That damned daily writing quota

I hate thinking about my daily writing quota.

Most writers live and publish by a quota, a magical number of words or pages of work they produce each day. Supposedly, Stephen King writes ten pages a day, every day, no matter what. Hemingway was a little more reasonable, at 500 words per day. 

The truth is, I don’t actually have a quota, not if one insists on the notion of measuring effort in terms of something solid and concrete, like numbers of words. My quota is more elastic, more ephemeral if you will: it’s time spent writing. I write for two hours each day in the late morning, no matter what. (Okay, sometimes I’ll write for 45 minutes a day, or 20, but those days are rare.)

The problem with my type of quota is that I’m a word worrier. I can spend the entire two hours nibbling around the edges of a single paragraph. The next day, I might strike that paragraph and start over. With this method, productivity, as you might imagine, is quite the wild card.

I do have occasional spells when the writing flows–I bound through the pages effortlessly, like Emily Dickinson’s frigate on a following sea. But those happy periods of clear sailing are inevitably followed by a dead calm, and I get bogged down on a single page for days. Or a single sentence,

“Just keep going!” When we’re stalled, this is the sage advice we get from most writing teachers, critique groups, and professional writers, But so far I’ve been incapable of doing that.  Sometimes I do leave a placeholder, something like, “Brilliant description of character goes here, but don’t do a generic description dump. Must be something fresh that will make the reader’s eyes widen in recognition.” One can take that kind of thing too far, however. You can wind up with an entire novel of placeholders, and then where would you be? Exactly where you started.

Well, now I’ve depressed myself simply by writing about my quota. What about you? What is your daily writing quota, when and where do you write, and how religious are you about keeping to it?

And if you write ten pages a day no matter what, don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the fact that I’ll be cranky at you for the rest of the day.

23 thoughts on “That damned daily writing quota

  1. We must be twins separated at birth. I’ve tried page quotas, 1000 word per day quotas, etc. They don’t work for me. I can’t move on until I get the last scene just the way I want it.

    I console myself with the illusion that I’ll have fewer revisions to do later.

  2. I try for at least 1000 words per day. Don’t always get them. Sometimes I get a lot more. My record is just over 7000, I think, and it was on a day when it was just flowing real well; it wasn’t because I had a deadline two days hence and I had to finish.

    When I start the book I usually write faster, and when I get to the last 50-60 pages I’m flying, but in the middle, I don’t always manage 1000. I don’t use placeholders, so sometimes I spend time agonizing over a paragraph for a day or more to make sure it’s right. And like Joyce, I do console myself with the fact – not an illusion – that the cleaner the manuscript is, the less I’ll have to do later!

  3. I WANT to have a daily quota, but so far it hasn’t worked for me. This month, similar to Nanowrimo, I committed to 10K words, which would be 385 words six days a week. I haven’t been consistent in writing every day. (Have I mentioned real life can suck?) but the good news is I’m only about 1K words behind overall, so that’s not too bad.

    I do want to be a consistent writer when I grow up. 😎

  4. I advocate the weekly quota. For me, I break it down into 6 days, but if I miss a day for some reason or other, I can make it up. And if I’m extra productive on one day, the rest of the week is easier, etc.

    6000 words a week, with one day off for battery recharging.

  5. I write to the clock, too. I learned this from Walter Mosley. My goal is a minimum of two hours a day. It’s nice because, for whatever reason, writing for 120 minutes doesn’t seem as daunting as writing 1000 words. There’s an end in sight. If I start writing at 9:30 p.m. (which can happen when you have a house full of kids), I know I’ll be done at 11:30 p.m.

    But I’m not a slow writer, either. Somedays I produce less because I have to think more. Other days I can write 2,500 words in two hours. It all depends.

    I actually find writing to the hour more relaxing that writing to the word count. I don’t feel the pressure to produce. With a family (four kids under 10), somedays I only have a few hours to write. If I’m bound to a word count, then I rush through it just to get done.

  6. I don’t worry about quotas. Some days I’ll do 500. Some days I’ll do 0. Some days I’ll do 10,000. But if I spend a whole day thinking about where I want to go with a story and don’t write a single word, I figure I’ve been more productive than if I’d written a bunch of words just to reach a quota.

  7. Misery loves company, so I’m consoled by the fact that some of you also find a word quota to be daunting, and you write to the clock. Jim, I know you’re very disciplined in your quotas, which is probably why you’re so prolific as a writer. But I still like you.

  8. I completely agree. Word quotas don’t motivate me. I keep track of them in a spreadsheet – one line per scene/chapter – but I don’t live and die over them. I use them only to know how long each scene/chapter is (to keep their lengths balanced) and the manuscript as a whole (to keep the book’s word count on target for its genre). They have no other purpose in my writing discipline.

    Like you, I can agonize over a single sentence for half an hour or more. I did just that yesterday, working for 3+ hours, and my WIP is all the better for it. Word count be damned. My actual word count went up maybe 500 words and I lost words in some chapters.

    I use placeholders only when I get stuck or as a reminder to myself for later. Yesterday was one of those days where I worked on removing them. I was reformatting and reintegrating my original first chapter back into my WIP after completing and polishing two more chapters (now chapters 4 and 5).

    The bottom line for me: Writing is messy. Give up all rules and procedures that get in the way of getting the hard work done.

    Love the comments by Jim and onewritersjournal. I generally have to write at night with my two girls also.

  9. Kathryn, my routine is very similar to yours, only my peak time is late afternoon from 3-5. And not every day. I write in spurts like someone squeezing the trigger of a machine gun, but on an inconsistent basis. Many days I will site down and write 1000 words in an hour. Other days are not so productive.

    If it’s time to squeeze the trigger, words usually appear. If not, there’s always tomorrow.

  10. I have a scene quota (that I don’t always meet.) Rewrite the ballroom scene or add scene where X gets The Call. It works better for me then word or page count.

  11. I was attempting 1000 words a day, drafting a new novel. It wasn’t working. I think the quota killed all creativity. Or more appropriately, I should say that there was no creativity to start with and I was trying to force it through the quota.

    I decided to take smaller steps. I changed my goal to produce one blog each day. Short ones at that. I can feel the creativity coming alive again. Maybe I’ll be able to novel again eventually.

  12. Great topic, I loved hearing everyone’s idea of what it takes for them to consistently write.

    I get up just before five, grab the coffee, and write for just almost two hours; during which I push for a 1000 words. Usually I manage my 1000 and most times I hit more. Good luck to everyone and thanks for the insight.

  13. A thousand words in an hour, Joe? That’s amazing. Jackie, adding a little note to oneself is a good technique that I’ve heard other writers mention–I think I’ll try that. Thanks everyone for sharing!

  14. I write everyday. My mind never rests, since I really love what I do, but it wasnt until I set a daily quota for myself that I really felt in control of my projects and my deadlines. I push so I can have solid breaks in between projects while still getting the books done the rest of the year.

    Once I’m on task, I can write 2500-6000 per day. And I don’t flog myself if I don’t make a minimum. Some books flow organically and come more easily than others. And once I get a general sense of the plot (I’m not a plotter…I’m a pantser),I can really crank on the writing and it feels good.

    I also edit extensively as I go so I don’t have to trudge through countless drafts after the book is done. Most novels I can go thru one light pass at the end, then I’m done and ready for the next one (after I take a celebration lap and kick back).

    I write full time. And my husband makes it easy for me to concentrate on my work, so I have it good, for sure.

    I wrote most of my debut book in 6 wks after I had major surgery and was on medical leave. I was still working then, but this was the first time I could write full time and I took advantage of the time. And I wrote my YA debut in 2 months–a word count of 95,000+ book. But I don’t want to force myself into that schedule. Some books need extra attention. And I prefer to have more time and finish early if I can.

    But doing a daily quota is the only thing that has worked for me. I love it. The quota is my friend.

  15. I guess I do about 1000-2000 or more words a day…problem is they seldom have much to do with my books, but are a bunch of disjointed emails related to IT support. Therefore by the time I get to a point where I can write fiction (other than the answers I give my customers…sometimes the truth is way too confusing in IT)I am almost worded out. So rather than a word quota I go with a time quota like onewritersjournal. That way I am at least sitting with my laptop for a couple hours a night.

    I recently sent my cousin Leonard back in the time machine to record all of my musings on books I wanted to write and collect all of the various scribblings I did over the past 20 years, and video all of the little improv stories I did for my kids, then all of a sudden one day I will have like ten masterpiece novels pop up all at once and everyone will be like “Hey! How’d you do that?” and I’ll say, “Well you know, it’s just a matter of time management.” and they’ll pay me to write about managing my time and I will ahve the book done in about a week because I will have sent Leonard forward to get a copy of a time management book written by the most popular author from the future and publish it in the now. Then when the future comes sue the original author for plagiarism and live nicely in the Bahamas off the award.

    yesss… evil plan is coming together….

  16. One page, that’s my quota.

    I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I actually usually end up doing closer to 3 pages before the day is over. But no matter what, I have to do one page.

    Here is how it works….I get up an hour early to write my one page, most days it ends up being closer to a page and a half.

    So how does that end up being 3 pages? The page I wrote in the morning sticks with with me all day at work, rolling around in the back of mind. So while dinner is cooking, etc. I write a little more. That little more is usually at least one page because all the hard thinking was done during the day. And if not, no big deal because I wrote my one page that morning.

    I also use place holders at times, which I call the Rhubarb Method. When I need a place holder I type in Rhubarb and the note for the information to add later. Why Rhubarb? I use Rhubarb because it is a word I can’t ever imagine using in a story, so when I need to go back and fill in the place holders I just type Rhubarb in the Find feature and it will take me to each place holder in turn.

  17. editing extensively is a good idea jordan. i never thought of that, to avoid having to do tons of rewrites

  18. This is almost like having a plotter vs. pantser discussion.

    I deal with quotas for Nanowrimo…but I’m not very much of a quota person, I’m an out of the box person. For me putting in quality time or coming up with a goal for the day works better… When editing, I’m not writing so the quota doesn’t work for that, then what about the discovery and research time- again- time, not a word quota. Also with a full-time job, some travel, and other obligations time can be tough… I like writing first thing in the morning, but if I can squeeze in 15 of quality time on a break, have a writing lunch, or squeak in some extra stuff before Castle… I’m there!

  19. I use a monthly quota of X hours (except during NaNoWriMo, when it’s all about the word count). I keep it to a goal I can hit without too much difficulty. Since I started doing this, I’ve been writing way more consistently than before.

    Next challenges: raising the monthly goal, and mastering the stages that come after the first draft!

  20. I aim for eight pages-if I get five, I’m mildly depressed, ten, I’m elated. But there are days (weeks, occasionally) where I don’t write at all. Simply can’t find the time, thanks to family obligations, conferences, marketing obligations, what have you. I’ve learned to let go of the guilt when that happens.

  21. I aim for 1000 words a day, usually accomplished between 9am and noon, six days a week. If I finish before noon, I edit the previous days work. I’m a slow writer, and without a quota I would never finish a book.

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