Deciding how much you want to get done every time you sit down to write might seem like a waste of time — why plan when you could spend that time writing?
But you might find setting limits is the best decision you will ever make as a writer.
Why set writing limits — what’s the point?
I’m all for the belief that if you’re feeling motivated to write, you should write. Sometimes you can go long stretches without feeling motivated at all, so when a motivation surge does hit, you should definitely take advantage of that.
But there are downsides to turning your efforts up to maximum and going full speed down the track.
Before you can figure out how much you should be writing per session, you should first identify how much you’re CAPABLE of writing.
Setting a typical minimum writing goal for yourself gives you a small, more easily attainable goal to work toward every time you sit down to write. You don’t want to sit down thinking “I have to write a whole book” and immediately feel overwhelmed by the thought.
You also don’t want to write so much so quickly that you burn out. This is a real thing that happens to both accomplished and aspiring writers alike. You’re excited about your new project, you sit down, and you write 20,000 words over the next four days. That’s amazing. But it’s also not sustainable. This is one reason many aspiring writers don’t finish their works in progress. They go too hard too fast and then they just stop. They almost don’t have a choice. They often just never get back into what they started after that.
This is why limits matter. You are fully capable of getting as much writing done in a day as you can or want to. But you do need to learn to pace yourself, or you’re really going to struggle not far down the road.
How much should you write in a day?
There’s no specific magic number or cutoff amount — I’ve written 12,000 words in a single day; I’ve also struggled to write several hundred. How much you write really depends on how much you WANT to write, and what your goals are if you’re aiming to write more.
Start by figuring out what you want your minimum to be — and this doesn’t have to be measured in words or even pages. Some people prefer to measure their writing progress in chapters or pages, or by time spent writing. (I’m not the biggest fan of timing your writing sessions for productivity reasons, but if it works for you, it works for you!)
Your minimum will really depend on your comfort level and how much room in your schedule you have to dedicate to writing on the days you choose to write. I typically recommend people start by seeing if they can write 500 words in a single writing session. Five hundred words seems to be the perfect sweet spot. By the time you’ve reached 500 words you’re usually past the point where you’re not sure if you want to keep writing. Once you hit 500, you typically either fly right past that number or are completely satisfied with stopping there.
Once you’ve figured out a minimum that works for you, and have gotten pretty good at sticking with it on a relatively consistent basis, THEN you can start challenging yourself and experimenting with how much you are physically and mentally comfortable with (and capable of) writing.
Let’s say you have a 500 minimum down. You can easily sit down and write 500 words without a problem on most days now. But you want to push yourself to do a little bit more. Tomorrow you might try 1,000 words and that seems to go pretty well. So you keep doing that for a week or so, and realize wow, I’m really doing this, this isn’t so hard.
So you bump your goal up to 1500. That’s doable, right? Except it isn’t. You do great on the first 1,000 words, but after that, your brain starts to do that thing where it won’t let you finish a coherent thought and it takes you 20 minutes to write a single paragraph and it’s NOT FUN.
What this should tell you is that your ideal productivity limit is 1,000 words per writing session. It’s challenging, but not miserable. Stick with that — for now, it seems to be what works best for you.
To be clear: You don’t ever have to pass that 500 word minimum per writing session if you don’t want to. A book written 500 words a time will still eventually get finished. Dreams don’t have expiration dates. If your minimum is good enough for you, stick with it!
But if you do want to challenge yourself, be cautious and smart about choosing and executing your goal.
How much writing is too much?
This is hard to measure in numbers, especially since every writer is different.
My advice: Pay attention to how you’re feeling. Not just as you’re writing but as time passes and you’re trying to increase your workload. If it’s been a week and you’re still going strong and you’re feeling great, good for you — keep going!
But if you’re feeling more tired than usual or you just feel a general sense of being “worn out,” you might want to look at how much you’ve been writing and decide whether or not you want to continue going at that pace.
Remember that even though it may not seem like it, writing is extremely draining both mentally and physically. It is real work, even if you’re doing it “just for fun.” Give yourself some breaks. Push yourself, but not so hard that you start to wear yourself down. Don’t make yourself hate writing because you’re doing it so much it hurts.
Some thoughts about writing consistency
It’s still a little confusing to many writers whenever I stress the importance of consistency in writing, especially in the earliest days of your journey. To a lot of people, writing “consistently” implies they have to write often, sometimes even every day.
What consistently really means is that you have created a set schedule for yourself and that you are doing your absolute best to stick to that schedule no matter what. For some people, this does mean daily writing — if that’s what keeps you motivated, go for it. For others, a writing schedule might allow them to work a few days a week or on weekends — when it is most convenient, and most likely, for them to get their writing done.
The reason I push consistency has everything to do with productivity and motivation. MANY writers struggle to motivate themselves to sit down and write. Or they say they’re going to do it once a week and do it maybe every few months. If you take a casual approach to writing, I’d never force you to write any more often than you wanted to.
But for those who do have their hearts seriously set on making a career (or at least a legitimate side hustle) out of writing, getting the work done really matters. Writing only “when you feel like it” just doesn’t cut it when you’re chasing a dream. Writing isn’t always fun. Sometimes, it really feels like work.
Here are a few important things I want you to take away from all discussions surrounding writing consistency — especially if you are really trying to make a name for yourself and stand out from all the “noise.”
- You do not have to write every day to be a successful writer. A lot of this misconception probably comes from “expert” writers (some of them might actually have earned that title) saying they write every day, or that writing every day is the “only” way to succeed. To be fair, this is largely the fault of the interpreter. Sometimes you notice that someone more successful than you is doing something a certain way and you make the logical assumption that if you want to get where they are, you have to do exactly as they do. But you don’t. You can take their advice, but adapt it to what works for you and your circumstances.
- You shouldn’t feel you “always” have to publish something just to say you did. Hey, I get it. The more you publish, the greater your chances of “being seen.” I’ve been there. I still visit that place every now and then before remembering how much I didn’t love it the last time I was there. But if you’re trying out a new writing schedule and it’s just not working for you, don’t force yourself to publish things you aren’t proud of or that you don’t feel are ready to go out into the world. Consistency is important, but if you’re not doing work you’re satisfied with.
- In some cases, quantity really is more important than quality. I’m not saying you should carelessly publish blog posts or other materials full of typos and other mistakes — professionalism does go a long way, even in the beginning. But there’s a difference between carefully proofreading your work before you send it out into the world and not getting anything done because you’re so worried about doing everything perfectly. Of course, it depends on what context you’re writing in. If you’re just writing for yourself (for the time being or permanently), you might benefit from focusing on just getting the story out. It won’t be perfect. It might even be terrible. But you’ll have something to work with. And that’s, unfortunately, more than many aspiring writers can say.
Be kind to yourself. Set goals and do your absolute best to work toward achieving them one word at a time. Be proud of your accomplishments big and small. And most importantly, keep writing. Even when it’s hard. Even when no one’s paying attention to your work. Keep going. Keep chasing those dreams.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.