Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Quantity and Quality: On Writing Quotas

When I asked novelist Michael Lane if he had learned any lessons he wanted to pass on to other writers, he said, "Set a daily word-count and meet it, even if you’re writing absolute garbage that day. If you do that, you’ll finish, and once it’s done there’s no passage so bad you can’t go back and fix it." From what I've seen, Michael's in good company: word count is a pretty common measurement for writers to use in setting quotas for themselves.

When I was doing the first draft of my current book, a word count quota worked perfectly. The only important thing was to get the ideas down. Clarity, completeness, voice and all that were optional at that point, and getting the details right was not even a consideration.

When I started doing the second draft, I didn't give myself any quotas at all beyond knowing I needed to get it done before NaNoWriMo '13. I waited until I felt recharged after NaNoWriMo '12 and started in with enthusiasm about a week into December. But without a standard to measure my progress by, I alternately floundered and obsessed. By the middle of January it was more than clear that I needed to set some sort of quota.

But word count wasn't going to do it, for two main reasons:

  • Overall, the second draft expands on the first, but passages of the first draft are ridiculously wordy, redundant or just need to be removed, so some days the word count goes down instead of up.
  • This is a Star Trek novel. That means I have a huge body of already-established particulars to follow, from timelines and events to technology, cultural thinking and of course, the Cardassian language itself. And thanks to a not-entirely-unearned genre stereotype, I'm zealous about protecting my reputation by not letting the novel degrade into an inaccurate hack-job. Sometimes a single sentence can represent several hours of research.
Thanks to Paramount
After a few weeks of mulling it over and some help from my brother, I decided to try these simple requirements:
  1. Write something each day, six days a week, even if it's just a couple of sentences. This keeps my head in the story so I don't lose momentum. And more often than not, writing those obligatory 'couple of sentences' has gotten my thoughts flowing and turned out quite a bit of work for the day after all. As for that seventh day, sometimes I need to take time away from the story to gain a little perspective or refresh my mind.
  2. Stay on track to finish this draft and the related screenplay Quicksilver before November. I'm about two months into this draft and a little over a quarter done. At this rate I should finish in early August and have plenty of time for the screenplay - not that I have to do them in that order, of course.
The plan is so simple and general I wasn't confident it would work, but I've been doing it for about two weeks now and it's going great. My writing productivity has shot up and I'm able to relax and enjoy it instead of worrying whether I've done enough yet.

What kind of quotas do you set for yourself? If you use word count, how do you account for time spent on research and the need to cut or consolidate a passage from a previous draft? Or, to put it another way, how do you resist the temptation to be sloppy with your details or leave bloated passages untouched?

(This episode was brought brought to you by the letter Q.)


  1. Good advice. Thanks for sharing.

    As to your question, some of what I write is research intensive, so, as you say, it may appear, at first glance, that not much got done. However, if I'm not writing, I consider myself "on the job" if I'm at least doing research and taking notes. It's kind of impossible to quantify, but as you say, it's necessary.