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Writers Write: Tips for Speed-Writing 

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It wasn’t until I participated in National Novel Writing Month in 2004 that I learned how to pile up the words. Before NaNo, I got stuck in Perfect Prose Hell, that place where you write one sentence over and over, aiming for perfection, while the devil watches and laughs because he’s in on the joke: there’s no such thing.

I decided to do NaNo to see if it could help me get past this major obstacle in my writing. And the only reason it did is because I had a deadline in view: 50,000 words in 30 days. I’m like a dog with a bone when it comes to deadlines, so I figured I’d just “do it” and then… whatever. I averaged 1,600 words or so a day during NaNo. But once I got to the end of NaNo, an interesting thing happened. Suddenly writing so many words didn’t seem like this Big Scary Thing anymore. And since my NaNo novel was far from done, I kept going, settling for 1,000 a day because I could hit this number consistently.

But that’s not the only way, and it’s probably not the best. After all, if you begin training for a marathon and the most you’ve ever run before is half a mile, then trying to run 10 miles on your first day of training wouldn’t be smart.

Instead, build up your writing muscles. So maybe the first week or two, you try to hit 250 words a day. If that seems daunting, go for 100. Once you get in the habit and it feels easy, add on 50 or 100 more words. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Keep going until you reach the law of diminishing returns, meaning that number you can regularly hit without going wackadoodle on your spouse, kids, and cat. Maybe it’s 1,000, or maybe it’s 3,000. One thousand works well for me. Sometimes I’ll hit two or three, but with everything else in my life (hello, day job), I can’t sustain those numbers every day, at least not right now.

By the way, if you’re never able to get beyond a lower number, like 250 words a day, THAT’S OK. If you write 250 words a day 6 days a week, that’s 78,000 words at the end of 12 months. That could be a complete novel, depending on the genre.

I use the 1,000-words-a-day treatment for new words. This happens when I’m in that fun, creative, the-story-takes-over-my-life-and-I-just-want-to-get-it-all-down phase. I do sometimes edit and tinker with words from previous writing sessions, but that doesn’t count against my new day’s word count. But, again, this is my rule for me only.

I DO miss my word quota some days. Life happens. Try to be kind to yourself. If you miss a day here or there, it’s no big deal.

But if the here or there starts turning into every other day or (gasp) every day (and this has happened before), then I’ll ask myself some questions:

  • Am I avoiding the work because I’ve reached a rough patch? If so, do I need to soldier on, or do I need a break, maybe a few days where I do things that recharge my batteries? (Going to the movies, visiting the ocean, getting lost in a book—someone else’s book.)
  • Am I busy with my day job, which at times needs to come first? Because, well, food. And rent. And catnip. If that’s the case, then I promise myself to get on track (and usually do) once I’m past the latest round of work deadlines.
  • Am I just being a lazy bum? This happens. (Sigh.) If that’s the case, I tell myself to drop and give me 20. Or, in this case, 1,000… Words, people. (Thank God.)  Luckily, I’m not too much of a procrastinator and can usually snap myself out of it. I remind myself that:

I’m happiest when I’m writing so that’s the reward for me—getting to see the words pile up and the story take shape.

Sounds corny, doesn’t it? Or maybe it sounds disingenuous, but, in this case, it’s the truth. The best reward for me is looking back on the week and seeing I wrote six to seven thousands words.

All that said—and this is further clarification on my big hairy caveat I mentioned above—I HATE when writers say things like “Writers should do this” or “Writers should do that”.

I’m not a fan of writing rules. I proudly end sentences with prepositions and gleefully split my infinitives. So under NO circumstances do I think all writers need to write every day or a certain amount every day.

The one writerly “rule”—and I use the term loosely—that I do believe in is this: writers write. If you call yourself a writer, you need to get your bum in the chair at some point and write. But how much you produce – and when you produce it – is up to you.

And remember: what works for one writer might not work for you. Or maybe it will work, for a while, and then it won’t. Find your rhythm, and be open to changing that rhythm.

Maybe writing 1,000 words a day sounds perfect to you. Or maybe writing 1,000 words three days a week does. Maybe writing 500 words every weekend is all you can muster right now. Or maybe cranking out 5,000 words a day until you get the draft done is exactly what you need. Maybe you do 1,000 words a day for years and then switch it up and try to write 2,000 words on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays while taking the rest of the week “off” (a little experiment I tried this fall, and it was exactly the change-up I needed).

Just as long as you’re writing. Because writers write. That’s the only rule.

So get to it, and good luck.

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Robyn Bradley is a copy bitch by day and novelist ninja by night. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, and she won a short story award in 2007 for “A Touch of Charlotte.”

Her work has appeared in FictionWeekly.comThe Breakwater Review, and Writer’s Digest (under her pen name E.T. Robbins), among other places. When she’s not writing or sleeping, Robyn enjoys watching Law & Order marathons, drinking margaritas, and determining how many degrees really separate her from George Clooney. Robyn is currently working on her third novel. Visit www.robynbradley.com to learn more.

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