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.

One Reply 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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