Increasing our word counts is something many writers desire to do. Certainly that’s my aim, along with being a bit more consistent on a weekly basis when I’m drafting and when I’m revising. This week I just bought a Mac Mini, my first desk top computer in seven years, to be my offline writing playground, since the Internet is a big source of distraction for me. Writing programs and a music app are all that is installed on that computer. It will normally be unplugged from the Internet. Of course, avoiding distractions is just one factor in upping your word count.
Today’s Words of Wisdom is here to help. First, Robert Gregory Browne discusses how outlining helped him, followed by PJ Parris with some excellent tips (including staying off the Internet), and finally, James Scott Bell lays out how to set and track word count goals.
The full posts are date linked from their respective excerpts and are worth reading in full.
Ever since I started writing, I’ve been a pantser. I come up with an idea, kinda sorta figure out who the main character is, then sit down and start writing. I had tried outlining many, many times (just like all the writing books say we should) and I just couldn’t stand to do them. My eyes would glaze over after three paragraphs.
Isn’t writing supposed to be fun?
But for the Harlequin Intrigue audition I had no choice but to write that outline and three sample chapters. It was full proposal or don’t bother auditioning. They weren’t going to hire me simply because they liked my Facebook page. (Or maybe in was MySpace in those days.)
When it came time to actually write the book, however, I discovered something quite wonderful. Because I had worked everything out in that outline, all I really had to do was, as they say, “word it in,” and I managed to bang that thing out in record time.
From there on out, I was a convert. At least when it came to Harlequin romances. I still wrote (and continue to write) my Robert Gregory Browne books by the seat of my pants (except for one exception I won’t get into here), but the Intrigues were all outlined first. Even after my editor said all she needed was a paragraph from me. I would write a ten to twenty page outline for myself, because I had to write those suckers fast.
I think the fastest I ever went from outline to finished book was about two and a half weeks. I’m no John Creasey, but I think 50K words in that amount of time is pretty damn fast.
So if you’re concerned about your snail’s pace as a writer, just know that as much as you might hate them, outlines can certainly be your friend.
Robert Gregory Browne—April 20, 2016
Are there truly any “secrets” to productivity? I don’t think so. If you ask successful people how they do what they do, their answers tend to repeat and are duh-fully common-sense.
- Turn off the internet. It’s a time-sucking Circe. If you, like me, turn to it to get a fix when the writing is going badly, well, Bunky, it’s time to cut the cord. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer that text alert. And don’t call up Google in the name of research when you’re really afraid to face chapter 6. The trick that works for me is to take my laptop to a place with no internet. Amazing how interesting your novel gets when all you have to look at is the wall. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of two computers like Lee, but you can disable your browser during work time. There are even programs that do it for you: StayFocused, Anti-Social, SelfControl and my favorite — Write or Die.
- Figure out your peak writing hours.In my salad days, I was a night owl. I wrote my first novel between 9 p.m. and midnight while I was working full-time. Somewhere around age 55, I started getting up at dawn, so now I am an annoying morning person. I read the paper, have my coffee, walk the dogs, then get to work around 11 a.m. My batteries conk out about 3 p.m. so I usually quit. Now if you have a job, you have to carve out time — one to two hours a day with maybe Sunday off is enough to finish a book if you’re consistent. You have to make your family understand this.
- Show up.Yeah, sounds pretty basic, but this one is the hardest for me. I am not a daily writer. There, I said it. I am trying very very hard to change this. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. He’s right. If you hit 80 percent, you’re doing good. And you have to show up on the bad days, even if you don’t feel like writing, especially when you don’t feel like writing. Another one of Fastcompany.com’s contributors is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Nashville Predator’s hockey team. “Sometimes you get out there and your body is feeling great, and you don’t have to push it,” he says. “Sometimes you get out there and your legs feel like they’re 80 pounds apiece, and you gotta do a little extra.”
- Quit trying to be so damn perfect. This is my other downfall, the quest for the pretty page. Maybe Hemingway really did sit down every day and sweat out one true sentence. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Just turn on the faucet and let it flow. You can weed out the roughage later. Jodi Piccoult sticks a pin in the need for perfection: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
PJ Parrish—December 4, 2018
A word count quota produces pages. A page a day is a book a year. (A page is approximately 250 words. A Ficus tree can write 250 words a day. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree.)
Over the years I’ve been asked about my quota and system for keeping track, so here it is.
My quota, as it has been for most of my career, is 6,000 words a week—312,000 words a year. I try to write six days a week and take Sundays off to rest the noggin. Having a weekly quota helps because if I miss a day for some reason, I can make up the words on another day.
This works for me, though it’s nothing compared to what some of the great old pulp writers used to do. A few of them pounded out one million words or more per year, and on manual typewriters, too!
Sheesh. They must have driven their neighbors crazy.
Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, was one of the million-plus boys. Sometimes his fingers would bleed. He’d tape them up and keep typing.
Then he discovered the Ditcaphone. At the peak of his productive years Gardner was dictating his books and had a team of secretaries transcribing them. These days there are several options for speaking your words. Google Docs has a pretty fair dictation mode. So does Mac OS. I’ve done some dictating via my phone (into Google Docs) and on the computer, but it never feels quite right to me. With the editing that’s involved after I dictate, I wonder if the actual word count + time equation isn’t just about the same.
Anyway … I wrote 313,508 words in 2018.
I keep track of my words in two ways. When I compose in Scrivener, which I do most of the time, it has a handy-dandy word count tracker for both the overall project and the current session. If I’m writing in Word, I first jot down the word count of the document. I type, and when I finish I simply subtract the old word count from the new.
I tally these words on a spreadsheet, and have been doing so for twenty years. On my spreadsheet I have four categories: novels, non-fiction, short fiction, and writing. That last category is specific to my craft teaching. So I can look at my sheet and see how many words I’ve written in each category per day. I have a daily tally, and a weekly tally. I have a cell next to the weekly tally that keeps track of my cumulative output.
Next to that latter cell I put in a number. The number is a sequential sum of 6000. So at the seven-day mark, I put 6000. At the fourteen-day mark, 12,000. And so on, right up to 312,000. That way I can see if I’m falling too far behind.
James Scott Bell—January 6, 2019
Now it’s your turn to share your tips on upping word count.
- Do you find outlining helps? If you are panster, what helps you increase you word count?
- What is your own “common sense” tip or tips for getting down more words?
- Do you set and track your word counts? Any advice?