by Rachel Aaron
When I started writing The Spirit War (Eli novel #4), I had a bit of a problem. I had a brand new baby and my life (like every new mother’s life) was constantly on the verge of shambles. I paid for a sitter four times a week so I could get some writing time, and I guarded these hours like a mama bear guards her cubs – with ferocity and hiker-mauling violence. To keep my schedule and make my deadlines, I needed to write 4000 words during each of these carefully arranged sessions. I thought this would be simple. After all, before I quit my job to write full time I’d been writing 2k a day in the three hours before work. Surely with 6 hours of baby free writing time, 4k a day would be nothing….
But (of course), things didn’t work out like that. Every day I’d sit down to add 4000 words to my new manuscript. I was determined, I was experienced, I knew my world. There was no reason I couldn’t get 4k down. But every night when I hauled myself away, my word count had only increased by 2k, the same number of words I’d been getting before I quit my day job.
Needless to say, I felt like a failure. Here I was, a professional writer with three books about to come out, and I couldn’t even beat the writing I’d done before I went pro. At first I made excuses, this novel was the most complicated of all the Eli books I’d written, I was tired because my son thinks 4am is an awesome time to play, etc. etc. But the truth was there was no excuse. I had to find a way to boost my word count, and with months of 2k a day dragging me down, I had to do it fast. So I got scientific. I gathered data and tried experiments, and ultimately ended up boosting my word count to heights far beyond what I’d thought was possible, and I did it while making my writing better than ever before.
When I told people at ConCarolinas that I’d gone from writing 2k to 10k per day, I got a huge response. Everyone wanted to know how I’d done it, and I finally got so sick of telling the same story over and over again that I decided to write it down here.
So, once and for all, here’s the story of how I went from writing 500 words an hour to over 1500, and (hopefully) how you can too:
A quick note: There are many fine, successful writers out there who equate writing quickly with being a hack. I firmly disagree. My methods remove the dross, the time spent tooling around lost in your daily writing, not the time spent making plot decisions or word choices. This is not a choice between ruminating on art or churning out the novels for gross commercialism (though I happen to like commercial novels), it’s about not wasting your time for whatever sort of novels you want to write.
Drastically increasing your words per day is actually pretty easy, all it takes is a shift in perspective and the ability to be honest with yourself (which is the hardest part). Because I’m a giant nerd, I ended up creating a metric, a triangle with three core requirements: Knowledge, Time, and Enthusiasm. Any one of these can noticeably boost your daily output, but all three together can turn you into a word machine. I never start writing these days unless I can hit all three.
Side 1: Knowledge, or Know What You’re Writing Before You Write It
The first big boost to my daily wordcount happened almost by accident. Used to be I would just pop open the laptop and start writing. Now, I wasn’t a total make-it-up-as-you-go writer. I had a general plot outline, but my scene notes were things like “Miranda and Banage argue” or “Eli steals the king.” Not very useful, but I knew generally what direction I was writing in, and I liked to let the characters decide how the scene would go. Unfortunately, this meant I wasted a lot of time rewriting and backtracking when the scene veered off course.
This was how I had always written, it felt natural to me. But then one day I got mired in a real mess. I had spent three days knee deep in the same horrible scene. I was drastically behind on my wordcount, and I was facing the real possibility of missing my deadline… again. It was the perfect storm of all my insecurities, the thought of letting people down mixed with the fear that I really didn’t know what I was doing, that I wasn’t a real writer at all, just an amateur pretending to be one. But as I got angrier and angrier with myself, I looked down at my novel and suddenly realized that I was being an absolute idiot. Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen to move the scene forward in the most dramatic and exciting way) in the most time consuming way possible (ie, in the middle of the writing itself).
As soon as I realized this, I stopped. I closed my laptop and got out my pad of paper. Then, instead of trying to write the scene in the novel as I had been, I started scribbling a very short hand, truncated version the scene on the paper. I didn’t describe anything, I didn’t do transitions. I wasn’t writing, I was simply noting down what I would write when the time came. It took me about five minutes and three pages of notebook paper to untangle my seemingly unfixable scene, the one that had just eaten three days of my life before I tried this new approach. Better still, after I’d worked everything out in shorthand I was able to dive back into the scene and finish it in record time. The words flew onto the screen, and at the end of that session I’d written 3000 words rather than 2000, most of them in that last hour and a half.
Looking back, it was so simple I feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner. If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you’re writing before you write it. I’m not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. Writing this stuff out in words you actually want other people to read, especially if you’re making everything up as you go along, takes FOREVER. It’s horribly inefficient and when you get yourself in a dead end, you end up trashing hundreds, sometimes thousands of words to get out. But jotting it down on a pad? Takes no time at all. If the scene you’re sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immedeatly, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That’s it. No words lost, no time wasted. It was god damn beautiful.
Every writing session after this realization, I dedicated five minutes (sometimes more, never less) and wrote out a quick description of what I was going to write. Sometimes it wasn’t even a paragraph, just a list of this happens then this then this. This simple change, these five stupid minutes, boosted my wordcount enormously. I went from writing 2k a day to writing 5k a day within a week without increasing my 5 hour writing block. Some days I even finished early.
Of the three sides of the triangle, I consider knowledge to be the most important. This step alone more than doubled my word count. If you only want to try one change at a time, this is the one I recommend the most.
Side 2: Time
Now that I’d had such a huge boost from one minor change, I started to wonder what else I could do to jack my numbers up even higher. But as I looked for other things I could tweak, I quickly realized that I knew embarrassingly little about how I actually wrote my novels. I’d kept no records of my progress, I couldn’t even tell you how long it took me to write any of my last three novels beyond broad guesstimations, celebratory blog posts, and vague memories of past word counts. It was like I started every book by throwing myself at the keyboard and praying for a novel to shoot out of my fingers before the deadline. And keep in mind this is my business. Can you imagine a bakery or a freelance designer working this way? Never tracking hours or keeping a record of how long it took me to actually produce the thing I was selling? Yeah, pretty stupid way to work.
If I was going to boost my output (or know how long it took me to actually write a freaking novel), I had to know what I was outputting in the first place. So, I started keeping records. Every day I had a writing session I would note the time I started, the time I stopped, how many words I wrote, and where I was writing on a spreadsheet. I did this for two months, and then I looked for patterns.
Several things were immediately clear. First, my productivity was at its highest when I was in a place other than my home. That is to say, a place without internet. The afternoons I wrote at the coffee shop with no wireless were twice as productive as the mornings I wrote at home. I also saw that, while butt in chair time is the root of all writing, not all butt in chair time is equal. For example, those days where I only got one hour to write I never managed more than five hundred words in that hour. By contrast, those days I got five hours of solid writing I was clearing close to 1500 words an hour. The numbers were clear: the longer I wrote, the faster I wrote (and I believe the better I wrote, certainly the writing got easier the longer I went). This corresponding rise of wordcount and writing hours only worked up to a point, though. There was a definite words per hour drop off around hour 7 when I was simply too brain fried to go on.
But these numbers are very personal, the point I’m trying to make is that by recording my progress every day I had the data I needed to start optimizing my daily writing. Once I had my data in hand, I rearranged my schedule to make sure my writing time was always in the afternoon (my most prolific time according to my sheet, which was a real discovery. I would have bet money I was better in the morning.), always at my coffee shop with no internet, and always at least 4 hours long. Once I set my time, I guarded it viciously, and low and behold my words per day shot up again. This time to an average of 6k-7k per writing day, and all without adding any extra hours. All I had to do was discover what made good writing time for me and then make sure the good writing time was the time I fought hardest to get.
Even if you don’t have the luxury of 4 uninterrupted hours at your prime time of day, I highly suggest measuring your writing in the times you do have to write. Even if you only have 1 free hour a day, trying that hour in the morning some days and the evening on others and tracking the results can make sure you aren’t wasting your precious writing time on avoidable inefficiencies. Time really does matter.
Side 3: Enthusiasm
I was flying high on my new discoveries. Over the course of two months I’d jacked my daily writing from 2k per day to 7k with just a few simple changes and was now actually running ahead of schedule for the first time in my writing career. But I wasn’t done yet. I was absolutely determined I was going to break the 10k a day barrier.
I’d actually broken it before. Using Knowledge and Time, I’d already managed a few 10k+ days, including one where I wrote 12,689 words, or two chapters, in 7 hours. To be fair, I had been writing outside of my usual writing window in addition to my normal writing on those days, so it wasn’t a total words-per-hour efficiency jump. But that’s the great thing about going this fast, the novel starts to eat you and you find yourself writing any time you can just for the pure joy of it. Even better, on the days where I broke 10k, I was also pulling fantastic words-per-hour numbers, 1600 – 2000 words per hour as opposed to my usual 1500. It was clear these days were special, but I didn’t know how. I did know that I wanted those days to become the norm rather than the exception, so I went back to my records (which I now kept meticulously) to find out what made the 10k days different.
The answer was head-slappingly obvious. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.
This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.
Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, stupidly simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.
This discovery turned out to be a fantastic one for my writing. I trashed and rewrote several otherwise perfectly good scenes, and the effect on the novel was amazing. Plus, my daily wordcount numbers shot up again because I was always excited about my work. Double bonus!
Life On 10k A Day
With all three sides of my triangle now in place, I was routinely pulling 10-12k per day by the time I finished Spirits’ End, the fifth Eli novel. I was almost 2 months ahead of where I’d thought I’d be, and the novel had only taken me 3 months to write rather than the 7 months I’d burned on the Spirit War (facts I knew now that I was keeping records). I was ahead of schedule with plenty of time to do revisions before I needed to hand the novel in to my editor, and I was happier with my writing than ever before. There were several days toward the end when I’d close my laptop and stumble out of the coffee shop feeling almost drunk on writing. I felt like I was on top of the world, utterly invincible and happier than I’ve ever been. Writing that much that quickly was like taking some kind of weird success opiate, and I was thoroughly addicted. Once you’ve hit 10k a day for a week straight, anything less feels like your story is crawling.
Now, again, 10k a day is my high point as a professional author whose child is now in daycare (PRICELESS). I write 6 – 7 hours a day, usually 2 in the morning and 4-5 in the afternoon, five days a week. Honestly, I don’t see how anyone other than a full time novelist could pull those kind of hours, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a pro to drastically increase your daily word count.
So 10k might be the high end of the spectrum, but of the people I’ve told about this (a lot) who’ve gotten back to me (not nearly as many), most have doubled their word counts by striving to hit all three sides of the triangle every time they write. This means some have gone from 1k a day to 2k, or 2k to 4k. Some of my great success with increasing my wordcount is undoubtedly a product of experience, as I also hit my million word mark somewhere in the fifth Eli novel. Even so, I believe most of the big leaps in efficiency came from changing the way I approached my writing. Just as changing your lifestyle can help you lose a hundred pounds, changing they way you sit down to write can boost your words per hour in astonishing ways.
If you’re looking to get more out of your writing time, I really hope you try my triangle. If you do, please write me (or comment below) and let me know. Even if it doesn’t work (especially if it doesn’t work) I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you find another efficiency hack for writing, let me know about that too! There’s no reason our triangle can’t be a square, and I’m always looking for a way to hit 15k a day :D.
Again, I really hope this helps you hit your goals. Good luck with your writing!
Rachel Aaron is the author of The Legend of Eli Monpress, an adventure fantasy series staring a dangerously charming wizard thief published by Orbit Books, starting with The Spirit Thief, available now at bookstores everywhere! She writes about writing productivity, including her insane daily word counts, on her blog.