What do we value: words or minutes or words per minute?

What if we ditched metrics like word count and paid attention to the amount of time that we spent at our writing?

What do we value: words or minutes or words per minute?

Recently, I was given a subscription to MasterClass. Immediately, I went to the writing classes to see who all was there. Joyce Carol Oates! The Joyce Carol Oates! I clicked on her class and a little trailer started rolling in the banner: video of Oates speaking, video of Oates writing. One particular shot, however, caught my eye: B-roll footage that panned across the many books that she’s written, reams and reams of bound pages full of Oates’s words.

Joyce Carol Oates is prolific.

Naturally, I must ask myself:
What do I need to do to become prolific?

As a writer, I often put stock in production.

  • How many words did I write today?
  • What page number am I on?
  • How many pages can I produce over the next week?
  • Can I do a sort of writing sprint and produce 500 words in the next 20 minutes?

I have begun to think that this is a misguided metric, however. The production of words is not always the signal that you’ve done good work on that particular day. I know we might be swayed by someone like Stephen King—talk about prolific!—who locks himself in his office and does not emerge until he’s produced 2,000 words. We might be inclined to come up with a reasonable word count that we can fit into our busy schedules.

But that’s not the case at all.

While King emphasizes word count, what he’s really saying is that he puts himself in his office and he gives himself time to produce.

Approaching writing as something that takes time makes total sense when you consider that the solution to most writing problems is not “more words.” Yes, of course, we need to put words on the page in order to solve any writing problem; we have to amass 70,000 words or more, for example, to complete our novel. For most writing problems, however, the real trick is to find the right words and to say as much as you can with as few of them as possible. We might envy the Knausgaards of the universe and their 3,500-page novels (and I do enjoy Knausgaard!), but brevity is still the soul of wit, isn’t it?

What if, instead of paying so much attention to how many words we are producing or the rate at which we are producing them, we paid attention to the amount of time that we spent at our writing?

Today, I’ve spent an hour at my writing. Regardless of the number of words that I produce, that’s an hour well-spent, isn’t it?

It stands to reason that the more time we spend with our writing, the better we will get at it. This is the heart of Ericsson’s “Expertise Theory.” Intentional time in practice yields expertise. The more time we spend working on our craft, the better we will get at that craft. The better writer will naturally produce more words and will naturally find a way to solve writing challenges more quickly. Thus, time spent in writing will eventually equal that prolific output that we desire.

Don’t get too enamored with or frustrated by your  word count. Take the time to write and you’ll find that your writing will come out well.