Why 2,000 Words Works For Me

I’ve noted that I’m doing a thing where I don’t check into the Internet until I write 2,000 words on my current book project or until noon. People have asked me why the stated quota is 2,000 words. Why not some other number? Why not some specific amount of time? I’ve answered this question before briefly, but I’m happy to expand on it a little.

1. First, because generally speaking, I’m easily able to write 2,000 words a day. Years of banging out copy, first at a newspaper, later for online sites and magazines (and also here) help with that; the other part is simply that my writing brain seems to have a wide throughput.

2. It’s an amount that makes me feel like I’m making real and substantive progress every time I write that amount. At 2,000 words a day, you could have a 100k-word novel in done in 50 days — not a land speed record for a novel, to be sure, but not a horrifying slog with no end in sight ever, either.

Now, the Reality Police compel me to warn you that out in the real world even at a 2k clip, you’ll still probably spend more than 50 days writing a novel, because not every word you write will be gold. I threw out about 500 words I wrote the other day, for example, because it turned out I was just faffing about in them. Even so, you’re still moving at a nice clip, and for people like me, knowing you’re making solid progress on a daily basis helps.

3. 2,000 words is also not so many that the creative part of my brain gets tired. I can and do write more than 2,000 words at a time, often when I’m near the end of a novel and just want to be done, already. But I do find that, especially after 5,000 words or so of creative writing in a single day, what my brain really wants to do is nothing — which means three to four days of killing zombies. Which is fun, but which isn’t finishing the novel, or getting the mortgage paid. Alas.

With 2,000 words, I get enough writing done that I’m happy, and my creative brain doesn’t feel pummeled afterward, so it can problem solve regarding where the story needs to go to next. Which means when I sit down to write the next morning, I spend less time figuring out plot, and more time writing up where my brain’s figured out the story needs to go next.

4. 2,000 words is enough that even if I can’t or don’t make the writing quota, I’ll probably still have cranked out a decent amount of wordage. The other day, for example, I hit 1,800 words rather than 2,000, and that included those 500 faff-tastic words I mentioned earlier. But even having missed the quota and tossing out 500 words, I still had a net of 1,300 words on the book. That’s not my quota, but it also doesn’t suck.

5. It’s also a large enough sum of words that if I do have a day where I do no writing on the book — as I did yesterday, thanks to the daughter’s second snow day in a row plus other things that required attention — I don’t feel like missing that day means I’m spinning my wheels overall, because overall for the week I’ve had a decent number of words pile up.

For example, in the two weeks that I’ve been on the quota train, I’ve written 15,000 words in the book. That’s less than the 20,000 that was the goal, but it also incorporates two snow days and an additional sick day for my kid, who, while I enjoy having her at home, also likes to have attention when she’s about, plus those words I threw out. That’s good progress for two weeks, or is for me, at least.

6. On the flip side of that, the 2,000 word amount is not gospel if I want to write more; I don’t compel myself to stop the instant I cross the 2k line. Today I wrote 2,900 words, because I was in a groove and also because I wanted to get to where would be a natural stopping point in the writing, and also because my wife, who gets to read my stuff first, was saying to me “I want the new chapter. Finish it up OR DIE.” But phrased more lovingly, of course.

That said, the nice thing about that 2k mark even when I blow past it is that it means I can relax; I’ve done what I set out to do for the day and everything I write past that point is gravy. And it’s nice to be able to say to one’s self, “I’m writing more because I want to, not because I’m in a blind panic on a deadline.”

So those are the reasons why 2,000 words is a good daily quote for me. I don’t want to suggest it’s the right quota for everyone, but for most writers I think it’s worth looking at the possibility of incorporating a daily writing quota and seeing if it works for you.

Independently, here’s why I have the noon deadline as well:

1. Because I usually have other work I want and/or need to do with my day;

2. Because on the days where it’s just not happening, it’s nice to have a point in time after which you can say to yourself dude, let it go, we’ll pick this up tomorrow.

The noon deadline does assume I’m up and writing by about nine am at the latest, but since I often take my daughter to school before 8am and the dog whines like a siren if I won’t take her outside by 8:30, this really isn’t a problem. This may be a reason to consider getting a dog. Or, alternately, if you prefer to write at night, not.

43 Comments on “Why 2,000 Words Works For Me”

  1. and also because my wife, who gets to read my stuff first, was saying to me “I want the new chapter. Finish it up OR DIE.” But phrased more lovingly, of course.

    But, of course.

    “Finish it up OR DIE, M@*@#&@#. Dear.”

  2. You ever do that Roald Dahl thing of stopping mid-scene or even mid-sentence to make it easier to pick up and get started the next day? I’ve been finding that technique pretty effective lately, myself.

  3. If you need to, for instance, research Guatemala because your book is set there, is that part of the afternoon work you mention? Or do you have days where the “writing” is actually the research part?

  4. I’m attempting the same thing, a steady output of creative writing each day that I’ve tallied at 2,720 words. This is because 1,000,000 divided by 365 = that amount, and my goal this year, in a rather ridiculous fashion, is to write 1,000,000 words by December 31st (about a novel / month). Several authors (Stephen King, Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc) have stated that your first million words are crap, and need to be flushed out of your system, and I think it’s an excellent way to beat the snot out of my inner editor, and I write fast enough that it’s not a horrible drain, and, well, it’s a the very ridiculousity of this challenge inspires me to attempt it.

    I find that I’m already falling into a groove, exceeding my quota usually by a few hundred words each day, and I’ve been posting everything up at First Million Words. Not that I expect anybody to read my first draft as I go (other than a few brave and intrepid close friends), but I find that posting it online is an excellent form of accountability.

    So! 2,720 words / day for the rest of the year. January’s novel is entitled ‘One by One’ and is inspired by Saramago. Wish me luck!

  5. Incidentally, this post consumed about 1k words. Not bad for having already produced 2k!

    Also, I appreciate your explanation. It surely helps!

  6. Since my writing time is EXCRUCIATINGLY limited, I try for 1/2 hour straight. Or 500 words.

    Thanks for the quota-setting though. You’ve been a big help to me! (i.e. If JOHN SCALZI can stay off the internet until noon, SURELY I can work to avoid posting uselessly on blogs for at least half an hour!)

  7. At 2,000 words a day, you could have a 100k-word novel in done in 50 days

    What?? 50 DAYS!?!?

    I hear that Jenkins and LaHaye banged out “Left Behind” in only twelve days. Oh . . . wait . . . You’re actually a good writer that cares about his craft, not some hack that cares only about marketing lies as fact.

    Keep up the good work.

  8. John, what kind of output did you manage in a day back when fiction wasn’t your primary job? I’ve recently made the transition from student to contributing member of society, and while it’s good to have fixed writing times (and an income!) it does mean that I no longer have the time to work within my natural writing pattern of 2-3k over three or four hours.

  9. Hey John, Thanks for posting this.It’s helpful and encouraging to me to see that my reasoning is at least similar to someone who’s made the writing life work. Your regimen inspired me to set my own daily goal, too. I haven’t actually MET the goal in the week or so since it’s been in place, but I’ve made progress nevertheless.

    Discussion of word counts brings a question to mind: Do you have an idea how long a first novel can/should reasonably be?

    I ask because over the past year and a half I’ve been attending a weekly writing meeting very generously hosted by a local agent. She’s been fairly adamant that 80,000 words is the recommended top end, and by no means should you even consider submitting a novel over 100,000 words.

    The 80,000 particularly seemed low to me. Most of the paperbacks I own seem to have around 400 words/page on average. What do you think?

  10. Thanks to the Pegasus Unicorn Kitten contest, I’ve gained more of an understanding of what 2000 words feels like. It took me several days of working a little each day to get to my story’s 2000 words. So now I think, “John writes about a short story before lunch”. There’s something impressive (to me, anyway) in that amount.

  11. @John

    So, how do you figure your blog posts and your other writing assignments into your day? Is the 2k specifically for your new novel project or is it 2k of creative writing that might include the novel project?

  12. A very solid way of doing things. Currently my minimum is 500 words a day, but that’s mostly because I write at night and some days I’m lucky if I have an hour in which to write. Most days I can squeeze out two though. Also, I’m still relatively new to writing on a regular basis, as it’s only been a year and a couple months though.

    During the Christmas break I did a whole week where I wrote at least 2000 words a day, and I think that help stretch my creative brain. Now where I’d have difficulty writing 500 words in two hours I can write over 1000. Now if I could just get 4 hours a day to write in I might make 2000 a day. Oh well, that’s what retirement in 30 years is for.

    And if John saying having a quota isn’t enough, Karl Schroeder recommended something very similar to me when he was writer in residence for the Merrill Collection in Toronto.

  13. Heh….lots of people I know would have to restrain themselves to keep from writing far more than 2K words a day in blog posts!

    I know I sometimes hit “POST” and say to myself “Christ, 12,000 words!? If only it was on something worth reading!”

  14. Interestingly cool. So I suppose that you many times do not finish a chapter in one setting.

  15. You don’t to mention the real secret of your prolificacy: “Also, because I never use two spaces to separate sentences, I can churn out 100 words in the time it takes others to achieve a mere 99.”

  16. YoYo:

    It depends on the chapter lengths. Recently I’ve been writing slightly chapter shorter lengths, so sometimes I will get a whole one (in this cases I end up writing more that 2K words). However, even in chapters there will often be pauses and breaks, so that’s often where I’ll stop for the day.

  17. Cool, thanks. 2k seems to be something of a standard; my friend Gail Carriger spends about that much time a day on her novels or creative writing unless she has a deadline.

  18. I find there’s a momentum factor. When I’m getting a story started, a thousand words a day is easy and feels right. Then in the middle of the book, when I encounter the story bog, a thousand a day is sometimes a struggle. Out of the bog, and the pace picks up; two thousand a day is right. In the last ten thousand words, three thousand a day is not unusual. The rhythm would probably be more even if I outlined extensively, or even at all, but the writer guy in the back of my head doesn’t like to outline — or at least he doesn’t like to show me one, preferrng to feed me one piece at a time.

    If I’m coming to the end of a scene, I’ll finish it. If not, I’ll stop wherever I am When I pick up the next day, I’ll usually start at the last couple of hundred words, make a change or addition, then just roll on until I’ve done enough.

    In the year ending at the end of this month, I’ll have written two 80,000-words-plus novels, a 25,000-word novella, and the first third of a spec thriller I’m going to finish in the spring, once the contracted-for works are done and dusted. Then I might take a couple of weeks off.

  19. “Finish it up OR DIE.”

    Do you pretty much know where you’re going with the whole book when you start, or are you figuring it out as you go? What I mean is… do you ever have to take a chapter back, and tell your wife to pretend it never happened?

  20. You have inspired me in a completely different way. You may remember me fron Armadillocon 30 who said that I couldn’t come to your book signing on Sunday because “This is TEXAS and there is a gun show in town!” You were gracious enough to sign my brand new copy of Zoe’s Tale right there on the spot. Thanks, again.
    I’ve been looking at a chunk of walnut and steel propped up in my shop that has a muzzleloading rifle hidden inside it for over a year. I have promised to get off my dead ass and show measurable progress every week until she is completed.

  21. I’m guessing the “more loving way” is somewhere along the lines of “Finish it up or DIE… honey”?

  22. Thought you might like this quote on the subject:

    “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.”
    – A. J. Liebling (1904-1963)

  23. Another insightful post about a writer’s life. Thanks, Scalzi. I just wish I’d found your site six years ago BEFORE I self-published two rough drafts with Lulu. Through Whatever, I’ve learned so much about the ins and outs of the publishing side of writing, writing opportunities in particular (Panverse, REJECTED, UK SFF novel contest, REJECTED, Tor editor Patrick Nielson Hayden accepting unsolicited manuscripts a while back, TOO INTIMIDATED TO SEND; almost published my novella with Panverse though). Whatever was the first writer blog I added to my BOOKMARK BAR.
    Question: What if your book comes out at 70,000 words? Do you go back and expand on some things? I follow Stross’s blog as well. I’ve heard him write about word counts a few times, about publishing contracts being quite specific about word counts. Does TOR buy your book regardless of the word count? Or is it like really specific: 100K book by September 17th 2011.
    Because I’ve completed a novel for the Angry Robot novel competition. It’s 75,000 manuscript-formatted words. I’m wondering whether I should spend a few weeks expanding some of the scenes. I’d rather continue on with plotting my next book and short stories.

  24. I wrote my first novel over last summer. I think overall it took me about 35 days to get the first draft done, and I have yet to begin revision (still waiting on comments on that draft to get back to me). I wanted to discipline myself into actually getting something done that I’d always wanted to do (write a novel), and I knew that a word count quota would do that for me.

    I worked under the 2k per day/10k per week quota, and I only missed the quota when my wife and I went out of town for 10 consecutive days.

    I found that I work very well with that kind of self-imposed structure, and while subsequent readings of my manuscript have given me pages and pages of notes for revision and many sections that will be cut out because they’re complete chaff, I was able to sit down and get it done. 2,000 words felt substantial but not overwhelming, and I would often work until 2 or 3 in the afternoon as I forced myself to finish if the Internet managed to weasel its way into my computer’s taskbar. I also stayed ahead of my quota for many weeks, writing until there was a natural stopping point. I had days come up where I couldn’t write the whole 2k, but I never once missed the 10k count I wanted for the week.

    In the end, I think the 2k/10/noon system works really well, even as a newbie with no novel-writing experience. It will most certainly be the routine I set for myself this summer, too, as I begin working on another manuscript once my teaching semester ends. If I’m lucky, I may even get two manuscripts into the initial stages with this method because I found that what I had done with short fiction as a palate cleanser drained me of my momentum, when writing/planning another novel might not have.

    I do have one question, though, Mr. Scalzi. How does outlining factor into your writing quota or work time? I went in blind with this first novel and found it both terrifying and liberating. I don’t think I’ll do that again. Do you take time away from your quota to outline and plan out a novel, or do you write blind and let the story go where it goes? I’d be pretty interested to find out more about your planning process.

  25. I think 2k, based on what I read on the internet anyway, is what a lot of writers like to hit daily, particularly when it comes to the figuring-out-how-it-all-joins-together first draft. It’s what I aim for, anyway.

  26. Why 2,000 words DOESN’T work for me

    1. Because I’d like to read a new Scalzi novel every week or so
    2. Because none of us is getting any younger
    3. Because I prize quantity over quality (at least in the opinion of literati)
    4. because the title was just ‘there’, you know?

  27. 2,000 words is also the number that Quentin had to write in Diana Wynne Jones’s superb book ‘Archer’s Goon’.

  28. Your dog whines like a siren that late? Can we swap? My tricolour border collie has to be out the door by 7am or he eats the washing machine and craps everywhere.

  29. My goal is 1000 to 2000 a day. The day job makes it difficult sometimes (teacher) but I do get the 1000 done and sometimes I actuallly get the 2000.

  30. John,
    Thanks for the entry. As an unpublished writer, I had no idea how long it takes to finish a novel. Knowing the pace for writing a novel towards its end is like an experienced marathon runner telling a novice runner how to train and when to kick for a finish line. I have been working on this vershlurginer novel for 5 years and now that I am at 2000 words a day, I know that it will be finished with diligence in the spring. Thanks for helping the new writers here.

  31. I’m glad to hear someone who knows what they’re doing say something like this, because if I do the same thing it means that I know what I’m doing, right? Right.

    I also find that I work best not blasting straight through those 2,000 or so, but working in half-hour bursts. I can generally write 700-1000 decent words in 30 minutes (or 1,500 crappy ones), and because it’s a short length of time I can say to myself, “Focus now. It’ll all be over soon.”

  32. Will you retrieve this?

    What if Cainen were to “retrieve” Jared’s “physical hulk”,
    enlist Harry Wilson’s aid and “power up” that hulk?
    You never “verbalized” Cainen’s seppuku. No?
    I thought that a nice “back channel”. I think “he”
    might be owed that consideration. Beware too much parallel
    human ethic. We are after all apes.