Writers, words and time

Words and time are some­thing every writer wrestles with. Two truths sum up the dilemma:

  1. There is nev­er enough time to write.
  2.  When you do write, you nev­er pro­duce as many words as you’d like.

Professional writers and those who are ser­i­ous about writ­ing, even if they have oth­er oblig­a­tions, such as day jobs and or young fam­il­ies, learn to set aside time every day – or at least every week – to prac­tise their craft. And it’s called prac­tise because, just like play­ing the piano, the more you do it, the bet­ter you get.

But what con­sti­tutes a reas­on­able writ­ing prac­tise? Many pro­fes­sion­als set them­selves a min­im­um word count each day. According to “The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors,” Ernest Hemingway aimed for 500 words a day while Sophie Kinsella man­ages 1,000 and Stephen King aver­ages 2,000.

Once, I con­duc­ted a 30 minute phone inter­view and com­pleted a 1,000 word art­icle with­in two hours. But most non­fic­tion pro­jects – espe­cially a book – rarely move that quickly. What seems like a simple sen­tence can lead to hours of fact-check­ing or track­ing down elu­sive sources.

So, instead of set­ting daily word counts, I don’t con­sider my work day over until I’ve put in a min­im­um of five intensely focused hours on my book. That can include inter­views and research, as well as writ­ing. In fact, research can make up as much as 75% of the time I spend on a non­fic­tion book.

At the end of five hours, I may have writ­ten five pages, five para­graphs or five sen­tences. I put in the time but the words — and research — set their own pace. In an inter­view by Alan Twigg pos­ted on BC Booklook, the late Al Purdy, poet extraordin­aire, noted that he wrote the title poem to Caribou Horses in 30 minutes while anoth­er poem, “Postscript,” took sev­en years.

When you write can make a dif­fer­ence too. In “Famous Authors Routines: Rise Early, Work Early, and Count The Words,” David Paul Kirkpatrick observes that many fam­ous authors get up early – even before first light — to write.

I must con­fess, the sol­it­ary silence of early morn­ing is my favour­ite – and most pro­duct­ive – time to write. The house and neigh­bour­hood are quiet, it’s highly unlikely the phone will ring and my brain is unsul­lied by the chat­ter and occur­rences of the day. That’s when it’s easi­est to lose myself in my work.

A computer generated collage by artist Bev Byerley. www.bevbyerley.com

A com­puter gen­er­ated col­lage by artist Bev Byerley. www​.bevby​er​ley​.com

Occasionally, I even flip the angst of insom­nia into cre­at­ive energy by get­ting up to write. Tiptoeing to the com­puter with mug of tea in hand feels slightly naughty and I know I’ll sur­render to sleep at some point in the day. But in the mean­time, I’m dis­trac­ted from whatever was keep­ing me awake…and, strangely, the words seem to fill the page faster than usu­al.

I nev­er take my work (or self) too ser­i­ously at 2 am so that may explain the tsunami of sen­tences. But part of the magic, I’m sure, comes from being some­where between con­scious­ness and sleep, that dreamy, half-awake state that shuts off the inner cen­sor and allows the muse to creep in.

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One Response to Writers, words and time

  1. Beautifully writ­ten and bang on as well! “Apply seat of pants to seat of chair” is a more brusque bit of advice but hon­estly, unless we can stand kid­ding ourselves and being delu­sion­al for months on end before self-loath­ing kicks in, we abso­lutely have to write some­thing, any­thing, of value every day. Your five hour régime for writ­ing and research is for­mid­able but then, like many with a back­ground as pro­fes­sion­al journ­al­ists, you are a highly pro­duct­ive and self-dis­cip­lined writer.
    Speaking of which, I must get back at it myself. Or else feel like a fraud claim­ing to be a writer, when I should be doing real work, which is writ­ing!

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