10,000 words per day. Isn’t that impressive? Nicolas Cole tends to think so.
In a recent post on Art + Marketing, Cole boasted that he writes 10,000 words per day, every single day. And he implies that you can, too, if you just follow his simple daily writing regimen.
I’m not interested in challenging Cole’s ability to produce words. In fact, I admire it. I admire anyone who can maintain a consistent writing schedule in such an inconsistent world, and I think his article has a lot of merit, namely his insistence on taking breaks. Writing is, in fact, a marathon. I’ve long insisted that we writers are the turtles of the communications animal kingdom: slow, methodical, and consistent. (Video is the hare.)
I am, however, challenging his rhetoric–that is, challenging the spaces between the measures. I’ve been writing professionally for about as long as Mr. Cole, and I have a few bones to pick with his definition of ‘busy pro writer.’ Different writing jobs require different kinds of writing; it’s unfair to pigeonhole everything when he’s explicitly referring to himself.
Simply put, 10,000 words isn’t realistic. Here’s why:
People write at different paces for different reasons.
Unless you’re Shakespeare, quantity doesn’t equal quality, and 10,000 words per day is not a reasonable (read: realistic) goal for a variety of projects.
- When I translate, I average about 5,000 words per day.
- For essays, I average about 2,000 words per day, allotting time for research.
- When I blog, I casually clock about 1,000 words per day, a couple days per week.
- Ads are different. My word count fluctuates depending on the medium, the concept, the time allotted, and the creative team. Some days I hit a few thousand words; others, I hit 300, maybe.
- And when I write books, the workload varies depending on the project. When I drafted La Mandragola, it took about three months to research it, three months to translate it, and two weeks to write the 30-page introduction. When I drafted my forthcoming Morning Coffee novel, it took me about three months to complete, writing about 1,000 words per day, three days per week.
True, I tend to work on several projects at once. It’s not like I ‘hang it up’ after drafting a chapter. That’d be silly. After writing an ad set, I might blog or scribble a few sonnet lines or draft a chapter of a story.
My point: there’s a difference between setting goals and striving to hit an arbitrary number. The number of words I write per day fluctuates depending on the number of projects sitting on my desk. Again, I admire Cole’s point, but I think he’s missing the forest for the trees: it’s not about the number of words you write; it’s about staying productive. 10,000 words is merely a milestone, not a monument.
Different editorial tones require different amounts of time.
When I write an article, I tend to take a formal tone: I downplay my colloquialisms and spend more time molding my words. The language is richer and deeper, and I enjoy tinkering with rhetoric. Though I might scribble a 3,000-word draft in a couple hours, I tend to sit on it, revising and rewriting it over a few days. Depending on the deadline, it’s not uncommon for me to spend an hour revising a paragraph.
When I write branded ads, I refuse to touch pen to page without spending an appropriate amount of time researching. If I was, say, writing for Coke, I would spend half a shift sifting through old print ads, watching TV spots, and taking notes on trends. Again, I would not write a single word without doing the appropriate legwork. One does not simply sit at a desk and write the lyrics to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”
Blogging is much more casual. I write how I talk, and I rarely write more than two drafts. Because of this, I often write more words per sitting, and I tend to publish much more quickly. (For example, this piece took me a little over four hours, from concept to post; it’s a little over 1,800 words.)
In sum, this sentence is utter rubbish:
I can write five pieces in one voice much faster than I can write five pieces in five separate voices.
If you want to write for a living, you don’t have the luxury of writing in the same voice every time. Of course you can write quickly in your voice. It’s your voice. But people often don’t pay you for your voice; they pay you for their voice, which means you need to pay close attention to the nuances of their editorial tone. You don’t get to write as you until you become Stephen King.
Also, I’m calling shenanigans on this paragraph:
Today, assuming there are no distractions (and the density of the piece), I can pretty much stream-of-consciousness a nearly perfect ~800 article in 30 minutes. If it’s a subject I am familiar with, 17 minutes. If it’s a highly technical article that requires some element of research and deep understanding, 60–90 minutes.
In all my years teaching writing, I’ve never seen anyone complete an 800-word draft, from concept to published, in 17 minutes. Even without allotting time to draft ideas, that’s 47 words per minute. To put that in context, the average typing speed worldwide, according to Google, is 40 words per minute.
Further, if you’re spending just an hour researching a topic, you’re not thoroughly researching it. When I write short criticism (about 2,000 words), I average three sources per essay. Though sources vary in length, they’re typically between 1,500 and 10,000 words. The average worldwide reading speed, according to Google, is 200 words-per-minute; my reading speed is somewhere close to 300. Three 10,000-word articles will take me thirty-three minutes to read. That doesn’t include taking notes and organizing thoughts, which requires me to pause and write things down. That takes another thirty minutes per piece.
On average, three articles take me three hours to analyze. And that’s a breakneck pace.
When I write scholarly criticism, I average fifteen sources per essay, and my essays are approximately 25-pages long (or 10,000 words). Using that same math, it takes me fifteen hours to read and annotate sources. Either Cole is incorrectly reporting his research times, or he isn’t properly researching.
Either way, there’s something fishy about that paragraph.
But while we’re on the subject of time–
There’s no such thing as a proper writing schedule.
Cole’s article makes it seem like productivity exists within certain hours. In the morning, one should start at 7 AM and write 3,500 words; one should write again in the evening and produce another 4,000 words. This doesn’t work for everyone. And eight hours of undistracted writing is a quick way to burn out. Believe me.
Different people write at different times for different intervals. Hemingway famously rose with the sun and cranked out vast amounts of prose before noon. Toni Morrison starts at 4 AM; Jack Kerouac didn’t even get out of bed until the afternoon. Nabokov had insomnia and wrote all night.
I rise at 7 AM and drink coffee and read the news until about 8:30 AM; then I start working. I leave work around 5 PM, and I usually write at home until dinnertime, roughly 6:30 PM. After dinner, I’m done. I read a book or something.
Find what works for you and stick with it. And know that a schedule that works right now might not work for you in six months because–
People write at different paces at different points in their careers.
During my undergrad, I wrote about 500 words per day. I hadn’t hammered out a process yet, and I spent more time chasing girls than I did sitting at a desk. I shat out papers, collected As, and got back to the things that mattered, namely beer and tail.
When I worked as a freelancer, I hit Cole’s fabled word count fairly regularly, writing for 12+ hours per day. I was paid by the word–poorly, I might add–and I wrote feverishly to keep a roof over my head. Having promised myself that I would make it as a writer, I refused to accept any other career. So I sucked it up, scribbled all day, and posted everywhere.
I hated it.
Looking back, the quality of those posts were abysmal. They were write-by-numbers gobbledygook, intended to “maximize SEO effectiveness”: they were clickbaity, self-referential, keyword-dense trash. They weren’t even technically good: comma splices, punctuation issues, passive sentences, run-ons, and misspellings were so bad, I refuse to put them in my portfolio.
When I went back to school, I slowed my process substantially. After getting my knuckles rapped with a handful of Bs, I learned to take my time researching, writing, and editing. I learned the value of revision and the rhetoric behind effective prose.
These days, I write and edit full-time. On average, I spend about five hours per day fixing others’ work, which gives me about four hours to eat, research, write, and go to meetings. A good day is about 3,000 words; a bad one is nothing.
The trick is minimizing the number of bad days and forgiving yourself when they happen.
TL;DR: 10,000 words isn’t a good goal for everyone.
Realistically speaking, the 10,000-word goal isn’t realistic. It doesn’t account for other writing-related tasks like researching, it doesn’t factor in-depth prose revisions, and it simply doesn’t reflect the majority of writers out there.
And writing emails doesn’t count as “writing,” damn it. If you’re going to omit text messages, Nick, you should omit other forms of electronic communication, too. While writing this post, I’ve written four emails (~100 each), edited a dozen tickets (~150 each), drafted a new copy brief (~150), and pecked about 2,000 words of Slack messages.
That said, the article does feature a handful of noteworthy takeaways:
- Read. The only way to get better at writing is by reading. To further Cole’s metaphor: if writing is weightlifting, then reading is a proper diet. One cannot shed fat and gain muscle solely by going to the gym. They need a proper diet to maintain healthy body chemistry.
- Turn off your phone. Never half-ass anything worth whole-assing. If you’re serious about writing, devote your complete attention to it. I promise you’ll get more done.
- Smooth days are rare. Some days feel “good”; others don’t. The secret is faking the bad days until they become good days.
On the whole, I very much enjoy Nicolas Cole’s column–but this post seemed so hyperbolic, I had to respond. He’s very talented, and his work has been featured in a variety of noteworthy publications, including TIME, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. He’s a three-time top poster for Quora, and his work in Inc. Magazine is top-notch. If you’re interested in reading his other works, check out his blog here.
Anywho, that’s me this week. How many words do you average per day? Does it even matter?
Let me know in the comments.
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Posted in: Wisdom
Also published on Medium.