In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review, author Fran Lebowitz tells the story of one day walking into Sotheby’s and being shown a manuscript of Mark Twain’s.
As she and an employee were examining the manuscript, the employee said that, while he considered himself to be knowledgeable about Twain, he would be calling in a Twain scholar to explain why there were little numbers scribbled all about the manuscript. Fran, however, knew the answer.
“I happen not to be a Twain scholar but I happen to be a scholar of little numbers written all over the place,” she said. “He was counting the words.”
To test the theory, the skeptical employee began counting the words, only to realize that Lebowitz was right. “Twain must’ve been paid by the word,” he said.
“It may have nothing to do with being paid by the word,” she replied. “Twain might have told himself he had to write this many words each day and he would wonder, Am I there yet? Like a little kid in the back of a car – are we there yet?”
It is a question that all writers have asked since pen first touched paper: how many words should I be writing per day? Well, there really is no right answer. The number of words per day varies from author to author, and then there is the question: how many salvageable words should one write per day?
In his autobiography, Twain writes that when he was finishing his 1897 book Following The Equator, he would average about 1,800 words per day. In 1904, he would write around 1,400 words over a span of four to five hours. The average double-spaced manuscript page is around three hundred words, making his output roughly 4-6 pages per day.
Twain’s output seems to be about the average when examining the daily work of other writers. On the more modest side are writers like Ian McEwan, whose word count is 600 on an average day, and 1,000 on a good day.
On the higher end of the output scale, there are writers like P.G. Wodehouse who, during his 93 years on Earth, somehow managed to write, among other works, 71 novels, 24 short story collections, 42 plays, 15 film scripts, and three autobiographies. He wrote at least 2,000 words a day.
Then there are writers whose output varies from day to day, like Ernest Hemingway. As George Plimpton observed when he went to interview Hemingway in 1958:
“He keeps track of his daily progress – ‘so as not to kid myself’ – on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.”
And that is really what it comes down to: guilt. As Fran is always quick to point out, not writing is the easiest thing in the world; however, as all writers know, it is also the most painful.
Many writers have often been unable to sleep after a day in which they did not write. It seems as though counting words is one’s way of avoiding that guilt, and therein lies the real answer to the question.
How many words should one write per day? However many it takes to make one feel productive and avoid that wretched writer’s guilt.Originally Published