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More Or Less?

How much should a writer write?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

How much should a writer write? It’s easy to dismiss the question as wrong-headed — because it all depends on what a writer has to say and how they want to say it. In any case, writing takes in such a range of tasks that the amount written is far from constant or predictable. Mulling over initial ideas, doing background research or interviews, making exploratory location visits, typing up a first draft, going through a set of copyedits — such activities don’t generate a uniform output of words from day to day.

The question can also be side-stepped by saying that the answer lies in the specifics of publishing — the amount is decided by the requirements of the outlet for which a piece is destined. Editors don’t commission without stipulating how much they want. Magazines, journals, radio and TV scripts only have so much column space or airtime. Books of different types have strict requirements when it comes to length. Writers don’t have to fuss about how much to write. That’s already settled for them by the market for their work.

But when I ask ‘How much should a writer write?’ I want to establish – writing’s variations notwithstanding – what constitutes a reasonable body of work over a week, a month, a year, or indeed a writer’s lifetime. And in order to achieve that reasonable amount, whatever it’s calculated to be, what pace of production should I keep to? To state it bluntly, how many words should I think of writing in a working day?

Put like that, the question can provoke an icy literary hauteur (or is it simply realism?). It dismisses the questioner as philistine because their question suggests a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of the beast. Writing can only be evaluated by quality, not quantity. Asking about how much suggests a mindset like the one Oscar Wilde ridiculed for knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Creativity is what matters, not productivity, and creativity doesn’t succumb to straightforward measurement. Writing 100 words a day can be preferable to writing 1000. The value of what’s done can’t be calculated by some price-tag algorithm that focuses on mere numbers.

Moreover, given that a writer may be working on forms as different as a piece of flash fiction or a trilogy of novels, an epic poem or a haiku, a TV series or a biography, it would be bizarre to think of setting any kind of generally applicable guidelines for determining how much should be written. Different projects, with their different deadlines, demand different paces of production. Every writer needs to assess for themselves how much to write and what constitutes an appropriate tempo of work from day to day. There are no set scales you can refer to; no quantitative standards to show the right amounts.

I know all this, of course.

And yet the question niggles – however misplaced it is – challenging me to identify what counts as satisfactory and unsatisfactory outputs in terms of measurable amounts. Predictably, the question is at its most irritatingly insistent when my writing isn’t flowing, when hours or days go by with only a handful of sentences completed.

At times like these, the blank page becomes an irresistible lure that fishes into mind writers who maintain a steady regularity of output. I’m not sure whether to envy or pity those who write their 2000 words (or whatever) regular as clockwork, every day. I’m not sure whether to be impressed by or dismissive of those who are so much more prolific than I am that their books fill ten times the shelf-space mine do.

In part – and I hope this doesn’t strike too sombre a note – I think the question’s become more insistent as I age. I’m aware, as I wasn’t in my youth, that there’s not enough time left to write all the things I’d like to write, and so I want some specific measure to help me pace myself, day by day, week by week, to ensure that my output is set high enough to complete at least some of the tasks still on my to-do list.

Looking at my most recently published volume, I sometimes ask myself will this be the last book I ever write? Or will there be time for another, or perhaps two, or even three? How much will I need to write per day, per week, per month to achieve those goals? Is it enough just to surrender to writing’s intrinsic variability and allow that no guide amount can be set, or if one is that it will be so arbitrary it won’t be any help?

Of course, anything I’ve ever written – whenever it was penned – could have been the last thing I ever wrote. Life’s an uncertain business; there are never any guarantees. But the precariousness of existence and the fact of finitude seem more acute at sixty-five than they did at twenty-five. Realistically, I know – without a doubt – that there’s only time left for much less than I’d like to write. So, to make best use of whatever time I’ve left, I feel I need some kind of answer to the question ‘How much should I try to write?’

Two points of reference come to mind. Both are Japanese. The first is from the great artist Hokusai (1760–1849). I’m inspired and daunted by his example. Not only was he astonishingly prolific – with some 30,000 designs to his name – but his most impressive output occurred in old age. Towards the end of his life, he said:

None of my works done before my seventieth year is really worth counting. At the age of seventy-three I have come to understand the true form of animals, insects and fish, and the nature of plants and trees. By the age of eighty-six I will have made more and more progress, and at ninety I will have got closer to the essence of art. At the age of one hundred I will have reached a magnificent level, and at a hundred and ten each dot and each line will be alive.

What a wonderful attitude that is! I admire the chutzpah that dismisses whole swathes of your own work as wanting and anticipates better things ahead. Transferring Hokusai’s approach to writing, I’d like to hone and refine my prose to a point where ‘each dot and each line will be alive’. However difficult to realize, Hokusai’s credo identifies the kind of trajectory I’d like to take — where work is done, refined, dismissed, with a profligate disregard for anything except that elusive goal of everything you create pulsing with a sense of life.

My second point of reference for amount comes from the great haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694). This is his take on output when it comes to writing those minimalist three-line verses of only seventeen syllables apiece: ‘He who creates three to five haiku poems during a lifetime is a haiku poet. He who attains to ten is a master’.

How much should a writer write?

Hokusai dismisses a numerically massive artistic oeuvre as wanting and looks ahead to what happens next, urging himself to produce more and more as he continues to refine his art. Basho rests content with less, seeing just a handful of short, perfectly attuned verses as representing a respectable life’s work. Until I find the wisdom of a middle way between them, recognizing the merits of both approaches is the best answer I can give.

Chris Arthur lives in St Andrews. His most recent essay collection is Hummingbirds Between the Pages. Among his writing prizes are the Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Prize, the Akegarasu Haya Prize, and the Times Higher/Palgrave Macmillan Writing Prize in the Humanities.

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