Writing by Numbers

Scott William Carter   October 14, 2009  

I mentioned to a friend the other day that it was my goal to write three books over the next year and got the predictably shocked look. 

“You?” my friend said.  “Are you going to quit your day job?”


“But you’ve got a full time job.  Two young kids . . .”

My friend wondered how I could possibly find the time.  Well, it’s true that I have to make choices, but it’s not nearly as hard as most people think.  It’s just writing by numbers.

This isn’t the same thing as painting by numbers.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean that if I want to write four books (and actually, I want to throw in some short stories too), I figure out how many words that’ll be approximately, then divide that number by the number of days I plan to write.  Here’s how it looks in my Writing Productivity Spreadsheet (and yes, I really do have such a spreadsheet, where I log all my writing sessions; if I’m not honest how hard I’m working at this, then it’s too easy to lie to myself): 


  #Words Total Words
Average Book Length (words) 75,000  
Average Story Length (words) 5000  
Number of Books / Year 4 300000
Number of Stories a Year 6 30000
Total Words   330000
Daily Rate (missing 35 days) 1000


As you can see, if I write 1000 words a day, 330 days a year, then I can easily reach my goal of writing three books in one year, as well as tossing in a half dozen short stories to boot.  In fact, as the chart indicates, I can actually write four books a year, but I built that in as a cushion knowing that I occasionally have to throw away all or part of a novel that isn’t going well.  I can write 1000 words in forty-five minutes to an hour and a half, depending on how the work is going.  A thousand words is roughly two single-spaced pages. 

I change some of the numbers in this spreadsheet as a way of playing”what if.”  What if I was writing longer novels (I often write YA, which skews the novel word counts down a bit)?  What if I only wrote five days a week?  What if I only wanted to write two books a year?  Each time I change a variable, it changes what my daily rate needs to be.

A thousand words is a comfortable pace for me.  It’s the pace I keep coming back to time and time again.  I mix that up with the occasional marathon writing day, but the longer I’ve been at this, the more important it’s become to write every day.  I wouldn’t have said that five years ago, but a couple things have happened along the way:  1) I’ve become addicted to writing, so I get cranky when I don’t do it; and 2) As I’ve gotten better at it, I enjoy it even more, so there’s fewer days that I’m having to drag myself into my office. 

Can I find an hour a day?  Oh sure.  Sometimes it’s thirty minutes here, twenty minutes there, but if you’re serious about something, no matter how busy your life is, you can always find the time.

Just run the numbers.

Well I sell all those books?  Who knows.  That’s outside my control.  I’ll certainly try.  But I’m a firm believer that the rate of my success is dependent on the level of my productivity, a truism that I think applies to almost anything worth accomplishing in life.

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