This is too honest by far, and I wonder if it is perhaps unhelpful for me to talk openly about. Vulnerable is hard. But, I would have loved to have read this years ago, so let’s do this: I want to talk about how much I write, and my current experiment of writing 500 words a day and how it has gone for me.
If you’ve been following me over the years you’ll be aware of the fact that I enjoy running experiments and taking a look at data generated along the way.
Not all of the experiments work. In fact, I’d say most of them fail.
But that in and of itself is an item worth noting.
Often I show up with graphs.
I love graphs.
So here’s the background. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is “where do you get your ideas from?” We’re not going into that today. But the next most asked question is “what’s your daily writing schedule like?”
I have ADD. What’s my daily writing schedule? Often to me it seems like asking: what’s your daily bladder schedule? What’s your sneeze schedule like?
In some ways, it’s like allergies, right? I have no idea what the sneezes will come out like on an hourly basis, but I know that different seasons come on regularly. Deadlines are the seasons. I think.
What I often tell people is that I have lots of different phases of things that have worked for me at different times of my life.
The First Big Decade: My 20s
My career started at 19 with my first sale of a story. In my late teens, I used to aim for “1K per day,” or a thousand words a day, with weekends off and vacations off. But I didn’t actually log what I actually achieved back then, so I can’t say for sure what that added up to.
So let’s look at my 20s. I had ADD, I used caffeine to self medicate, I had a lot of energy. My routines were built out of my throwing any time I had around my dayjob at writing stuff. I would write on my meal breaks. I would write when I got home and on my days off. I would charge myself up with caffeine, focus, and then write until I dropped.
The words came in surges. Days of a thousand, two thousand, and three thousand words.
In college, I would often write until I fell asleep, head on the desk next to the keyboard.
Invariably those days were followed by collapse days. Days where I would flop around and recover. Sometimes they were for recharging. Sometimes I just couldn’t write anymore. Sometimes my hands just hurt.
I wrote a hundred stories in college this way. I wrote novels in my twenties this way. I started a career this way. It got me where I am. I don’t regret it. I was able to carry it off, so I did, and it worked.
Because I’ve always been interested in self tracking and data since my early twenties, I’ve kept at least information on how much I wrote during the day.
Now just because I keep daily writing logs doesn’t mean you have to, or even that it’s mentally healthy to do it. But here’s what logging does for me: it shows me days I’m not creating new stuff. And, when I don’t get to make new things, I feel down.
I like to daydream, to make things up, to make my puppets dance. The further away I get from noodling around, the more tense I get.
I have to imagine it has something to do with the fact that I have been making shit up on the page with intent to have it read since I was thirteen. And creative for as long as I can remember. So the less creative, the further I am away from that act, the less I feel like myself.
But, I’m ADD, and I have no executive function around time awareness. If I don’t log in, write down my word counts, and look at what I did the previous day, I have no awareness of time spent on a project. I can go weeks without doing something because once it’s out of my mind, I have zero ‘niggling’ in the back of my head that says ‘hey buddy, there was this thing…’ like it seems others do.
It’s why all my bills are automated. It’s why my phone beeps at me several times to remind me of upcoming important events, even though I keep a bullet journal as well.
That is also why I log things. Logging things make them real to me. More importantly, logging shows me when things aren’t happening.
So in my twenties I logged the words I wrote.
Here’s a look at what writing the first draft of my novel Crystal Rain looked like in my early twenties:
You can see how I worked. Clumps of days of work, followed by days of recovery. 1,200 words, 1,700, 800, 900, then days of rest. Sprint, exhaustion, sprint exhaustion sprint exhaustion.
The big rest in the middle was a break from the novel to work on two short stories commissioned from me. It took thirty days out of the novel, as once I finished the stories it took a couple weeks to get back to the novel.
But it worked, as I said. Even with a month off in a middle, 179 days to write a novel is snappy.
Of course, that leaves out revision. You can’t represent revision on a chart like that. Honestly, it doesn’t even represent the work that went into the first draft. Are 500 word days less than 1,800 words? Only if they’re all the right words. I can write the right 500 words that advances a novel, does something well, or I can push 1,800 words that later need heavily revised or even deleted. But here’s something that chart can certainly show me: days I don’t write and patterns.
Days off aren’t a problem in and of themselves. They’re time to recoup and refill the well. But it can reveal gaps, and using the logging always shows me when too much time has elapsed. Half the reason that chart looks like it is because I would see the gaps forming as I logged too many days not writing and know I needed to think about writing again.
Again, that can backfire. Many writers develop guilt and fear about getting to their writing because of seeing things like that. And creating feelings of shame, fear, and other negativity around writing is a perfect recipe for killing the creative worker.
But in my twenties it all worked well enough.
Interestingly, despite days of writing almost 3,500 words in epic writing jams, if you look at all those days off and if you run the average words written over the 179 days of the project it turns out that in my twenties, fueled by caffeine and late night writing jags when I had all the energy of a young, earnest, fired up writer I hit an average of… 450 words a day.
Hold that number for later.
The Second Decade of Writing Furiously:
My energy levels changed when I turned thirty. I collapsed from a heart defect I didn’t know I had, survived, and was asked by my cardiologist to not take any stimulants, which are what most ADD medicines use.
Getting back to writing again after months of piecing my life together, I found a few things out as I started a new decade of my life. The first? I used caffeine to self medicate my ADD. I hadn’t realized my habit for work always started with caffeine. The second? As a person with ADD, I’d really developed deep mindset buried in that cycle of a deadline oriented sprints under which I’d thrived. The third? I had newly born kids and everything had changed.
My thirties, then? Ten years of relearning how to live with ADD without caffeine. When the children were tiny, I worked at night because I took the kid night shift. That fit, even without caffeine, into my burn hard then collapse hard cycle. But it was exhausting.
One of the novels written during that time was Arctic Rising. Here’s the chart:
I still worked in similar patterns to my twenties, though I tried different times of day. The long break in the middle? A novella I wrote.
193 days for a first draft, and the daily average was 464 words a day.
When my kids started into school I tried a strict eight to five schedule. That worked for a while, but I found it constrictive and not easy to stay consistent on. But when I was consistent, the results were great. Here’s a short, short novel I did under a pseudonym written in that time:
A novel in three months. Nice. I averaged 639 words a day. Even nicer. This day-writing from nine to five looks good, right?
Well, I’m not showing you the weeks and months after the novels. Notice those little curves up during the last few days of the book projects? Those are high word days that would leave my wrists shot, my hands needing iced, and me needing to get out from under a “novel hangover” that lasted for days or a couple weeks.
As a night owl, even when I’m trying to ‘normalize’ my hours I often fall back into night habits, particularly when under deadlines, stressed, or trying to make sure freelance work gets done.
My entire life I’ve struggled to change that. At forty, I’m starting to suspect that maybe, just maybe, I’m never going to be up in the morning on the regular.
So what systems will work for me, with ADD, changing sleep patterns, deadlines, and the need to meet projects I’ve promised people?
I’ve been playing the game by lurching from one crisis to another, but in my mid thirties, without caffeine, getting tired from burn out when the sprint and rest cycles add up, and after going through a spot of career burn out a few years ago that I had to rehab from, I set out to write a novel without the constraints of a deadline to see what my natural rhythm was.
And here was the result:
The slope of when I am writing is steeper, but left to my own devices there are naturally bigger gaps.
Two really big gaps came courtesy of my attempt to heal my wrists. That first big leap of words left aching wrists, so I taught myself to type on a whole new keyboard and learned a new non-QWERTY style of layout called Colemak. That took out some days. The next big gap comes from a death in the family that I flew out of state to help with. That ate up my mindspace for a while.
This method led to 350 words a day average. But when I take out the weeks spent learning a new keyboarding system and the family death I get a figure of around about 450 words a day, depending on how I fiddle.
What I Know About How I Work So Far:
I’ve tracked information like this for all thirteen novels I’ve managed to write, as well as over a hundred short stories, some novellas, and more over the last nineteen years. Some of the books average higher than 500 a day. My best book was 1,600 a day average:
That book took a lot out of me, I was exhausted afterward. Words a day of fiction, where you are making stuff up whole cloth, is so much more challenging for me than freelancing. I could write far more reports, articles, and reviews than fiction. That 1,600 words of creativity really took it out of me.
But, the chart and project above, it did show me the power of no days off!
I am certainly not the most prolific author I know. But I am not the least. I’ve written 120 short stories, five novellas, and thirteen and a half novels in those nineteen years while juggling a day job for the first six years, and then a hybrid career of freelancing and writing.
That’s 1.5 million words of fiction that went on to become published and read by people.
That sounds impressive because it’s spread out over nineteen years. But it means on average that I have written roughly 85,000 first draft words a year since I graduated college, that then are polished, revised, and then end up in folk’s hands to read.
Since leaving my dayjob and publishing my first novel it’s been just shy of the 100,000 a year mark. I bounce between 100-125,000 words a year of material that then needs revised. Years where the finances pinch, I do more freelance work, and the numbers drop:
My best year was 2015. I wrote a lot. It came out to nearly an average of 450 words a day. In all my various sprints and rests. But when finances don’t require me to turn to staking more time toward freelance work, I write an average of 116,000 words of draft material a year that then goes on to be revised.
Again, I feel compelled to point out that creativity and productivity isn’t a machine. At various points along the way, I’ve looked at these numbers and thought about the gaps as places to push harder against. Usually that has led to me exhausting myself harder after a period of time. The mistake, particularly in a society dominated by quarterly profit extractive capitalism, is to try and wring more ‘productivity’ out of yourself like these words are widgets. They’re not.
But like using a journal to find out when chronic pain strikes the most, or what the frequency is, so you can plan your life around it, I look at my logs to try and learn about myself.
Looking at my logs I can see that leaving my dayjob increased how much I wrote by looking at the stats. The years I worked a dayjob I averaged 56,000 words a year of draft material that I then revised. Since becoming a freelancer and writer, I averaged 96,000 words a year. So I know moving away from the dayjob boosted the raw material I could create by 70%. Many folk who jump away from the dayjob expect vastly larger results, at least double, I often find. But a lot of creative work is still done outside of the actual hours of sitting at a keyboard putting down words. I think it turns out often we were doing them while at other work.
That being said, years without financial hardships lend themselves to 116,000 words a year of raw material, a 107% boost over when I was at a dayjob, implying a doubling of effort if freelance work wasn’t on the table and the creative work really paid out.
Also, many folk online say that hardship clarifies creative work and makes it better. But I know for a fact that a lean year means a 20% reduction in raw material to work with, crunched revision times, and a lot of personal stress and exhaustion. And the less I write, the less I earn, so it threatens to become a spiral for a creative as the one negative feeds the other.
But what does it mean about how I should write?
Well, I’m ADD, so for a long time I figured I had to resign myself to sprints and collapses. Particularly since that’s the pattern that resolved when I wrote a novel with no deadline, pressure, or constraints.
Other writers who daily marched and posted amazing wordcounts would march on past me as I wibbled around this way and that, then suddenly sprinted over there, and then circled back. This was who I was.
I could try medication, but most of the good ADD medications are a risk due to my heart (don’t email me/comment with medical advice unless you are actual licensed doctor, please do me the honor assume I self-advocate and talk to my cardiologist). I could write a much longer essay talking about everything I’ve learned about trying to write something as complex as a novel with ADD and my coping mechanisms, but that isn’t this essay.
But the other thing I decided to try was a small experiment in changing my sprint/exhaust/recovery cycle that has, now on my fourth month, really changed the entire narrative for me.
I listened to a friend and decided to try writing less.
Maybe Less Is More?
In a branch of the US military there’s a saying that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” As I hit forty and started looking at twenty years of writing output, writing logs, my bibliography of what I’ve published, I started wondering how sustainable my working habits were.
A writer I know posted on social media something to the effect of “I always tell myself things will get better or slow down after I finish this mad project but they never do.” And for twenty years I spent a lot of time thanking the stars for my luck and oppurtunities, and dashing myself against the same sentiment. Work hard, burn the midnight oil, sprint now, and then I can relax after.
There’s never a later. Not if you suceed, oddly enough.
When I teach writing, I try to point out to writers that they should write what they love because if they don’t, if they get successful at writing what they don’t they’re stuck repeating the mechanisms that got them successful from then on, potentially putting themselves in a spot to be miserable from success. Counterintuitive? Yes. But I’ve seen it.
So why not apply that to methodology?
I’d done a lot of work getting my head back in the game after burn out. Learning why I wrote, what drove me, and getting back into loving words and making them.
But I also wondered about the next twenty years of sprinting.
What would this look like if it were easy?
When I was nineteen and blistering away, sprint and exhaustion was fun and crazy.
Did I enjoy it now?
I wasn’t sure.
But it was hard to walk away from it when it had worked. It gave me my career.
So when a good friend mentioned they were trying a new approach to writing, focusing on 500 words a day and had gotten an amazing amount written with less drama, I started to consider trying it myself.
I worried that my ADD would get in the way. Writing every day in the past, like for that book where I hit 1,600 words a day, required iron will and at the end of the project exhausted me. Doing the same thing at the same size every day sounded repetitive, boring, and not aligned with my essential personality.
I worried that 500 a day wasn’t a lot. My usual goal when in full steam on a project was 1,000 a day. I’m a writer who works with New York, where a book a year is fine and in many literary circles that’s fast. Online, in self publishing forums I lurk in, people are talking writing a book a month. Some writers I see making the money I’d like to make are writing way faster than 500/day on average. It doesn’t seem like much, does it?
I also worried that this would fundamentally change the writing itself. Powering through on words that I didn’t want to write, when I could wait and write while under the impact of a huge writing sprint that might be better words would be better, right?
But we don’t learn by just doing the same thing forever without trying something new.
And what were the benefits? Well, the writers I talked to who use this method say they feel less overwhelmed, able to plan for deadlines, and that, actually, they were writing more raw material than I was. 180-200,000 words a year of raw material. Or, if they were not able to edit in the same track, 120-130,000 words.
That intrigued me, because it was no drama method of hitting my own speed.
And there was a small possibility of doing more without breaking myself.
Color me intrigued.
Yet, I resisted it for months. I’d been getting things done. Change is hard, and so on.
But then I got stuck on a short story I owed someone. And the deadline whizzed past. And the feelings of dread and fear came back. I struggled and struggled with an empty screen, when I knew that if I just pushed hard enough I could have a draft done in a couple days. The story’s topic depressed me, but it was for a theme on that topic so I couldn’t just change the heart of the story. I half asked to get out of writing the story, but the editor offered me an extension. I felt doubly guilty and horrified.
Then I broke. Just two years after fixing myself from burnout, a couple of stories I owed broke me.
And that felt awful.
With nothing to lose, I decided to try 100 days of writing 500 words a day.
Trying 500 Words a Day
Right away, it broke the logjam. Because I wasn’t trying to write as much as I possibly could in a day. In a way, that sets you up for failure, because it’s a hard to define. My mind was previously telling me that “you’re BEHIND. Your mortgage depends on this. You need to get this done! What do you need to get done? ALL OF IT YOU PIECE OF SHIT!”
It’s hard to start shoveling a mountain.
But when I started 500 words a day, all I had to do was shovel roughly 500 words. And I did.
And then stopped.
I had the rest of the day ahead of me. I could go catch up on other work. Take a walk. Read a book. No more guilt, panic at falling behind. Because I’d done the 500 words.
The weight of relief is hard to describe.
And the next day, I logged on, and wrote 500. Then stopped.
If I kept going, in ten days or there about, I’d have the raw material of a story.
Something magical happened, too. With the rest of the day to mull over the 500 words I’d written, the intractable issues of the story became tractable. I saw ways in. I could let the story sit in the back of my head and roll around a bit.
In fact, I often knew what was coming next because I was stopping at 500, which meant I often still had momentum that carried over into the next day as I knew the very next thing I was about to write when I stopped the afternoon before.
After nine days, I had a story done. No drama.
Hell, I had gone from wondering how in the hell I could write it to laughing as I wrote it and having fun.
I took a day off to rest, relieved.
And then a day became two, then three, then four.
I panicked. I had a Patreon story I owed my supporters. There was no room in my budget to miss one. I worked all day and a late night and got a story done and wrote 1,800 words.
That exhausted me. I loved the story, but it took it out of me. I took a couple days off. And that became a week because, well, I had so much work to do it seemed impossible to tackle and…
500 a day. I restarted the new attempted habit after falling off the horse.
I got 42 days in a row the next time instead of nine. And it became clear to me that this was the way to go. I got all the short stories done. I got my Patreon story done. I started my new novel. All without panic. And falling into the rhythm became easier and easier as each day passed.
A few things became clear to me. One, for the first time, I could create a simple Gantt-like chart of when I would have a draft (roughly) of a project. At 500 words a day, I know story Z will be eight days of work. For the first time in my life, I know roughly when the novel draft will be done, and I know when the stories will be done, and I know what the impact of saying ‘yes’ to a story commission (or an idea that springs into my head) will be.
I can’t really convey the feeling of control and confidence that gives me after twenty years of just, throwing myself at the deadline to see if, yet again, I could make it.
So, it helps me get started. It helps me estimate deadlines. It reduces the stress.
This is all good.
But I noticed a few more things. I started getting smaller projects done and things for me done. That book I wanted to read, well, I hit my 500. So lets read it. I’ve fallen so far behind on just pleasure reading because I would hear this ‘YOU SHOULD BE WRITING!’ voice. But knowing I’d done the daily amount, I could move on from that internal guilt.
I could also spend more time on my 500 words. Editing them on a line level was easier if I wanted to fiddle and play with them. So that was a bonus.
I also found that the 500 words a day worked really well with my ADD scattered mind. If I was having a really tough day with ADD brain, I could write 50 words here, 100 there, and take a whole damn day to get 500 words. I could be interrupted by children without feeling resentful, or emergency email without panicking. Instead of forcing myself to go dark against my nature, I could flit around and dribble out the words. But when laser focus hit, I could just be done quickly. I could chop it up, or do it all in one go. Whatever changing weirdness my brain was up for that day.
One thing that made earlier approaches hard was that I change my schedule, float from early to late nights. Work at weird times. With this 500 words a day, I could be a good citizen and get it done early in the day like a normal human. Or I could stay up late to work on it.
Another unexpected bonus was that I had more time to consider the story. It’s one thing to have an outline, another to have this thing in your head, and then, when rubber hits road, there’s what you see when what you put down is suddenly exposed to the light of day. Several times, after writing 500, I’ve had the rest of the day to think about what I wrote, and realize that the story really could benefit from a different take ahead than I had thought. Characters had more time to live and breathe. I’m quite delighted with some of the things I came up with because I was slowing things down.
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
I had to take a loss when I got hit with a massive kidney stone that needed surgery. 12 days off in recovery, on opiods, lying about, only in the mood to watch TV. That was 6,000 words lost.
I bumped my internal expected deadline back for the novel, and restarted 500 words a day. I’m 30 days into it, and after I finish this essay, I’ll do my 500 words of fiction.
Here’s what 104 days of this experiment look like:
Even with 12 days lost to surgery and some other off days, I am averaging 503 words a day. I occasionally hit ~1,000 words, those are on days where the writing is coming easily, and I just let it keep going. I note those as ‘engaged days.’ Flow days. Days where the writing is easy, good, and comes from the ether. The other days, they’re the days when this is work, and it doesn’t come easy. Days when I look up at the mountain and think ‘it’s okay, you just have to shovel 500 words and then you can go do something else.’
I don’t know where this will lead. It may be that my true talent lies in surge writing and then resting. I’m not telling you this is the ONE PATH. I am noting that, after 104 days of doing this, if this continues, I’ll have my best year next year without a lot of the fear that has accreted around deadlines and repeatability.
The trick is finding something that works, something that is healthy and sustainable. Is sustainable knowing you’ll get a draft in November with NaNoWriMo and revising as you can all year? If that works year after year and you find it sustainable and nourishing, go for it. If 250 words a day is the amount you feel is discrete enough you can, certainly, always get it, then do that. If a 1,000, sure. When I went back in to have a second surgery to remove an internal stent I set a goal of 100 words a day as a ‘sick goal’ because I felt daily practice was good for the ADD mind. I blew past to 500 each time, even though I felt like crap.
But I feel silly. It still doesn’t feel like much. And if this is the way I need to write to make it sustainable, it feels ridiculous that I’ve found what works for me at forty.
The best time to plant a tree was years ago. Next best time is now.
I guess I’m curious to see what people think of the work I’ve been doing. That’ll let me know that the 500 words a day isn’t making me a crappier writer! But mostly, I’m really enjoying 500 words a day on the daily level. It’s removed a ton of stress around the nature of making this my daily job.
So when people ask, how do you work?
This is currently it. It wasn’t always this.
I don’t know if it will last, but there you go. I hope I can keep doing this. If I find success with this, I can see doing it a long time.