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January 18, 2007

How Much You Should Write Each Day

There's some discussion going on in SF blog circles about what it means to write quickly or to write slowly, and whether books that are written quickly can be written well, and so on.

This is actually pretty simple. For someone who wants to be a professional writer (i.e., wants to make a living at this crazy business):

a) It's better to be fast than slow;
b) It's better to be good than fast.

As to whether a book that is written quickly can be written well, I find this a deeply uninteresting question. There's absolutely no way to tell from the text whether a good book was written in three months or three years; likewise there's no way to tell whether a book that sucks raw eggs was banged out in six weeks or slaved over for a decade. From the reader point of view process simply doesn't matter; product does.

I mean, look: George R.R. Martin took five years to write A Feast For Crows; I took three months to write Old Man's War. Both books got nominated for the Hugo, and both books got beat by Spin, which I rather strongly suspect was written by Bob Wilson in a space of time that was longer than three months but shorter than five years. To the extent that the Hugos are an arbiter of quality writing at all, what does this tell us about how long it takes to make good writing? If you are thinking to yourself "why, not a goddamned thing! Not a goddamned thing at all!" then congratulations, you've landed on truth.

Likewise, it's not evident that Feast, Spin or OMW would be better or worse if their respective writers took more time or less time to write them. I suspect in each case the writers took as much time as was required to write the novels as well as they could. Before that time the work wasn't ready; after that, spending any more time fiddling with the text would be like putting lipstick on a pig.

I have a good general idea of how much I can write in an average day, but I don't find much point in being obsessive about it. Some days I write more, some days I write less, and as long as I don't have a deadline in a week, that's fine. I find the most important metric for writing is whether I'm happy with what I've written that day. If I am, I've written the correct amount, regardless of how many words that amount ends up being. I think this is a good guideline for writers.

Posted by john at January 18, 2007 09:27 PM

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Gillian | January 18, 2007 10:05 PM

When you next put lipstick on a pig, can you post the pictures here please?

I agree with you, though. It's all about what gets written and not about how long it takes except when there's someone waiting anxiously at the other end for the finished piece. Then it's still about what gets written, but the writing gets done in a pressure cooker.

Marianne | January 18, 2007 10:07 PM

a) It's better to be fast than slow;
b) It's better to be good than fast.

is actually pretty good advice for a LOT of things.

elizabeth bear | January 18, 2007 10:24 PM

Some people like their pigs with lipstick.

Or pirate hats.

But we do not condone the thing with the goat.

John Scalzi | January 18, 2007 10:33 PM

But that's the great thing about goats: They don't need your stinkin' approval.

Jay Lake | January 18, 2007 10:38 PM

I blame MFA programs, myself.

Jenny Rae Rappaport | January 18, 2007 11:32 PM

Jay, why do you blame MFA programs?
(says she who graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and decided not to go for an MFA)

Adam Rakunas | January 19, 2007 12:01 AM

And now that you've name-dropped both Martin and Wilson, I look forward to them appearing in this thread in exactly eight comments.

Jay Lake | January 19, 2007 12:01 AM

Because insofar as I can tell (not being an MFA holder or dropout either one), there is a very strong emphasis in most MFA programs, and academic creative writing circles in general, on the critical importance of polishing and rewriting stories. The revision seems to be considered the core of the process.

While this is certainly true of some writers, perhaps many writers, it is by no means a universal Truth of Fiction. Also, that thinking (and teaching) about revision and polishing serves to strengthen the attitude that fast writing cannot by definition be good, as it has not been revised and polished sufficiently.

Not that I care, really. I find this debate interesting but pointless, like one of those Medieval theology exercises. I write what I write. You like it or you don't as your tastes suggest. As with Scalzi with his Hugo nom and his Campbell, I'll put *my* Hugo nom and my Campbell up as evidence that it works for me and my readership.

Jon | January 19, 2007 12:05 AM

If putting lipstick on a pig doesn't make a good enough picture, you can always tape bacon to it.

Metal Fatigue | January 19, 2007 12:16 AM

Ew. That's like taping Chinese food to a cat.

Karl | January 19, 2007 12:32 AM

I have commonly read advice that writers should sit down and write for four hours then call it a day. Reading between the lines, this doesn't seem to be the way that you work. I would love to hear your opinion on the four hour advice, ideally in entry form. I'm guessing that other Whatever readers are curious too.

Mitch Wagner | January 19, 2007 02:21 AM

Huh. I touched on this very subject on my blog, then immediately after posting I read your blog post, having no idea that you were writing about a similar subject.

I find, in journalism, that I can do my best work fast. Others can judge whether that's any good (I think it's very good indeed, myself), but it's not going to get any better if I take more time at writing.

I'm still a big reviser in fiction. This might diminish when I get more practice. Then again, maybe not. I'm not a bit worried about it.

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) | January 19, 2007 02:28 AM

It all depends on what MFA is an initialization for. Some things are good, some things are bad, and some things will very likely have serious genetic consequences for their descendants.

Jemaleddin | January 19, 2007 05:32 AM


'Nuff said.

G. Jules | January 19, 2007 07:33 AM

I second Karl in his interest in your day-to-day process.

Steve Buchheit | January 19, 2007 08:11 AM

Me three. Not that what one writer does has any bearing toward what another writer does. As you stated above, it's the final product that counts, not how fast or slow it was written.

Most of these arguments, IMHO, tend to be about "who can we slap with the label 'hack' this week?"

With my writing, especially short stories, it's all about the revision. I'm one of those writers that their second drafts are longer than their first, and with good reason.

Chang who love eat brainz and watch Czechanimation! | January 19, 2007 08:27 AM

As much as I love Isaac Asimov (see his birthday celebration on my blog), he's not the best example. He was certainly prolific and put forth many astounding and profound ideas. But as for the actual writing? Weak character development and differentiation has always been a (valid) criticism of his work. I kind of think he was more of an ideas writer than a writer's writer. Kind of like Vonnegut ( another personal hero of mine; I just rescued a bunch of his books from my parents moving dumpster - those philistines!) is not such a great writer, but has written some great books.

But what do I know? I read John Scalzi, you @#&%$!&$#&^$#&^$@*&^#$&$%# commenters who wear clothes!!!

Kevin R. | January 19, 2007 08:35 AM

If GRRM takes five more years to finish A Dance With Dragons I will..... well, I'll still go buy it, but I will be annoyed!

Eric | January 19, 2007 08:36 AM

Marianne: "a) It's better to be fast than slow; b) It's better to be good than fast." is actually pretty good advice for a LOT of things.

Interestingly, part (a) isn't always true for computer programmers. If a programmer can't be good, you generally want them to be as slow as possible. That way, there's less for other people to clean up.

In any kind of group environment, people who spew huge amounts of bad work can be really frustrating. I suppose for regular prose writers, this only applies to encyclopedias and similar collaborative works: "Well, Jack's articles are truly awful, but at least he only wrote one last week," is presumably much nicer than hearing that Jack wrote volumes S through U.

One good tactic for rate-limiting people who do dreadful work: Don't let them move on until they get it right. If Jack has to rewrite one article 17 times, at least he isn't making a mess elsewhere.

Chang who gots flavor | January 19, 2007 09:05 AM

Oh, I ain't slinging HAKK on Isaac. No no no.

JerolJ | January 19, 2007 03:23 PM

I would like to second the motion regarding Martin. In fact, if he could be banned from all cons until "DWD" is finished it would be exceedingly nice.

I write slow myself. It's part lack of time, part just ADHD dawdling. But either way it's painfully slow. I wish I had attendance at cons as an excuse.

Eric (a different one) | January 19, 2007 03:39 PM

Philip K. Dick, who's up in my top two or three favorite fiction authors, was usually fast and often good and sometimes both at once. But--and I write this as someone who adores his work--his lesser stories and novels are cautionary tales for those who would try to set a record for writing Ace softcovers on speed. In some cases (and this points back towards some of the comments about revision), one might even say that some of PKD's better published works basically were revisions of earlier, hastily written published works.

I suppose the point of my post being that you can be good and fast, but you (and your fans) might have to be willing to put up with a lot of chaff while you get around to finding a golden kernel. (Alternate Point: if you want to be a good and fast writer, you should consider being kind of a genius and kind of batshit crazy and possibly make sure you know all the wrong people in Berkeley--all of which may tragically shorten your life, wreak havoc with your marriages, and isn't really recommended unless you're actually capable of having something like, say, VALIS to show for it after 50 years.)

culfinriel | January 19, 2007 05:26 PM

This sounds like the stuff a lot of surgeons say, especially to medical students - that you have to be fast to be good. Which isn't true. It might have been true when there wasn't any anesthesia. I much prefer your second rule - it's better to be good than fast.

P.S. There's a thing with a goat?

Craig Ranapia | January 20, 2007 09:17 AM

There's absolutely no way to tell from the text whether a good book was written in three months or three years; likewise there's no way to tell whether a book that sucks raw eggs was banged out in six weeks or slaved over for a decade. From the reader point of view process simply doesn't matter; product does.

Well, indeed. As a bit of holiday comfort reading, I re-read Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac (written in six weeks during her summer vacation from her day job as an art history lecturer), and P.D. James' Cover Her Face (which she wrote over two years, where she would get up early to write for an hour before she went to work). The one thing both women have in common, based on interviews I've read, is that they're both pretty ruthless about giving their work their absolute attention.

And I think that's a more important question than 'how many hours do you write' - do you have the environment and self-discipline that the time you do spend are productive.

Wickedpinto | January 22, 2007 02:14 AM

mean, look: George R.R. Martin took five years to write A Feast For Crows; I took three months to write Old Man's War.

Well, you are writing in a world, without a clear saga. You have a short history in OMW, and with "The Ghost Brigades" and. . . . I think. . . you said that "the last colony" (is that the title? I always screw up specifics) was to be the last in that world, at least in that world/universe, with any of those characters.

Whereas Martin Approached (just like jordan, unfortunately) "The Song of Ice and Fire" as a contiguous saga, thinking he could handle it because of his history as an editor, probably.

With "A Feast For Crows" Martin realized that he created something so big, the he is now having a problem closing it up/combining the targaryens, and the Snows (I mean really,if everyone doesn't know that snow is the child of a targaryen and a stark needs to pay attention to the series) And with his recent editing (wildcards and others that escape me offhand) experience, he can't edit himself, and he's too well known for other editors to say "NO! Dude?! really! tone it down, smaller bits, smaller bits!" because GRRM is excellent.

He's an excellent writer, but he's also an excellent editor, so everyone just caves in. It's like Princes 5th album. Great songwriter, great performer, GREAT producer, but he screws up as soon as it comes to discipline.

Song of ICE and FIRE has the misfortune of following the same failures of Jordan, and I would say wolfe (the author of the urth series?). 4 good books in what SHOULD be a great saga, only each word and page is a paycheck.

You are more like Bruust, not contiguous, not a single saga, while still having something LIKE a saga, but not with the deliberate intent of creating one, but along the way, you have created an AWESOME universe, and enjoyable characters, and if you can't create a good story for the characters, or within that universe then you won't do it anymore. (bruust did it brilliantly so far, aspirin did okay but died recently)


Of the "saga's" I've read, all have dissapointed so far, except for bruust. though the Viscount of Adrilahnka was disappointing. All authors tend to "sell out" or rather see it as a tedium they must endure. Wolfe was damn good, but brust is best.

Jordan's "Shadow Rising" was the last good book. 4 books

Martin, too early yet, and I won't buy Feast For Crows until DWD because they are supposed to be companion pieces. So 3 books. (though those 3 books were PHENOMENAL!)

King? the Dark Tower? really? anyone who could read the third without disgust has a stronger stomach than I.

Aspirin? thats is legacy, 3 good books, the rest are blasphemy's thats why his only good series was omnivore series, and it was VERY weak at the end.

I think that good authors have a bad habbit of looking at a plate and going "this is delicious!!! I can eat 9 of these"

Meanwhile all of the saga writers are choking after plate 2, MAYBE 3. Except for brust who has a rather petite appetite per serving.

(how crazy did all that sound?)

Wickedpinto | January 22, 2007 02:22 AM

Also on GRRM's site he doesn't say to be a good author you should write every day, but rather I remember reading something like "if you want to write, write every day, and write everything every day" then he goes into an editor type of explanation, because after all the author is the first editor, so what GRRM said (less than 2 years ago, last time I read his site, I think) he said something like "everything you feel you should write, write" he also said something like "everything you thought you should write, you should read wondering if you should read it. The more you write, the more you read, and the more you learn about how much you write should be read"

I'm TOTALY paraphrasing, cuz I'm a thoughtful guy with horrible english spelling and grammatical skills.

GRRM's suggestion seems reasonable if you are a serious writer, unfortunately he left out the whole thing about artistic arrogance, which everyone who has a non-arts associated profession can confirm. :)

A.R.Yngve | January 22, 2007 08:58 AM

How long did it take Kafka to write THE TRIAL ...?

Neal Asher | January 26, 2007 08:01 AM

a) It's better to be fast than slow.
b) It's better to be good than fast.

Very true, but many writers are slow because they spend too much time agonizing over being good, then end up wrapped in angst with loads of blank pages before them and their readers moving on to the next party. One book every five years might work for some writers, others have mortgages. Write fast, write lots and it gets easier - there's plenty of editing tools right in front of you.

John Scalzi | January 26, 2007 08:41 AM

Neal Asher:

Agreed. People can fiddle themselves into irrelevancy.

In other news: Cool! Neal Asher's found my site!

Chang, ill as a motherfusker | February 18, 2007 10:27 AM

I just found the best quote about this from my hero Charles Willeford:

"Never allow yourself to take a leak in the morning," he said, "until you've written a page. That way you're guaranteed a page a day, and at the end of a year you have a novel."


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