Not long ago, MG Siegler and Ian Betteridge announced they would each be writing 500 words a day from now on. How much is 500 words? It’s less than one page with default font size and spacing in Google Docs.
Creating a daily writing routine is incredibly appealing, but what’s a realistic threshold for words written? 500 seems like a pretty big number, and for blogs such as Daring Fireball, it’s positively epic.
It’s also large if compared to how many words famous authors averaged while writing great works such as The Lord of the Rings or A Farewell to Arms. At 500 words per day, eventually finishing a huge volume becomes a matter of course.
When I was getting my English degree, I idolized these committed writers, whom I imagined waking up early in the morning to begin the hard work of sculpting masterpieces. Maybe they brewed some coffee, had a productive flurry, and then took a long lunch to reward their labors.
Last summer, I began a full-time writing job. Before that, I had written for software companies, for the odd educational site here or there, and for this blog and my Tumblr, but not regularly, which is what Siegler singled-out as the defining trait of his new regimen.
Since starting, I’ve written about 4,000 words per day. For the nine months I’ve been working, that ends up being 720,000 words, minus maybe a few thousand for days off and lower daily volumes at the end of the month. Still: most English-language Bibles have “only” about 774,000 words.
Yes, but what about quality? Perhaps I’m not writing an aesthetic rival of The Great Gatsby every couple of months, even if the overall volume is roughly equivalent to doing so, with the added pressure of deadlines and minimum word counts.
My other degree was in Classics. I wrote a thesis on Plato’s Sophist and spent years reading Aristophanes, Herodotus, and Aristotle. There’s a odd tendency among classics majors to regard Greek and Roman writers as names on a page rather than as real people, if only because they lived so long ago.
Indeed, they’re names on pillars, or busts to be contemplated. The idea of them putting in real hours or taking time out to eat is hard to digest when trapped in this mindset. These authors seem to set an impossible standard, precisely because distance makes them seem like tireless automatons, whose work was predestined and wholly abstracted from any laborious process.
Putting in 6-7 hours of nonstop writing each day – blog posts, landing pages, news articles, white papers – has finally dispelled for me at least the notion of labor-free writing. It’s not only possible to write thousands of words per day, but the ritual becomes downright routine with time, and now I can easily imagine Plato tirelessly writing and rewriting The Republic.
I’m hardly the only person who has done it. There are plenty like me who slake the SEO gods’ unquenchable thirst for
content writing. They’re living, breathing people who will write more than Tolkien, Fitzgerald, or virtually any famous author ever wrote, more than any grad student, professor, reporter or blogger. But there won’t be any pillars or busts of them for posterity.
Abstraction of authority
I once read Pitchfork religiously. It was a formative experience for me, as it broadened my musical taste and taught me the ropes of writing a music review. Much of my dabbling in music writing owes a debt to Pitchfork and similar sites such as the now-defunct Stylus Magazine.
For a while, reading their daily ledgers of albums reviews was like reading Homer. I don’t mean that it was like reading mellifluous dactylic hexameter, but that it was like reading something that didn’t seem to be the product of a single person, despite each chunk of text having, unlike Homer, individualized bylines.
It’s hard to overstate how much this layer of abstraction – the idea that music sites were akin to academies, rather than the sum of their individual writers’ biases and abilities – made me trust the site’s sentiments. It’s the same sensation, I expect, that many readers get from reading the Bible as “the word of God” rather than the output of flesh-and-blood human beings. For this reason, I’m slow to criticize religion, since I can see how text and the obfuscation of individual authorship can shape the mind.
At some point, a friend who couldn’t stand Pitchfork finally told me that these music writers were “just people who go here” (one of Pitchfork’s writers did actually go to our college) and not members of an ivory tower or heirs to an ancient tradition. My trust in the site declined thereafter. It was an obvious realization, I think, but it required lowering expectations and disavowing belief in gods, whether religious or secular.
Once one stops believing in the critical authority of entire institutions – magazines, websites, canonical texts – then what does she do about the opinions of individual writers and their work? Do they become more humane, more mundane and less cordoned-off as “great writers” or “timeless texts?”
The seemingly infinite supply of writing that I and many others produce has changed how I look at literature and the people who craft it. Prolificness is valued in some contexts (a prolific musician, such as Frank Zappa or Robert Pollard, seems to earn prestige by the simple fact of his prolificness) but I’m less sure about its value in writing. A “prolific” literary author might, in his entire career, write fewer words than a full-time SEO writer churns out in a year or two.
This role has also made me think about, for instance, the conditions under which writing is produced (e.g. was the author wealthy and able to afford a comfortable environment?) and the reception that follows it. Some writing is bound to face little resistance, and the result is anti-literature such as the acclaimed writings of Karen Russell or Tao Lin. At the same time, other writing faces an enormously difficult life as it’s cut up by copy edits, client reception, and taunting feedback. That distinction – between the resistance of the medium, and little to no resistance – is overlooked.
Writing too much has been rewarding. It was trying at first, but for the right person, she’ll realize that the gap between being a halfway consistent, everyday writer and having the attributes of a great literary writer isn’t that great. The sheer ability to produce words at scale, far beyond that of even the recognized greats in a field, is an under-appreciated achievement, and one that is helpful for exploring different styles and ambitious projects.
Moreover, it’s enormously liberating to realize that there are no gods among us, that even accomplished writers from the past had to go through daily rituals and processes to become great. It’s also confirmation that writing has become something akin to manual labor: essential to the functioning of society, but not always well rewarded.
I realize that my paragraphs are getting progressively longer here, so that’s my cue to stop. 1200+ words will have to do, on top of the 3800 from earlier today.