Chapter Six - Daily Page Count24 August 2010
I know that young writers often worry about their output, whether they’re working hard enough and producing enough work. Well, many established authors worry about that too!!! Every writer is different. I think you should always focus on quality over quantity. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself! Below are some entries from my blog in which I talk about how much I write each working day, and what I recommend for other writers.
I wrote 12 pages yesterday, following on from 9, 10 and 11 the preceding three days. But today I settled for 12, rather than try and push forward for 13—why be greedy?!? Actually, I don’t worry too much about the actual page count these days. As long as I get in or around the 10 page mark, I’m happy. I tend to stop at the end of a chapter, or at a natural break. Like today, when I got to the 10 page mark, I was in the middle of a chapter—rather than stop there once I hit the 10 target, I carried on to the end of that chapter. I think it’s neater that way, although I didn’t always.
Back when I was first forcing myself to write regularly (after I’d finished university and made my first stab at writing full time at the ripe old age of 21), I was ultra strict on myself. I’d been writing sporadically for several years by that stage, but I knew I needed to knuckle down and do it daily if I was to progress. So I set myself a target of 5 pages a day, five days a week, Monday to Friday. I forced myself to meet that target every single day, no excuses. Six weeks into my new routine, I decided I could produce more than that, and doubled the target to 10 pages a day, which I’ve stayed at ever since (although I don’t do it every week now, given my changed circumstances and all the travelling I do).
I was using a typewriter at the time (I couldn’t afford a computer), and I would produce exactly the number of pages per day that I had set myself. If I got to page 10 and I was in the middle of a line, I’d roll in a new sheet and finish that line—but then I’d stop. It didn’t matter how keen I was to go on. That’s where I ended for the day. It was important to learn that discipline. To really progress as a writer, you have to teach yourself to write all the time, whether you feel motivated or not. Prior to this, I would write only when I was feeling particularly inspired. The trouble was, I didn’t feel inspired a whole lot of the time!!! I don’t think many writers are. No matter how much you love writing (and I DO love it), it’s still, when all is said and done, a job which requires a lot of hard work. There are very few mornings when I wake up chirper, rubbing my hands together, dying to get down to the computer!!! By making myself do a set amount every day, I got into the habit of writing whether I wanted to or not, and that’s crucial. As I’ve often said here, writing is a learning process—the more you put in, the quicker you progress. There are no tricks or tips that will make things easier for you. It all boils down to how much elbow grease you’re prepared to apply. Look at it this way—if you go school one day a week, you’re not going to learn very much, no matter how hard you concentrate—but if you go five days a week, you’re going to pick more up, simply by exposure to learning.
Nowadays, having served my apprenticeship (though I still feel as if I have a lot to learn—I know I’ve been a published author for ten years now, but I still feel like a new kid on the block!!!), I don’t feel like I have to be quite as disciplined as I was back then. If I come in a page or two short one day, I know that I can make it up the next. But that knowledge comes from having done it—not merely from self-confidence or arrogance. And even then, I try not to come in under the 10 page mark too often, because I know that an unwritten page today has to be written tomorrow—by putting things off, you only leave yourself with more work to do the next time you sit down to write.
One last thing before I sign off. If you’re a wannabe writer and you’re reading this and worrying abut how much I write compared to what you write—DON’T WORRY!!!! Every writer’s different. Most published writers don’t write anywhere near 10 pages a day. There are others who can write 20 or 30 pages a day. The quantity isn’t important—it’s the quality that matters. But you’ll only start hitting that quality if you apply yourself regularly and find your comfortable level. It might be 5 pages a day… or 2 ... or 1… or even just a half. The important thing is to do it regularly, as often as you can. Set aside a time for writing and stick to that time. If you do that, the work will mount up more swiftly than you think. For instance, if you write 2 pages a day at the weekend, that’s only 4 pages—but over a six month period, that will come in around the 100 page mark, and young writers will learn a LOT from ploughing their way through a hundred pages!!! Writing’s all about setting goals and looking at things in the long term. A modest goal like a page or two a couple of days a week is achievable for just about any writer—and if you keep doing that, over time your body of work will grow, and you’ll improve, and that’s how you’ll become a writer.
I had an interesting echat with a fan called Jenny recently. She was asking about my writing habits, how many words I write a day, how many she should be doing, how she could increase her word count, etc. I told her that quality is far more important than quantity—better to write 100 good words a day than 1000 bad words!!! Every writer has their own way of writing, and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. Some write a paragraph or two a day. Some write 10 pages. Some write 30 pages. It doesn’t matter, as long as you feel happy that you’re working to your maximum. If you’re a slow writer, and have to do lots of research, and are a stickler for detail, and a paragrpah represents a good day’s work—so be it. The important thing is to find your zone and stick to it. You’ll know if you’re underachieving, because you won’t be able to escape the knowledge that you’re not doing as much as you could do!!! Talk then moved on to editing. Jenny said: I agree about quality versus quantity. Most days, I work for time versus word count, which is partially due to schedule, but also because of doing re-writing/revisions. But when revising, how do you (or do you even) measure word amounts? For example, one chapter might take two hours to revise, because all I need is to polish it up. Another chapter may take 20 hours, because it’s almost like a new chapter, but more challenging because of what must stay or go. I easily think in terms of time, but of words… how?
This is a good question. As I’ve said before on this blog, when I’m doing a first draft, I try to write 10 pages a day. That’s what I feel comfortable with, and that’s what I stick to. It generally takes me between 3 and 4 hours to write 10 pages, which might not sound like a lot, but those are 3 or 4 hours of complete concentration. I know most people spend 8 or 9 hours a day doing a job, but most jobs allow you to slack off for a lot of that time, to operate on auto-pilot. You can’t do that when you’re writing. I always suggest to young writers to set a word count rather than a time limit when they write, i.e. to aim for one page a day rather than say you’re going to work for 4 hours. If you set yourself a time count, you might spend a lot of that time fidgeting and fiddling, and not get much work done. If you set yourself a word count, on the other hand, there’s no hiding—you can see exactly how much work you’ve done at the end of each day.
Editing is different. As Jenny notes, one chapter might require just a swift run-through. Another might require a complete re-write. My advice is to apply time limits rather than word limits when it comes to editing. After focusing on writing first drafts for a while (and I think it’s good to get a few first-draft stories or books under your belt before conentrating too much on the editing process), you’ll find your natural writing timespan, i.e. the average amount of time it takes you to do the number of words per day that you want to. For me, as I said above, I usually spend 3 to 4 hours to write ten pages (approx 3000 words). So, when I’m editing, I usually edit for that amount of time each day (although sometimes I do a bit more, if I get caught up in a story!). Some days I’ll get through ten or fifteen pages in those 3 or 4 hours—other days I’ll get through forty or sixty.
So, to summarise—I set a page target when doing a first draft, but a time target when editing. That works well for me and lets me maximise my potential and do the best job that I can. As I often stress on this blog, each writer is different, so my way won’t necessarily work best for YOU if you’re a young writer. But I think it’s a pretty good way, all things considered, so I’m happy to recommend that you give it a try. In the end, it’s all about trial and error, and you won’t know what works best for you until you give a few different approaches a go.
Flew home on Sunday and got back to work on Monday, firing into my final ever edit of The Thin Executioner. I sat down at my computer before 09.30 today, and didn’t finish until just after 20.35. “Wow!!” I hear you gasp. “An 11 hour day — impressive!!!” Well… yes, in one way it was an 11 hour day, but not really. I had lots of other things to attend to over the course of the day — phone calls to make, an interview for the RTE Morning Ireland radio show which is due to be broadcast on Friday, etc. In the end I did pretty much a full day’s work, but no more than I would have done in 5 or 6 hours most other days. I think it’s always important to be honest with yourself when you’re a writer. It’s easy to make your days seem fuller than they are — you can sit at a table, twiddling your thumbs, pushing papers around, not actually working… then step away from it 8 or 10 or 12 hours later and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. But inside you know when you’ve had a lazy day, and the only person you’re trying to fool is yourself. That’s why I prefer to work to a page count rather than work for a set number of hours every day. When I’m doing a first draft, I aim for 10 pages, five days a week. If I meet that target, I know I’ve done a good week’s work. If I don’t, it’s clear to see, and I can’t make any excuses to myself. Things aren’t quite as simple as that when I’m editing, as each edit takes a different amount of time, depending on what stage the book is at. But by the time of the last edit, I should be getting through anything between 80 and 100 pages a day — and today I did 90, so that was fine.
If you’re starting out as a writer — or even when you get established, as very few writers can write as swiftly as I can — you can set yourself a far lower target than 10 pages a day of new material. In fact, the target you set is fairly immaterial — it can be as little as half a page three nights a week, or one page every Saturday and Sunday — even less if you feel that’s too much. What matters most is meeting that target. Every time you do that, you’ve notched up a little victory, and all the little victories add up over time. The more you stick to your schedule, the more you’ll probably find yourself capable of doing, and it’s likely that you’ll automatically adjust your target upwards, maybe half a page five nights a week, or two pages every Saturday and Sunday. That might happen swiftly, or it might happen slowly — again, that’s not important. Meeting your target, getting the practise in, and being honest with yourself… that’s what matter most. Especially that last bit. Because honesty is the best policy.