How Much is Enough?

Do you have to wait until you’re in the mood to write? Are you blithely making excuses for not writing? Is this non-writing the result, frankly, of head-in-the-sand stubbornness? Or are you writing regularly, but afraid it isn’t enough?

We all know prolific writers who seem god-like in their ability to write door-stopper novels every eight months. (Or worse.) Why can’t this be me?

Whether you’re writing enough or not, it’s easy to feel guilty about what you are or aren’t doing. Easy, also, to obsess over what other writers can accomplish. Friends, we gotta get out of this place. The writing life is challenging enough without this pin-headed monster breathing down our necks, whether we call it worry or guilt or laziness.

Fuzzy thinking

Guilt in the writing life is common. It stems from fuzzy expectations as much as from lack of commitment. You may well not be giving writing the time it deserves, but even if so, the first step is to decide how much writing is enough. It’s strange how people worry about this without ever defining the standard.

Here’s the only solution I’ve ever found: A personalized weekly page count. Determine a weekly number of pages–or word count–that will be your writing goal. Spend an hour finding the right figure, neither hopelessly ambitious nor foolishly small. What is a reasonable goal for you? If you work full time, perhaps your goal is four pages a week. How would you feel if you had been writing four pages a week for the past year? Would it be a significant improvement over what you actually did write in the past year?

So, given your circumstances and your level of experience in writing, what would be a respectable goal?

Making room for life

But remember: rewriting does not count toward the page goal unless it adds pages. Spell checking does not count. Research does not count. New pages count. So when you set your page goal, remember that there are a few other tasks you should allow some time for.

What happens when life intervenes? Well, this is a weekly page count, not a daily one. That allows for days when errands eat up your time, when you get a free lift ticket for skiing, when your dog has to go to the vet. Make it up over the next few days.

But what if, despite working a little harder on the remaining days, you still don’t make your weekly goal? Then the rule is you must write during your anticipated relaxation time. Sunday, let’s say. Or tonight after dinner. Or during Netflix time with the family tomorrow evening. A few weeks of that penalty, and you’ll begin to take the page count seriously. What if you seldom reach your weekly goal? Guilt? No, just revise the goal.

Now you never again have to ask yourself if you’re  doing enough. Did you make your page count? If so, you’re guilt free!


Note: I’ll be in Portland next Tuesday, April 19 for a fun SFWA gig along with Jay Lake and Brent Weeks, best-selling author of The Black Prism and The Night Angel Trilogy. The three of us will read from our novels and comment on our work in light of the evening’s theme, The Familiar and the Strange.

Set in the pub-like atmosphere of the McMenamins Kennedy School, the event begins at 7:00pm and ends by 8:30pm. No tickets are required.

10 Responses

  1. Thanks Kay, and good luck in Portland

  2. Rachel says:

    Such a timely post–you must be reading my mind. I’ve been having trouble sticking to my goal lately. I hadn’t even thought about planning for all the extra stuff that goes into my writing! Thanks for pointing it out!

  3. Tiyana says:

    Thanks for the tips, Kay. I have a friend who was recently blogging about this–more as it pertains to editing, though I’m sure sharing this article will encourage her nevertheless. It certainly encourages me! Lingering clouds of guilt = not cool.

  4. J. Noel says:

    I have three little ones under 10 yrs old, and I swore to not be stuck to a computer when they’re home. So I try to steal time when they’re asleep.

    Working a full time job and having a family leaves little time, but my keyboard is smokin’ when I work during my limited writing time.

  5. When I’m working on a first draft, I’ve used daily page quotas, with one or two days off per week. After doing this for a number of years — like a decade — I developed an internal sense of “a good day’s work” that doesn’t always coincide with actual pages. Sometimes it’s more, occasionally less. There’s a sense of the fuel gauge dipping toward Empty. The twist is that sometimes I do my best writing “on Empty,” when my front-brain has run out of pre-planned ideas and my intuitive back-brain takes a flying leap off the edge of reason and presents me with answers I had no idea were there.

    Another stopping point, one I am wise not to argue with, is my body’s need for movement. No matter how ergonomic my work set up is, from time to time I get fidgety and need to stretch, go walking, do some yoga, scrub something. This can be enormously productive time in terms of settling my thoughts and getting me ready for the next hour’s work.

  6. Kay says:

    By the time you’ve got a lot of books out there, it’s amazing how writing becomes a part of the ecology of our lives. Where at first we might have had to resort to strict disciplines, later it is integrated. It is how we live.

  7. Kay says:

    Very wise. Even a few hours a week deepens your skills. The hard trade off for me when I was in your position was choosing whether to read or do my writing. Glad your keyboard gets a good workout!

  8. Kay says:

    Some are more susceptible than others… I find that so much of the writing life is a mind game. Keeping the doubts under control is a big one.

  9. Kay says:

    It depends on where you are in your craft and in your career, but some of the stuff we think we have to do for writing can be time-wasting. Sometimes things like social media and rewriting are a way of avoiding writing. I’ve always found it odd how people who love to write still manage to avoid it. I do it myself sometimes, and no idea why.

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