Last night I was on the phone with a writing buddy and he shared with me how he had written 6,000 words that day, to finish up a 10,000 word chapter. I’d also been assigned a chapter in the same book, so I thought it would be interesting to share with you my writing habits by comparison.
Right off the bat I’ll say I’m in awe of anyone who can write 6,000 words a day. Even if I had all day to write with absolutely no distractions I’m pretty sure I couldn’t pull that off. I am much more of a plodder. But you know what? After years of struggling with writing and the self-doubt inherent with any solo creative field, I’ve finally found a repeatable process that works for me. I’ve learned to put my faith in the process to produce results, even if–like the tortoise in the fable–other writers zip past me and produce far more words.
When I write, I get the best results by taking a three stage approach.
Stage 1: Just get something coherent on the page. Don’t worry about sounding perfect, don’t worry overly much about formatting, and (for game writing) don’t worry about character or creature stats. The most difficult part of writing for me is simply defeating the blank page. Knowing I can revise my way out of the ugliest of first drafts (because I’ve done it before) gives me the freedom from self-criticism I need to just move forward and get the job done.
1st draft stats: 9,412 words
Stage 2: Revise. This stage is all about fleshing out the rough draft. Here’s where I fill out areas needing more explanation, make sentences sound better, pay more attention to the style guide and generally fill in the giant gaps I’d told myself I’d fix later while writing the first draft. By the end of this draft, I have a pretty decent manuscript.
2nd draft stats: 14,199 words*
Stage 3: Polish. For me, this is where the magic happens. In this final proofing run I catch the mistakes I missed or created in stage 2, fill in anything I left for the end, and make sure I’ve followed the document style guide. It’s also where I focus on writing craft. Here, I tighten up sentences, polish grammar, and generally try to sound better. Recently, to make a tight deadline I tried combining steps 2 and 3 into a single pass, telling myself I’d polish as I went. While it was acceptable, my editor noticed the difference and I’ve learned my lesson. Take the time to polish and do it in a pass distinct from the revision stage.
3rd draft stats: 14,174 words; 707 minutes
Did you know MS Word can tell you how many minutes you’ve had the document open? Unfortunately it can’t tell whether the document is your focus or if it’s merely open in the background, or even if you left it open overnight. For that reason, I’m only reporting the minutes I spent on the polishing stage. Up to that point I didn’t take care to close the document as soon as I was done. In the earlier drafts I left it open overnight more than once.
To be honest though, I’m shocked I spent nearly 12 hours just on the polishing phase. Given that writing is still a moonlighting gig for me, I need to be more self-aware of my writing speed at each phase so I can do a better job of budgeting my time. All I can say with absolute certainty is I didn’t write 6,000 words in day, like my friend.
*Yes, I overshot my target word count by more than 4,000 words. I’d already been told the book would probably need more than what was assigned, but if not I figured they could be carved out and used elsewhere.