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Writing Advice: Doing It, Slowly

Dear Nancy,

I have a friend who often tells me how much he has written. He’s all like – “yeah, today I finished that story I was working on and started a new one, got ten pages down.” When the writing is not going well for me, which is most of the time, I’d like to whack him in the face with his own well-thumbed copy of Infinite Jest. So can you tell me – how much should a self-respecting writer actually produce on any given day? Like, how many pages?

Unprolific in Utah

Dear Unprolific,

This is a very timely question because in a couple of days, writers around the world will be launching into the tenth annual NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, the aim of which is to complete a 50,000 word manuscript over the month of November – a daily average of 1667 words, or about six pages. There are many good reasons to take part in NaNoWriMo. It provides a jolt of energy, community, and a big challenge, all of which help some people to up their game and realign their priorities. And I’m sure it can be fun.

But Unprolific, do you need me to tell you that the real writing life is about quality, not quantity? Anyone can rattle off 1667 words a day – making those words good enough to publish is a whole different story. Writers are not cows. There’s no minimum yield. And there are innumerable stories about extremely talented writers who work very, very slowly. Recently:

Junot Diaz spent ten years working on The Brief Wondrous World of Oscar Wao, which, at 352 pages, comes out to a production rate of just over 32 pages a year.

Lorrie Moore had a fourteen year gap between her last novel and her new one, A Gate at The Stairs, which averages out to 22-and-a-bit pages a year.

Ian Frazier’s new nonfiction book about Siberia has been approximately sixteen years in the making so far, and he’s not done with it yet.

These writers have been working on other things alongside their books, of course, and I’m sure no one actually thinks that they have split their production time equally over each year as my amortized page counts suggest. But I, for one, find their examples more inspiring and encouraging than a whole independent bookstore full of NaNoWriMo-ers.

I think that a regular – if not daily – engagement with your work is crucial. Without that engagement, the writing can wither and die, like a plant that hasn’t been tended. Writing is a living thing, after all, isn’t it? Daily engagement doesn’t always result in the production of pages, though. It can lead, instead, to a realization, an idea, a new way of structuring the work, some character development, some revision.

You might write and write and write one day and feel really good about what you have produced, come back the next day and delete every sentence but one, start over, and then do it all again the day after that. You might struggle for several hours just to force out one paragraph, which you hate. You might write an excellent scene that has no place in your manuscript. These are all good writing days in my book.

A quick, informal poll of my writing friends revealed that almost no one measures their production in term of pages or word count. It’s almost always about time spent at the coal face of the work, and even that can vary enormously from one writer to the next, according to life circumstances and each writer’s personal definition of what feels like enough.

Guilt over supposed “underproduction” is just one of the ways we beat ourselves up, as writers. And what good does beating ourselves up do, ultimately? Most of the time, I think it just gets in the way, consuming mental energy that could be channeled into something more useful. This self-flagellation comes from a desire to produce, to push ourselves, perhaps – which is a useful drive to have. But if you engage regularly, tend your writerly garden, that urge should be met. Engage, and the production will take care of itself, in its own sweet time.

And so, yeah, your prolific writing friend sounds like he’s either Dave Eggers*, a NaNoWriMo-er, or a literary size-queen: trying to make up in volume what he lacks in technique. Real writers do it slowly. Make that your new mental bumper sticker.

Best,

Nancy.

*Don’t think about Joyce Carrol Oates or Dave Eggers. Their rates of production are so far outside of the norm that contemplating them can bring on nausea. You can’t compare yourself to the freakishly prolific – no good will come of it.

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