ARE YOU WRITING ENOUGH?

I have no idea. What do you think. Are you? And while we’re asking questions, what’s “enough”?

Ray Bradbury famously said “Write a thousand words a day and in three years you’ll be a writer!” Does that mean once you’ve written 1,095,000 words, like Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 hours,” you’ll have achieved some sort of expertise-through-practice? I doubt Bradbury was being at all that literal.

So then if not writing a thousand words a day—even if at the end of those three years, assuming all thousand words were pure gold every day, you’ll have a dozen full length novels under your belt—what should you be doing? I was at a conference once where and author said that every day she would use a fancy scarf to tie her ankle to the leg of her chair, symbolically forcing herself to sit there until her day’s writing (whatever that was for her) was finished. That wouldn’t work for me—at least I don’t think it would. I’d be too distracted by the scarf around my ankle… I think. Though, honestly, I’ve never tried it.

Bradbury was quite prolific, having come out of the old pulp world that did run a bit on the “quantity over quality” method, though the quality of Bradbury’s work was, overall, at the highest level. Not true for Lester “Kenneth Robeson” Dent, co-creator of Doc Savage and king of the padded sentence. But Dent made a pretty good living writing lots of words. I’ve done the “go for done, get paid” thing and I don’t need that money anymore and also lived to regret having less than my best work out there with my name on it, so I don’t want to just go for quantity anymore. Is there a balance between the two?

Then I saw this at the top of a 1992 Paris Review interview with Grace Paley:

People often ask Grace Paley why she has written so little—three story collections and three chapbooks of poetry in seventy years. Paley has a number of answers to this question. Mostly she explains that she is lazy and that this is her major flaw as a writer. Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.”

Neither Harper Lee nor J.D. Salinger wrote a lot of books, while Isaac Asimov and Henry James really wrote a lot. Should Lee and Salinger have written more, and Asimov and James fewer books? Should Shakespeare have written more? Less?

Also from a Paris Review interview, Jack Kerouac revealed that “What I do now is write something like an average of eight thousand words a sitting, in the middle of the night, and another about a week later, resting and sighing in between.”

I’ve written ten thousand words in a sitting once—maybe a couple times, actually—but never once a week.

Sticking with the Paris Review interviews, here’s Susan Sontag:

I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

Seems as though we’re getting a lot of spurting here—a lot of “sprints,” as a project manager might say. Is that how to do it, then?

By now I bet you know what I’m going to say: There is no how to do it. There’s definitely not one way to write, nor could there possibly be a best way to write. We all have to find our own way to write, even if, for some period of time, we write nothing.

I’d be willing to bet, though, that during those periods where we’re not putting words down on paper (or pixels) we’re imagining stories, thinking through plots, conjuring characters, mulling over something we might have to say and sifting through all the many ways in which we can say it.

As far as I’m concerned, that “counts” as writing.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to ARE YOU WRITING ENOUGH?

  1. Enid Blyton, 5000 words a day. I can write a 1000 words a day comfortably. 2000 words uncomfortably. And more. Nobody wants to read them, of course. Not even me.

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