I wake up in the morning, pry myself out of bed and sulk around thinking that a bowl of cereal or cup of tea is the next piece in the puzzle to making myself ready to stare at the screen for the next few hours and write. I’ve spoken about how inspiration is BS, and even William Faulkner agrees with me:
I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning.
This inspiration to write often comes from a goal, written on paper, or so ingrained in your habits that it flows out of you naturally everyday. This started turning my mind wheels, because I often switch off between my goals.
Sometimes I set a time limit and other times I set a word count goal for writing.
I’ve bounced back and forth with both word count and time goals for writing, finding that sometimes a time limit leads to sloppy work, while word count goals give me an excuse to take all the time in the world, leading to an inefficient workflow.
Let’s take a look at influential writers and see exactly how they approached the goal setting situation. It seems that some are clock punchers, sticking to a time frame, and others are word count chasers, plucking their keyboard until a number is reached.
According to Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mark Twain would focus primarily on time. He woke up in the morning to a filling breakfast then headed to his study where he stayed uninterrupted until 5pm. His time-based model allowed him to pump out about 1,000 words per day as a result.
In a 1968 interview Jack Kerouac didn’t seem to have much need for word counts, since the timing and setting meant everything:
The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired.
In an interview, Simone de Beauvoir explained how she chopped her writing work into two time frames throughout the day. With no apparent focus on word count, she had her tea, started work at 10am and stopped at around 1pm. Later in the evening she would get back at it and work from 5pm to 9pm.
Word Count Chasers
Stephen King reveals that he never lets a day pass without hammering out at least 2,000 words per day. He focuses on word count as opposed to setting a time limit. King talks about his entire routine and how he even manages to hit his mark on weekends and holidays in his book On Writing.
Hemingway wrote in the morning and seemingly sat down to write whenever he felt the urge, but his 500 word goal is one of the more popular approaches that current writers seem to follow.
James Joyce used a different approach, and I’m not sure if I would classify him as a clock puncher or word count chaser. The Ulysses scribe once mentioned this in conversation:
“I’ve been working hard on [Ulysses] all day,” said Joyce.
Does that mean that you have written a great deal?” I said.
Two sentences,” said Joyce.
I looked sideways but Joyce was not smiling. I thought of [French novelist Gustave] Flaubert. “You’ve been seeking the mot juste?” I said.
No,” said Joyce. “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence.”
So in a sense he focused on perfecting those two sentences, but this also gave him an unlimited amount of time to achieve those perfect sentences.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section if you are more of a clock puncher or word count chaser. Have you tried both word count and time goals for writing and found that one is more effective than the other?