It’s not worth doing if it’s not replicable.
Every November, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), writers have a Black Friday tradition. Anyone who wants to take part aims to write 10k words in a day.
I took part for the first time last year, and while I didn’t hit 10k words, I wrote over 8,000 words, which was more than I’d ever written before in a single day without burning out afterward. In fact, the very next day I was up early, excited about getting to my desk and writing again.
Word count is certainly not the only measure of success for a writer, and not everyone cares about writing more. However, as I increasingly write more books and tackle longer projects, tracking word count helps me stay motivated and gives me a good measure of progress during the year and for each individual project.
I tried writing 10k words again, and after a couple more failed attempts, I did it!
Here’s what I learned.
1. It’s possible
Author and motivational speaker Les Brown says, “The things you want are always possible; it is just that the way to get them is not always apparent.”
I had, for the first five years of my writing career, considered myself an exceptionally slow writer. This seems laughable now, given that I have over 1,000 bylines in some of the world’s biggest newspapers and magazines, have written more than a dozen books, and write a weekly newsletter for writers.
Still, despite how prolific I am, I’d never considered how 3,000-word days could be a fact of life for me. That is, until I joined communities of writers where authors were writing and publishing a book a month and enjoying doing so. Sure, I’d heard all the stories about prolific authors like Danielle Steel and Alexander McCall Smith writing several books a year, but someone in my community, in my world?
The moment I saw them doing it, it became a possibility for me.
2. It’s replicable
Pushing yourself to extremes and then crashing and burning? I’m so over that.
I’m interested in productivity, but not for productivity’s sake. I’m not interested in killing myself to write 10k words in a day. I want to feel good after writing for an entire day, not depleted and angry.
For a long time, I believed that in order to have days in which you wrote thousands of words, you needed to clear your schedule and do nothing but write. That is not, however, how my day went. I cooked dinner; I watched a couple of episodes of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix; I had a two-hour interview with a source; I responded to email; I sent out a newsletter. We were back in lockdown, so I helped my son with a school project. Basically, I lived my life.
Of course, you have to make time in your schedule to prioritize your writing, but making space and time for your writing is, and should be, an ongoing thing. What I don’t do is clear the decks completely and put my life on hold.
3. You must work your way up
I’d love to tell you that you can achieve high numbers like this and still maintain quality as a new writer, but let’s not lie, okay?
The fact is, I’ve been writing for almost twenty years, many of those as a freelance journalist on assignment, which means I was filing breaking news stories four hours after they were assigned. I had a reason to learn how to write fast and well, and I got a lot of practice during those years. Not to mention, I had sharp editors who would catch any mistakes in my first drafts.
Yet, despite all that, when it came to fiction, it took seven years to write my first novel. It didn’t have to. I wish I had read an article like this one that showed me what was possible (and eventually I did), but there was a journey involved in me getting to this point. There will be a journey involved in you getting to it as well. Perhaps your journey will be a lot shorter, and I hope it is.
You’ll have to learn to write well, and in the beginning, that will mean writing slowly. As you get better, you will get faster as well, until you reach a point where you’re solid in your quality, and then it’s just a matter of how much time you’re willing to devote to your work and how much you’re able to get out of your own way.
4. It helps to work in batches
When I’ve tried word count challenges in the past, I’ve made the mistake of assuming that the more variety I had in my day, the more likely I would be to make progress on that word count. So I’d work on a few blog posts, write a chapter of a novel, work on a short story, etc.
What I was doing, however, was creating stop-start energy. When I went from a project with a distinct style to another project with a completely different style and tone, it was taking me forever to get into the mood and the style of the new project, which made the writing go much slower each time I shifted into the new project.
This time, I decided I was going to work in batches. It was a choice between doing several chapters of a nonfiction book or 9–10 blog posts. I ended up doing the blog posts. They were all on different topics (which kept it fresh and interesting) but in the same voice and style (which ensured that it was easy to transition from one to the next.)
5. Get clarity first
The reason writers experience a lot of “staring out of windows” and writer’s block is because when we first start writing many of us conflate the thinking and writing parts of the process. We sit down to write, realize that we don’t actually know what we want to say, and then we spend a bunch of time trying to figure it out, sometimes on the page. We then call that writing time. Or wasted writing time, depending on how your tracking sheet is looking that day.
Here’s what I do now. Before I start a writing session, I take two or five or ten minutes to think through what I want to say. If I’m writing nonfiction, what is the point I’m making? If I’m writing fiction, what happens in this scene? Where is it taking the reader? By getting clarity on what I’m writing, I’m able to write it a lot more easily and effectively. And of course, this reflects in word count.
For my 10k day, I took it a step further. I spent the first hour of my day thinking through the blog posts I would write that day, the titles and the basic summary of what each one would be about. Then, when I came to write it, I already knew what I wanted to say, and it was just a matter of saying it.
6. Write in sprints
Writing in sprints has, no exaggeration, changed the way I work completely. I used to be one of those writers who felt the pressure to do one hour a day, 1,000 words a day. It felt like drudgery. I had to force myself to sit there for an hour because I’m not naturally someone who can sit still for that long a period.
Instead, I started setting 10- and 15-minute timers and sprinting during those periods. Then I’d take a few minutes and, if I felt like it, start again.
Doing it in small manageable stretches of time not only helped me stay focused during those short periods, but also made me eager to go back for more. After an hour of writing, I never want to go back for another hour. But after four 15-minute sessions, I can happily do more.
Here’s what my sessions looked like during my 10k day:
Session 1: 10 minutes, 272 words.
Session 2: 15 minutes, 536 words. Total: 808
Session 3: 10 minutes, 399 words. Total: 1,207
Session 4: 10 minutes, 504 words. Total: 1,711
Session 5: 15 minutes, 619 words. Total: 2,330
Session 6: 10 minutes, 474 words. Total: 2,804
Session 7: 15 minutes, 531 words. Total: 3,335
Session 8: 15 minutes, 688 words. Total: 4,023
Session 9: 15 minutes, 525 words. Total: 4,548
Session 10: 15 minutes, 734 words. Total: 5,282
Session 11: 10 minutes, 679 words. Total: 5,961
Session 12: 15 minutes, 834 words. Total: 6,795
Session 13: 5 minutes, 123 words. Total: 6,918
Session 14: 15 minutes, 1180 words. Total: 8,098
Session 15: 15 minutes, 1,221 words. Total: 9,319
Session 16: 10 minutes, 850 words. Total: 10,169
Total time spent writing: 3 hours, 20 minutes
7. Relieve the pressure
Finally, remember, this is supposed to be fun. I had the aim of writing 10k words, but I was also very clear that if I didn’t hit it, that was absolutely fine. In fact, I’ve tried this challenge a few times before and sometimes stopped at 6k or 8k because it stopped being fun.
The point of this challenge is not to hit some arbitrary number but to help you become prolific and productive, and enjoy the thing you most claim to love: writing.
What really matters
I’m very excited that I hit 10k today, and it is certainly a personal milestone that I’ve been working towards. But let’s not forget what matters here. The writing is the most important part of this challenge and anything that helps you do more of it and better is a win worthy of celebration.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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