On daily word count goals and toxic productivity
It's really not about quality versus quantity...
There's a story in Atomic Habits about a photography professor who split his class into two groups. Group A was the quantity group and would be graded by the amount of work they produced by the end of the term, with a hundred photos earning an A. Group B was the quality group, and had to turn in only one photo but to earn an A it had to be close to perfect. Which group would earn the higher grades?
“At the end of the term, the professor was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, the students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.”
If you want to be good at the thing, you have to practice the thing. You have to smear the paint on the canvas. You have to pick up the instrument and honk. You have to accept that your art, your music, your photos, your writing, is not going to be good in the beginning.
That's why, when I'm working with newer writers, I encourage them to focus more on quantity. Write a lot (“a lot” being a relative term) because that is how you're going to learn and improve. You achieve quality through quantity.
Because quantity, especially in the beginning, is just practice. That's why it really bothers me that we have a versus thing set up here when it comes to writing and word count goals. Is it better to get a ton of words, or focus on the quality of those words?
Quality versus quantity—but they aren’t rivals. Because the reality is we need both. We need quality, obviously, we want our writing to be good, quality is the end goal. But we also need quantity because novels are made up of a quantifiable number of words.
The very first book I ever wrote was never published. Was it quality? No. It’s not published for a reason. But I had to write it because that 80,000 words is what eventually improved the quality of my writing. My next book was much better. So was the one after that.
It's going to be different for everyone. Some writers will have their first books published and that doesn't mean they aren't quality. But we don't know how much writing and rewriting went into that book before the published version came out. How many photos did that author take before snapping that gallery-worthy shot?
I have an author friend whose prose is genuinely beautiful. The quality is there. And I can attest to the fact that those words flow out of her lightning fast. I have literally watched her write and the quantity of her word count per session is insanely high. There’s no either/or with her. She has both.
She has written a ton of books. Some are published but a lot of them are not. She writes extra scenes that she knows will never be in her book because she just wants to get the story out and play with the characters and learn more the story. I honestly cannot even fathom at this point how many words she has written in her entire life. She’s taken so many photos, and each one she takes gets better than the last.
So let's do away with this quantity versus quality thing and recognize that it's going to be different for everybody. Because thinking productivity IS the same for everyone is the root of the toxicity.
A lot of writers feel inferior when prolific writers talk about how they can knock out thousands and thousands of words in a session. I actually had the opposite experience when I was a new writer. I wasn't particularly fast or exceptionally slow, I fell right in the middle, and quality-wise I was mediocre at best. I had just really started getting involved with the online writer community, and I found it all intimidating but also really inspiring.
I'm sure I had some feelings of envy when a writer would say they got 3,000 or 4,000 words in a session, while for me getting to 1500 words in a day was a pretty massive accomplishment. But I was still seeing progress and my book was becoming a book, so it didn’t really get me down. The incident that really stands out in my mind was a comment made by an author that I knew online. I believe her first book had just come out, her second was on the way, and I looked up to her. So the whole word count quality versus quantity conversation came up in a forum we were all in and people were talking about their big giant word count accomplishments and she was a slower writer, and she said something to the effect of:
“That's so nice that you all can write so much in a session. Personally, I just can't because I care too much about the quality of my work. It takes time for me to craft my phrases before I'm satisfied.”
At the time, I didn't actually recognize this as insecurity on her part. That comment really got under my skin. I started to think that by not going super slow and stressing over every single phrase I wrote in my first draft I was being a bad writer.
Some authors just write slowly and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. This author has published several books since then so her clearly process works for her. But for most new writers, thinking you have to aim for perfection with every sentence of your first draft… That’s how first drafts don’t get written.
That kind of defensiveness comes up a lot in discussions about word counts. And it goes both ways. Writers who get high word counts can sometimes get defensive about the quality of their work. Writers who go more slowly can sometimes get defensive about the fact that it takes them longer to write a draft.
We need to figure out what productivity means to each of us individually because we are all going to have different definitions. Something I have had to really examine and identify within myself is when to power through—as in when to write even when I really don't feel like writing—and when I absolutely should not power through because it's going to burn me out. If I never wrote when I didn't feel like writing I would not be a full-time writer. I never would have made it to this point.
About four years ago, my dog of fifteen years died. I'd had her basically my whole adult life and it hit me hard. I had a deadline for a publisher the week after she passed. And because her passing away with preceded by a couple of weeks of pretty serious medical issues and a lot of vet visits and sleepless nights, I was a little bit behind on that draft and absolutely did not feel like writing at all. I did tell my editor what I was going through and we talked about an extension, but the thing is, I was not the only person involved in this project (it was a ghostwriting/IP situation). A significant extension, as in a couple of weeks to a month, would have really pushed the entire production schedule back. It would have impacted a lot of people and their work, not just me, so I buckled down. I wrote a lot every day for about four or five days in a row and I turned that book in on time.
And every single session that I wrote, I did not want to write. When I find myself in a situation like that, I think back to when I was a public school teacher. I taught band, and when we called in sick, we didn't call substitute teachers because you can't really find a substitute teacher to come in and teach band. So calling in sick meant my colleagues didn't get conference periods and had extremely full work days because they were covering for me.
This meant that I thought very long and hard about whether or not I really actually needed to call in to work. And in this case—my dog just died and I am grieving—would I have called in to my school and had someone cover my classes? No, I would not. I would have gone into work and it would have been hard, yes, but I can also recognize that once I was teaching my classes I would have started feeling better because I loved teaching, I loved my students, and it would have been a welcome distraction.
And so I decided I needed to treat writing the same way because writing is my job now just like teaching was my job then. Can I write when I'm in a bad place? In certain cases, yes I can and I should. I didn't want to let down everyone by requesting an extended deadline even though the editor would have granted it to me. Because I was capable of doing the work.
Obviously, there are certain situations where we cannot work. And that's what I'm talking about, finding a way to identify when powering through is a good thing and when powering through is a bad thing. It is going to be different for everybody.
“Good productivity” is relative. Not just from writer to writer, but day to day. Today, 2,000 words might be your absolute best. Tomorrow, it might be 500. Or 5,000. Or no words at all. But comparing your productivity to that of other writers is a surefire way to kill it altogether.