’ll work steadily each day until the story’s finished.

I’ll probably revise it four or five times, maybe more. I’ll ask at least one writer I trust to read it and give me notes. Then I’ll revise and proofread and if necessary revise again before submitting the story to an editor. This isn’t always the way I work but it’s typical of the way I work. I keep an eye on the length of the story to meet submission guidelines. I don’t aim to write the same number of words each day.

Rich Hawkins

Rich Hawkins is the author of the British Fantasy Award nominated The Last Plague, in addition to its follow-ups The Last Outpost and The Last Soldier. Most recently The Plague Winter was published as part of Infected Books’ ‘Year of the Zombie’ series. Here’s what Rich had to say about his daily word count:

I try to write a minimum of one thousand words a day, but some days there just isn’t enough time to write that much and I have to settle for a few hundred. My typical daily word count can vary from two hundred words to over two thousand. To me it’s very important to write every day, even if it’s just to keep the gears oiled. If I don’t get down what I feel is enough words, it often affects my mood and makes me grumpy—well, grumpier than usual. My wife is witness to that. However, the upside of that is if I have a good writing day it puts me in a good mood.

Writing’s weird, man. Or maybe it’s just me.


So there it is, thoughts from seven of the best on word counts. As for me, it’s important I write fiction each day in addition to whatever else needs writing. I frontload the day with fiction writing so that I know I’ve achieved something even if the rest of the day doesn’t go to plan. I’ll brew a cup of bulletproof coffee, or a pot of green and black tea, then set to work for fifty to sixty minutes, using a timer. After the time limit is up I’ll either take a five to fifteen-minute break before setting the timer for a further fifty to sixty-minute writing session, or I’ll get on with other tasks, satisfied I’ve hit my minimum writing time for the day. On some glorious days I’ll write fiction for much of the working day and hit thousands of words. On the lesser days it may just be a case of five hundred to one thousand words. The important thing is that there are more words on the page than there were at the start of the day (unless I’m editing, but hey that’s a different story).

Over to you, how concerned with daily word counts are you and how much do you write each day? See you in the comments! 

Michael David Wilson

Column by Michael David Wilson

Michael David Wilson is a professional writer and editor. He is the Managing Editor and Owner of the popular UK horror website, podcast and small press, This Is Horror. He is the founder of the ancestral health website and podcast, Paleo Minds. A qualified ESL Teacher and graduate of The University of Warwick’s English Literature and Creative Writing Programme, you can connect with Michael on Twitter @WilsonTheWriter.

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Comments

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 3, 2016 - 6:10pm

Anywho, with internet back to normal. (Don't rent this motel, just don't.) Word count in the initial draft stage is less important than the "Deliberate paragraph." I mainly focus on getting the story finished, and consider a novella later if I have enough story from my short story in order to work with it.

BrianAsman's picture
BrianAsman from San Diego, CA is reading The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker June 3, 2016 - 6:52pm

Interesting article, the through-line seems to be about 1000 words for most people.  Which is what I usually aim for, with varying degrees of success.  I liked Rich Hawkin's statement about writing every day.  While I often miss one or two days a week, I do make it a goal to write every day.  If not, it's easy to let myself get distracted and miss another day, then another, and suddenly I'm pulling the same old "I'll write when I have more time" BS.

Istebe Ruberte's picture
Istebe Ruberte June 4, 2016 - 2:08am

Great article. I'm with Max Booth III on this. I need to see my numbers in order to not feel like crap. I need to write at least a thousand words to realize today was a day worth living. 

Excuses on my working progress english

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 4, 2016 - 11:14am

Interesting, I usually aim for about 600-700 words.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel June 7, 2016 - 6:14am

I'm too flighty of mind, which leads me to write huge lump sums on some days and then nothing on others. I usually run about 15 - 20 pages on some days and then nothing on others.

I spend a lot of time spinning my mind into a frenzy of emotion and then release it in that one big flood.

But what I do promise myself is that I produce something every week. I hate routine and fight against it. I write when I feel like writing so it never seems like work.

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck June 7, 2016 - 10:35am

My very loose rule is to do as much as I possibly can.  Some days I'll sit down to write and hours will go by with me noticing.  But other times - like the experience I had two days ago - I was maybe two hundred words in and just went, "I can't do this.  Not today."  Writing - at its worst - can be a miserable process for lots of reasons, but I've always found it's the good kind of misery, that you go through and grow as a result of it.  But when the process of writing makes me flat-out unhappy in the moment, it goes against everything I do it for in the first place.  Fortunately, that rarely happens, but it's also why I've kept the rule to simply "do as much as I can."  It's also a mindset that has helped train me to accept certain personal shortcomings (that is, in my everyday life).  Somtimes, I just don't have the capacity or ability to do something, and that's okay.  I used to really beat myself up over not writing, but self-compassion can go a long way (and even help enhance the better days).  Going a day without writing doesn't make someone (*ahem* me) a failure; rather, failing to alleviate myself of a burden I'm putting on myself makes me a failure.  So I cut myself some slack every now and then.