The inequality of words


I am on Twitter most days and one of the things I see most frequently is the author’s daily word-count. In it a writer will simply say how many words they’ve written today, or this week, or whatever. And it’s great. It’s lovely to see how people are getting on, to be able to support people if they’re struggling and to be inspired by another’s successes.

These totals vary from a few hundred – Ben Aaronovitch, for example, typically commits 500-700 words a day, though these are, I hear, finished, publisher-ready words – up to a friend’s purple-patch of around 6,000.

What gets me, though, is that these numbers are all treated as equal, as equivalent, when in reality they tell us very little. They are often a stick with which to beat ourselves when the comparison is, so often, completely unfair.

How does someone write 6,000 words a day? By sitting down behind a desk and getting on with it. Great stuff. But if they’re doing that they can’t be earning money. Unless they’re professional writers they must have either a job or a support-network that enables them to take the time out to write such a prodigious number.


I have a small child, a part-time job and I get occasional freelance editorial work. These all take precedence over my real writing. I also have a spouse who works full-time and pays to send the smolrus to nursery two days a week so I can do my own thing. I’m very lucky – and yet my writing time is still horribly restricted. I could probably average about 5,000 words a week if free to get on with first-drafting.

But even that is a useless, artificial number: where in the first draft? At the beginning, when you’re filled with inspiration? At the end, when you’ve the joy of things coming together and you can see the finish-line? Or in the middle where every word has to be individually dredged up from the deep purgatory of your soul?

Not all words are equal.

If you’re out there with a full-time job, or with similar full-time commitments, it’s not fair on yourself to compete with these people who have the freedom to write at will. Averaging 100 words a day is fine – great, in fact. Anything better than zero is good. Hell, maybe you’re deleting vast swathes of experimental nonsense and your daily total is decisively negative. You’ve still accomplished something. Today you’re closer to the finished novel you envisaged than you were at the same point yesterday.

So by all means go and tell the world if things are going well. Just remember that numbers may be as much a reflection of privilege as of genius.

And make sure you share when things are a struggle too. Because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the real inspiration. The strength to get down a single word when the world is falling  around your shoulders will always stand with me as much as 15,000 done by someone who never has to leave the comfort of their study.

On progress

We are an impatient breed. We want results. We want success. And, no matter that we know these things come only after time and toil, we want them now. I see all the stages of editation and read-testing and weeping and re-editing – and repeat to fade – ahead of me. I still want it done. I want it done yesterday.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing. Impatience drives us. It pushes us to do the work, to get this stage done so we can move onto the next task. But it can be counterproductive. Take my one experience with an agent: hearing the changes she advised me to make, determining to crack through them quickly in order to appear professional, and thus producing a shoddy piece of work that ultimately disappointed us both.

There’s a certain trend in writing – most notably NaNoWriMo and its spin-offs – to equate quantity with quality. ‘How to write a bad book quickly’. I’m not knocking it – NaNoWriMo is great for that feeling of accomplishment and out of the raw material a greater thing can be spun. Just don’t mistake means for ends. Get the words down, yes, but don’t expect a publisher to bite your arm off for the rights. Not until you’ve gone through the work again – slower, with different eyes, with deeper soul.

And anyway, what about the pleasure? What about the joy? If you’re putting so much pressure on yourself to produce then you’re running the risk of sucking the life out of the work. And then there’s the paradoxical truth: if your primary motivation is output then you court laziness: the lowest-hanging fruit becomes even more attractive. No point thinking deeply or undertaking a difficult section as your word-count will fall. You become a typist: an infinite monkey, not a writer.

It also means that these challenging sections – where actual thought is required – can give you feelings of failure as you produce less that session. Let me tell you now: you’re writing even if you’re not at a computer. As you stare out of a bus window you’re writing. You’re writing when you do the washing up. Whenever you’re alone and underemployed you’re writing.

Targets are great. Targets – deadlines, self-imposed or external – can drive you forwards, can force you to focus and to get those damn words down. But there will be days when you don’t meet them. There will be days when you have to live your life. Don’t beat yourself up on days like this. It all adds to the rich tapestry of existence – and, ultimately, that will make you a deeper person and give your writing a greater scope. Find the balance.

Most of all you need to enjoy what you do. Otherwise you’ll never produce anything at all.