Sunday, January 26, 2014

How Many Words Did You Write Today?

Many years ago TG was having a conversation with his pal writer Henry Allen. We were
discussing a mutual writer friend who was working on a novel and had been working on it for some time. TG asked Henry how far along he was on it, how many words he had written. Henry laughed. “He says he has no idea how many words he has written, that he doesn’t think that sort of thing is important. Bullshit. Every writer knows how many words he has done, down to the single digits.” TG agrees. Every professional writer TG knows keeps a careful word count. Words are more precious than gold and watching them mount up is little different than watching Scrooge McDuck bathe in his basement coin vault. (When TG was a lad he used to daydream about Scrooge rolling in these coins. Could it be true? A quick internet search reveals that to replicate the vault would take 32.6 billion dollars in coins.)

A novelist knows that a “regular” novel should be between 80,000 and 120,000 words, though agents and publishers these days discourage more than 100,000 words because of printing costs. That’s the number you aim for, and every day after work you tote up a tally so you can see how far you’ve come. You think “a third of the way, half the way, three-quarters there,” and are solaced by how far along you are, or upset at how far you have to go. It’s kind of like if you’re on a diet: every day you step on the scale and assess the results.

The other day TG was trolling the book blogs and came upon one of Keith Thompson’s entries on the subject. TG is going to lift a big chunk of the blog and add some stats he dug up on his own. Keith Thomson is a thriller writer (among other types of books). Thriller Guy reviewed two of his books, Once a Spy and Twice a Spy and thought they were terrific. Here’s Keith.

I’ve noticed a lot of writers posting their daily word output on social media. The single common denominator of these posts, unfortunately, has been word counts that exceed my own. In hope of feeling better, I compiled some data on the typical daily productivity of writers I admire. What follows is a selection that provides a representative sample. Bear in mind that no heed is given to the relative merits of such numbers, and, as Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Speaking of Twain, every morning he would get up and eat a hearty breakfast, then go to his study to write, staying there until about five, except in case of emergency—if anyone needed him, they had to sound a horn. The result was 1,000 words per day.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes 2,000 words a day without fail, even on holidays. And that’s with no adverbs.
Lee Child uses word counts as mile markers. His record is 4000 words in a single day. His low is 600. His average: 1800. It takes him 80-85 working days to complete a book, but not 80-85 consecutive days, because he tends to (not?) write for more than four days in a row.
Trollope, too, wrote by volume. He put his pocket watch on his desk next and produced 500 words every thirty minutes for three hours—a daily total of 3,000 words.
In contrast, Hemingway clocked in at just 500.
Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy—670,000 words—in eleven years. That’s about 250 words per working day.
Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is 370,000 words long. Writing it took him eleven years, of which he says, “My children grew up thinking that was all I did: write, and never finish, a book called A Man in Full.”  The average: 135 words per day.
Jack London: 1500 words per day, every day. Before breakfast. Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle were both 3,000-words-per-day guys. Anne Rice hits 5,000. The Babe Ruth of this category is Michael Crichton, who routinely hit the daily ten grand mark.
Thankfully we also have Graham Greene, who counted each word, and would stop for the day at 500, even if he were in the middle of a sentence. Maya Angelou, who each day writes about nine pages, but saves just three. James Joyce, who proudly considered the completion of two perfect sentences a full day of work. And Dorothy Parker, who frequently wrote as few as five words—of which, she said, she changed seven.
TG here. TG would like to add that Twain, on arising in the morning, would have a shot of whiskey before brushing his teeth. His wife had strict instructions to have the shot in his bathroom when he climbed out of bed. (TG would like to remind readers that Twain is a major character in the Pastmaster series of novels by Allen Appel. Find him in Twice Upon a Time, now available as a Kindle, as are all five of the series.)
Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, wrote a million words a year, which is about thirteen pages each working day. Victor Hugo wrote twenty pages each day.  John Grisham wrote The Pelican Brief in one hundred days, and The Client in six months.  Samuel Johnson often produced forty printed pages in a day.

And some writers are markedly slow.  More on Greene. According to the legendary Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda, Graham Greene “without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked like an attempt to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, wrote over the next hour or so exactly five hundred words.”

Rudyard Kipling worked in the middle of the day, from ten until four.  John O’Hara would write all night, then would rise in the late afternoon.  Anne Perry says, “I work probably eight or nine hours a day, six days a week.”  After much procrastination, Harold Robbins would lock himself in a hotel room, hide the clocks, and work round-the-clock to exhaustion.

And King has now recanted this oft quoted fact, the 2,000 words a day, saying that 1,000 words is more like it and that he doesn’t really write every single day. But the guy has a roomful of excellent books to prove his massive output. See below for another King description of his output.

King works on his new novel in the mornings. “Afternoons are for naps and letters.  Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.  Basically, mornings are my prime writing time.” 
From an interview with Neil Gamin, King writes every day. If he doesn't write he's not happy. If he writes, the world is a good place. So he writes. It's that simple. “I sit down maybe at quarter past eight in the morning and I work until quarter to twelve and for that period of time, everything is real. And then it just clicks off. I think I probably write about 1200 to 1500 words. It's six pages. I want to get six pages into hardcopy.”

So how many words do you write or try to write each day? And how do you feel if you make your goal, or don’t make your goal? TG would like to point out that this blog entry comes in at 1300 words. Just about exactly what Stephen King shoots for. Unfortunately, they’re not words that will be in the current novel that TG is working on. But that’s another blog entry.


  1. Good blog. I have always been caught up in two big syndromes. First, I love to see the word count climbing. Second, even though I believe good revising is mostly a matter of cutting, I hate to see the word count dwindle. I believe shorter is better, but I HATE to see it get shorter.
    > I've found that when I'm focusing full time, e.g. during a week at the Beach in the winter, I can do 2,000 words or so each day for three or four days running. I doubt I could do any more than that. Ordinarily, I consider 1,500 to 2,000 words a very good day, but that leaves the tank empty.
    > Another problem is that I've always been a fast, journalistic sort of writer, so my first drafts tend to be at least okay. The result is a tendency to be too easily satisfied with whatever the day has produced. I may edit and cut it, but I rarely just throw it away and start over.

  2. This in from Dan Stashower, author of The Hour of Peril, a terrific non-fiction thriller about Lincoln. It just came out in paperback.

    1000 words is a good day for me, but I always try to measure that as a day in which I add 1000 words to the total of the manuscript, even if that same day includes cutting 500 words from the previous day. I often don't make it, but when I do I feel good and have a drink. I also have a drink when I don't make it, but I don't feel good about it."

  3. This from Robert Masello, a writer of excellent thrillers. "For the record, when I'm in the midst of a novel that's going reasonably well, I shoot for - and usually get -- 1000 words a day. The only time I get more is when I approach the ending. Then things can speed up, either from the desire on my part to get it over with, or because-- is it possible? -- I feel a sense of excitement when writing the climax."

  4. What a wonderful article; Thank you so much for this and for the interesting comments. Now I feel less guilty although I know from experience that some books take years to write.