Everything Counts in Small Amounts

A long while back I wrote about how even a 1% change in productivity adds up over the course of a year when you write thousands of words a day. It’s something that has been on my mind, off and on, ever since.

I’ve been thinking that you don’t need to write thousands of words a day for small changes to make a difference. For example, writing 100 extra words a day will add 36500 words over the course of a year. That’s the first draft of a novel in under three years. (In under two years if you’re writing a short novel.) That’s a pretty significant contribution to a lifetime’s work. If you imagine a career of 40 years, an 10 extra first drafts.

There are people who think its crass to take such a brute force approach to creativity. I think it’s all practise, and if I can’t improve at something with practise, I’m probably doing it wrong.

The most significant jump in productivity is probably going from writing no words per day to any words per day. Let’s say 100 words, 5 days a week. That is hardly a terrifying commitment. It consists of maybe 10–20 sentences. (For the record this paragraph has 51 words in it.)

If you do this every week you’re looking at writing 26000 words a year, or a the first draft of a 100000 word book in just under four years.

Let’s say you write one sentence a day. You’ll still manage that book everybody is supposed to have in them in under 40 years.

I know there are arguments against this. I would find it hard to keep up momentum on a writing project to which I added a sentence a day. Nonetheless, mathematically speaking, it is absolutely true.

And, of course, there are arguments in favour of attempting that one sentence. The greatest is this: often the first sentence of the day will be the hardest one you write. Just getting yourself to sit down and hit the keyboard can be the hard work some days.

The thing about this method is that it leaves you no excuse. You are free to go once you’ve written your sentence or your 100 words or whatever. But I am willing to bet that on many days, having actually broken ground, and done the hard work of getting started, you’ll find yourself inclined to continue. Who knows you might add another sentence or ten or a hundred. I’ve been known to write far more than the daily goals I set myself when I catch the flow of a thing.

The thing to remember about pretty much all forms of creative endeavour is that the important part is often just showing up and doing the work. The most brilliant idea for a story in the history of mankind will come to nothing if you don’t actually sit down and write it. Conversely, when cultivated an idea that seems utterly banal may grow into being something worthwhile.

You are not going to be inspired every day. There will be days when on considered reflection you’ll discover you’re not happy with what you’ve written at all. Well, you can always toss it aside, but before you do, I would recommend just letting it sit for a few months. Often the flaw is inside your own head, not the prose. Writers can be inclined to undervalue their own work as well as overvalue it, so looking at it cold months later is often the safest and sanest test.

The longer I stick around the writing game, the more I think that most of it is simply dealing with fear. We are all plagued with insecurities and feelings of unworthiness. We can all find excuses for not confronting those fears and avoiding what needs to be done. By making a very simple commitment, to writing one sentence or one paragraph or a hundred words per day, you can go a long way towards dealing with those fears. I think the important thing is not to be madly ambitious but to set the bar so low its all but impossible not to get over it if you make any effort whatsoever. Believe me, I know whereof I speak.


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