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.bevbyerley.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.