A lot of young, contentious writers are desperate for advice on this. They want to know how much they should work, when, under what circumstances, on what topics, you name it. If you’re like me and mostly (but not all) self-trained, then you haven’t had much advice by way of peers or superiors on the topic.
That’s all totally fine, because the correct answer is really nebulous and has a lot of changing factors anyway. It depends quite a bit on who you are, what you want to do, how much of it you want to do, how much time you have, what you’re willing to sacrifice to find said time, and a multitude of other variables.
That said, most writers will tell you to write every day. This is because doing something every day is the key factor to setting up a habit, and building an adamant writing habit is essential to becoming a good writer. That’s why many authors will recommend a resolute daily schedule for writing.
However, I like taking breaks. They soothe the mind, heal you, and sometimes give you inspiration. Perhaps you’d like to take a few days off every week, no? This is totally acceptable, as writing five days a week will build up a habit pretty well anyway. However (and this is the caveat) if you want to take a day off, you’re going to have to do that day’s work beforehand.
If you plan to write 1000 words a day (Stephen King’s recommendation for young writers), then you need to write 7000 words a week, regardless of whether or not you take Saturday and Sunday off. I like to draw a pretty adamant line about this, as it’s important to keep the wheels turning no matter what. If you cheat on your writing regimen, heaven knows what else you’re cheating on (like insincere editing–the topic of a future blog post).
Breaks are okay, but you need to write at least five out of seven days in the week. Four is just a little over half, and three is under. Five days a week is the bare minimum, in addition to writing an additional 2000 words for the two days that you take off. Make sure you’re always making progress.
All prior content notwithstanding, you should write when you want to write. If you ever want to write but you shake your head and say, “but I’ve exceeded my quota. Time to pack up the computer and go touch grass.” Absolutely not. I’m a firm believer that you should milk every instance in which you want to write for every word you can wring out of it (excepting in cases of overheating or burnout).
But you want a habit though, right? Fair enough. So let’s just say you write for six days a week, taking Saturday off. That should give you plenty of time to cook up ideas and write to your heart’s content. So how many words should you write?
What’s funny (or maybe frustrating, depending on the kind of person you are) is that you’ll get all kinds of responses for this. Stephen King recommends 1000 words a day for young writers, Tolkien did 2000 (and so did E.B. White), Ernest Hemingway wrote 500 words a day, Twain would do the odd number of 1400, and Tom Wolfe did a mere 135 words per day. All writers who have “gone pro” have had varying word counts to get there, so it’s not an exact science.
However, something that all writers agree on (or just a lot of people in general) is that falling into a state of complacency (or doing the bare minimum just to get by) is unacceptable. You’re a writer. This means you’ve gone above and beyond what was expected of you. Creative writing assignment? You turned it into a seventy-page novella. You have a practice outline to do? Throw the rough draft in there as well. Mom told you to stop watching movies? You did more than that: you hopped on the computer and wrote a book.
The minute you collapse into a “I’m doing the bare minimum just to get by” when you could be shooting for the stars is a moment of great failure for the writer. It’s better to set the bar low so that you can exceed it regularly than to overswamp yourself with work because you feel guilty if you do less.
Now, we all need to increase our writing quotas as we go on. Sitting in one place forever is also complacency. We must always be increasing our skills, and that comes with training, determination, and just writing a lot. Soon you’ll be able to increase your quota by 100 words. In another year, maybe another 200. Until you know it, you’ll reach the (seemingly insane) writing quota of Michael Crichton–10,000 words a day.
Be sure to push yourself, but don’t give yourself too much work. Always be looking to (reasonably) expand your quota for work as well as your skills. But one thing’s for sure: write consistently and often to build good writing habits, and then use those habits to write more, repeat steps 2 and 3 until you go pro.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!