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Writer Productivity

Daily Writing Goals: Measuring by Output or Time Spent?

April 9, 2022

Most full-time authors will agree that the key to making a career as a novelist is showing up regularly.

Not every author writes every day (many do), but even the more sporadic writers like myself know that when deadline looms, there is only one thing that’s going to get you there:

Hitting your daily writing goal.

There are two primary methods of measuring this daily goal:

  1. Time spent: Hours per day working on the manuscript
  2. Quantity: Minimum word count or pages to write per day

I’m a quantity gal myself. I figure out how many words I need to write per day to hit my deadline (actually, Ulysses figures it out for me), and I write at least that many words. When I hit it, I’m allowed to stop writing and work on something else, even if that’s at 7am.

Stephen King, who is much, much bigger than me, is also a quantity person, though he measures in pages instead of words. According to his book WritingA Memoir of The Craft, King writes about 8 to 10 pages every day.

Other big-time time authors, James Patterson and Dan Brown are time spent writers. They spend X number of hours every day writing, regardless of output. If they work for eight hours and come out with three words, fine. If they work for eight hours and come out with three thousand words, fine.

Now, the big question: which method is better?

I feel very strongly about this:

One is not better than the other, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

It all comes down to what works best for you.

For me, it’s all about quantity, and here’s why: 

The mere suggestion that I have to sit at the computer for a certain number of hours, regardless of how it’s going, gives me horrible flashbacks to my day job where I had to sit in a cubicle for 8 hours even if I’d gotten my work done for the day.

I find it much more incentivizing to know that once I hit the 1k words or 2k words, or whatever my daily goal is, then I get to stop. On a good writing day, that means I’m often done with my writing by 6:30am (I’m an early morning writer). And, yes, there are “bad” writing days where the same number of words may may take me into the afternoon hours.

But for me, measuring by output removes procrastination from the equation. I know myself. I know that if I tell myself that I have to sit at the computer for five hours no matter what, I’ve got no incentive to buckle down and write faster. I can write 3k words per hour and still have to sit there for four hours more? No thanks.

But if I tell myself I have to sit at at the computer until 1,000 words and then I do something easier or more fun (let’s be real, writing is hard even when we love it), then I’m going to hustle to get those 1,000 words down because the faster I do it, the faster I get to go play.

Dan Brown disagrees with me. Without spoiling the content of his Masterclass (highly recommended), he thinks cutting yourself off at a certain word-count can limit “flow” (that amazing writing place where we get into our groove and the words feel effortless”).

That isn’t the case for me; when I hit flow-state, I’m not aware of word count or the clock, and this entire conversation becomes irrelevant.

But it’s clear that Dan Brown feels strongly about his method, and I know a few Big Name Romance authors (my genre) who work the same way: their work day is centered by the clock, not the ending word count.

All of which is to say, different people work differently.

You may already know which category you fall into (or maybe you change depending on your mood, and that’s great too!)

But if you’re not sure, here’s an exercise that might help:

Imagine you’re staring down the barrel of a book deadline:

Try both of these statements on for size:

  1. All I have to do to finish this book is show up for X hours/minutes every day until it’s done.
  2. All I have to do to finish this book is write X words/pages every day until it’s done.

Which of those scenarios stresses you out the most?

Do the other one. 

Lastly, an important thing to note:

The examples in this article full-time, career authors. The time spent is in the hours, the wordcount is in the thousands, because that’s their job.

You do not have to have those same measurements! If writing isn’t your day job, and/or if childcare, and other stuff on your plate, adjust accordingly!

Instead of “I’ll write a 1,000 words a day,” maybe it’s 100. Hell, maybe it’s ten words per day—I’ve done that! Some days, if I’m anxious, stressed, with a full calendar, my only writing “to do” is just to open the manuscript.

And instead of, “I’ll write for four hours a day,” maybe you set a 30 minute timer every day. Or a 5-minute timer. Or a 2-minute timer!

The key isn’t the number of words or the length of time. It’s that you keep showing up.