>Words? Or Hours?

>Assuming you are committed to your writing, how do you measure progress? Or, put another way, what minimum output do you set for yourself? Some people force themselves to write at least four hours a day. Some give themselves a minimum number of words to produce: 1,000 say. Others who aren’t so fortunate to have a lot of time to devote to writing may have to settle for one hour, or one page. Is there a difference between setting a minimum time at the desk and setting a minimum word count? What do you do?

I have no problem sitting at my desk for most of the day. Getting anything done is another matter. I’m wondering if I reorient myself to think in terms of minimum word output whether that might help my discipline. Thoughts?

And at the moment I’m working on revision to stories in draft. I sometimes tell myself that I’ll revise at least five pages today, or ten or whatever. Do you have any tricks when you’re revising?

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  1. >When I revise, I aim to cut the piece by about thirty percent. I check the wordcount before I start, save a backup copy, and then get started.

  2. >Long time reader, first time poster. For me, the key is finding blocks of time that I can do it, and I can only do it first thing (read: in the morning). I teach four classes at a university, and so while it can’t happen every day, I would say that five days a week I can write from six or seven am to one pm, without burnout or distraction. Burnout and distraction are the two biggest detractors, and after a certain point in the day, I know that I am not going to get anything more useful down on paper. So, I suppose hours over words; I write short fiction, and just finished my debut collection (shameless plug/to qualify: stories in AQR, Gettysburg, Third Coast, Iowa Review, Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA), and I feel that it is as notable/worthy/important to spend an hour getting a sentence down CORRECTLY as it is to get down 1,000 words. Novelists, I am guessing, will defend an alternate viewpoint here, and I think ultimately it SHOULD be to each his own: whatever gets it out of you and down on paper is most important. Setting guidelines/rules for yourself is smart, as long as they are things that a) actually be accomplished and b) push you, the writer, enough.

    In regard to revising, one’s best friend AND worst enemy, I think, is time. When I finish something, it needs, I know, to sit. This is the only way that I can gain perspective on the piece as a whole. This has proven most crucial, for me, with the endings of stories, as I usually write them (or at least the denouement past of the piece) last, and simply must let the thing sit for a certain amount of time before being able to look at it clearly.

    Letting it sit for too long, however, is a bad thing: the magic of the piece, to me, dies, or at the very least withers. To counteract this, when you get a draft done that you are truly happy with, show it your best reader as soon as possible; by doing so, the story’s engine has yet to cool down fully, and I’ve found that I can often re-enter the story and change it to what it needs to be with some good, brief advice.

    Sorry to go on for so long. Your blog is fantastic; I thank you for it.

  3. >Heather: That’s an interesting approach to revision. I usually save my fat-trimming for the last step in revision, possibly because I’ve got so many other things to worry about during initial editing of a draft story.

    CM: Those are some awesome publication credits you’ve got there. I suspect I’ve read your work! When can we expect to see the collection?

    Your comments all make sense to me and I can see the value of distinguishing between novels and short stories when setting goals. Here’s another approach I sometimes use: rewarding myself with a quick look at email when I’ve worked solidly for two hours. I also like your thoughts on revision.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. >Clifford,

    The email thing, absolutely. I absolutely do that, too. It’s great, gratifying, and quick. In and out. Do you still live in Staunton? I got my MFA over the hill, in Cville. I actually found Staunton to be the much more pleasant town, aesthetically. Much more of what I imagined Cville would look like before arrival.

    Fingers crossed on the book; currently shopping it. Tough times for story writers, as you may already know. Keep up the great work here; I cannot thank you enough for it.

  5. >Charles,
    Yes, I’m just outside of Staunton–for 7 years now. Of course I find excuses to run over to C-ville now and then . . .

    Best of luck shopping the collection. I’ll look forward to seeing it!

  6. >Interesting post and comments, Cliff. For me, it’s word count for the first draft and then after that, time.

  7. >For me, it’s project based. I don’t really get a sense of completion until something I’ve been meaning to do is marked off my list. Sometimes it’s a total revision, sometimes it’s the first draft, but I don’t count pages or words (unless I’m doing NaNoWriMo). My brain can tell when I’ve had a good day of writing and I rely on that feeling more than numbers.

  8. >When I am not teaching, I try for 1,000 words a day, and I write from about 10 am to about 4, five days a week. (Usually M-F.)

    When I AM teaching, I have two days a week to write; one weekend day and the one weekday that’s not a classroom day. Then I go for 500 words a day, because my brain is naturally somewhat worn down from the classroom, lesson planning, grading, all the things that underwrite my being a working writer.

    The next writing day I will edit down what I did, or file it in a “loose scenes” file because I know it’s fodder, just not immediately connected to where I left off.

    And then I set out for my 1,000 or 500 words again.

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