"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Friday, 3 October 2008

How Much Should you Write?

In this morning's Independent books pages, literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, struck by Tony Blair's claim to have written the first 16,000 words of his memoir in 4 days, asks: "How quickly should authors write?" In my experience the most common question asked when a writer meets the public at a bookshop or signing is: "How long did it take you?" I find the question impossible to answer. Firstly, my time, as a full time freelance author gets better results than an academic who has classes to take, essays to mark, admin to perform. So my two years might be equivalent to a don's five years. In addition, most of the time on a non-fiction book is spent on research. The writing is the shorter bit. But the real problem is that no one wants to be honest. With the example of these Flaubertian perfectionists who write 150 words a day who is going to admit to 1500? Actually, I think that figure is probably the truthful norm. A non-fiction writer can produce more, not least because cutting and pasting quotations of 200 words or so isn't exactly creatively exhausting and it boosts your word count. On the other hand, you can actually achieve minus figures if you approach your desk and find that the 1500 words you had built up since the start of the week are actually no good and you must delete them. Sometimes, in writing you go backwards in order to advance.

I once created great amusement with one of my writing students by comparing myself to a carpet-layer. If I had to fit a carpet it would take me a week to do one room. I watch with amazement, therefore, when professionals whip in and do it in less than an hour. If you are skilled, gifted and have a natural aptitude for something you will do it more quickly than someone who writes only one letter or email a week with laborious slowness. Don't believe them if they tell you they just write 400 words a day for a living.

[The above took me nine minutes!!]

9 comments:

Fiona Robyn said...

My 'wordcount' depends on what stage of a novel I'm at - but sometimes I feel very lazy about how little time I actually spend putting words onto the screen - I bash out 1000 (rubbish) words a day at first-draft stage, but that rarely takes longer than an hour. But then if you count thinking and processing, I could say I'm a writer for 14 hours of every day...

William Palmer said...

I think it was Graham Greene who used to do a strict 500 words a day and finish at that exact numder even if it meant stopping in mid-sentence. He said that this gave him something to clutch onto the next day - so he could break the ice of that dreaded first sentence of the day.
When writing a novel I average about 600-700 a day, I suppose. With poetry, I write about three poems a year, which, if you ignore drafts and revisions, comes to about two words a day.
A 1000 word review can be done in a morning, or, with some books, in one's sleep.

ed said...

I stick pretty religiously to 1,000 words a day, whether fiction or nonfiction. This was a figure I adduced from Anthony Burgess. And I also understand that Will Self sticks with a grand too. That's long enough to get into a groove, but short enough to prevent fatigue or burnout. I can generally pump out 1,000 words sometime between 20 minutes or six hours, which includes revision time, depending upon the circumstances. I often write considerably more than 1,000 words if the mood fits me. The point is to have fun while you're writing, but also stay productive. And the problem with questions like this one is that, in answering them, one may very well be accused of boasting, as Mr. Blair most certainly is.

Attys said...

My "wordcount" evolved. I began my current novel as a challenge from a friend to write something, so I began with a 200 word snippet. I stuck to the 200 word a night (yes, a night--I still have a day job) regimen for the first few months of the work. I gradually graduated to 500 words a night, and then once I felt more confident, 1000 words a night. By that time I felt in complete control of my writing, and could afford to set myself that lofty goal. Now, the novel is finished, and I'm in the revision phase, which brings a whole new metric to writing. With revising, I'm not concerned with word count, or even page count, but with the completeness of the work. If I spend an hour working on one page, but get it into a form which I think is as good as I can get it, then that is as productive as "revising" 10 pages, but knowing that I'll have to go and revisit them. I guess the point is that I work as much as I need or want to.

Nicholas Murray said...

What fascinating responses to an admittedly impossible question! I do think you are all right to say that it depends on the kind of writing you are doing. Also, time as well as number of words is relevant too. One of the problems of writing, especially creative writing, is that it comes in bursts of furious energy and there is a whole day out there to fill with useful activity. Use of computers - I write everything directly on to screen except poetry which I do with pencil and paper - has probably made outputs greater because you no longer need to tear a sheet out of the typewriter like they do in the movies and start again. And revising, deleting, re-presenting a page, is so much easier. People used to argue that word-processing was bad for writers. I have always believed that it is a good thing because it makes polishing, rewriting, redrafting so much easier. As for boasting: who is the boaster? The writer who claims to produce 2000 words a day or the one who claims that anything more than 200 is vulgar churning-out, mere typing?

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with you entirely about the computer, Nick. It certainly is an aid to speed and output, but this may be why so many novels and stories now seem to be written in flavourless and limp prose - a sort of processed cheese. The first draft looks seductively professional and revision, or rather alteration, is easy - up to a point. It would presumably not occur to anyone now to save a first draft on the computer and then write a complete second draft. Or third. Writing is re-writing. It's very easy to tinker with a page on the screen: the old way - now looked upon as hopelessly antediluvian - of typing up a second draft from a first handwritten draft - meant that you radically cut, altered and refined in the process. Then that draft would be covered with many many corrections and you would retype the whole damn thing again, and again change, until finally you began to find out what worked best in your own book. Of course I now use a word processor - but I print out work every day and correct on paper.

Nicholas Murray said...

I can only speak from my own experience that I do revise heavily as I go in the same way as I did with the older systems of paper rolled into the barrel of a typewriter. I think the means you use are terribly important and Iris Murdoch probably DID write better with her famous fountain pen so you must choose the method that suits you best. The blandness and processed cheese quality of much contemporary writing is, I concede, very real and palpable but I wonder whether its sources lie in the cloth ears of publishers, agents, editors, reviewers, critics, who constantly praise dead writing of this kind.

William Palmer said...

Ah, now why did that come out as anonymous - presumably because I hit the wrong bloody key. C'est moi, William, Nick.

Nicholas Murray said...

William, my literary critical perceptions have not deserted me. I guessed it might have been you. Dons often talk about students who hand in gleamingly laser-printed essays that are unspeakable and certainly unreadable so there is a lot in the idea that the ease with which one can produce something that LOOKS LIKE WRITING is snare and a delusion. There is no substitute for the hard graft of revision, as you say, and for the sense of writing as, like any other art form, a battle with the resistant matter of form out of which triumphs are, sometimes, created.