I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s podcast, Deep Questions, and in a recent episode, he was talking about John McPhee’s habit of writing 500 words a day.
John McPhee is an American, Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer who has written twenty-nine books and countless articles for The New York where he was a staff member for some time before joining the faculty at Princeton University where he taught the current editor for The New Yorker, David Ramnick, multiple former editors of Time magazine, entrepreneur and podcast host Tim Ferris, as well as best-selling author Jennifer Weiner.
McPhee is often described as prolific, for obvious reasons, but while he admits that in a way he has produced a lot of work, in reality, he only ever wrote 500 words a day, six days a week. In an interview with The Paris Review, McPhee said, ‘if you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty-five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.’
The reason why McPhee adopted this method of 500 words a day is that whenever he had a big writing day where he worked well into the night, he’d then go two or more days without writing.
He found this way of work inefficient, and in fact, maintaining the smaller but more measurable word count of 500 words a day resulted in a higher word count at the end of the month than his previous method of long writing days followed by non-writing days.
Instead of working through until 3 am, he’d quit writing at 7 pm, even if he was in the middle of a sentence. This trick in particular would make him excited to return to writing the next day. And we all know that Hemmingway used this same method.
I’ve experimented with a bunch of different tracking methods in the past, including word count, but lately, I’ve been more focussed on time spent. I made this switch because I worried that focussing on word count would affect the quality of my writing as I’d be more concerned with hitting my target than doing a good job.
Of course, we can be just as lazy when working to a time limit. I know there have been countless times when I have spent the final five minutes of a session scrolling through the manuscript instead of working on the manuscript.
I’ve also given up writing every day because toggling between multiple tasks across a single day was, you know, not super-duper awesome. Spending an hour in the morning on the novel, switching to a couple of hours on my dissertation, and then a few more on teaching in the afternoon was, frankly, starting to fry my brain.
I enjoyed working this way for years until I didn’t.
And this is the whole argument behind batching tasks: the fewer cognitive switches you have to make in a day, the better. This means that I delegate a few days a week to writing. Do I write all day? Um, no. Four hours of original writing (fiction or nonfiction) is about my limit.
And yet, there is something about those 500 words that just seems so pathetically doable.
Fiction writer and creative coach, Amie McNee, has often talked about her daily ‘bare minimum’ goal of 500 words, as she believes that consistency is key.
I’d go one step further and say that the 500 words a day method would also make you feel, not only more productive as a writer but as if you are a writer. It would also, probably, make writing that tiny bit easier because you are staying in contact with your story.
You don’t have to spend twenty minutes reacquainting yourself with the story a week or a month has passed since you last wrote, and you don’t have to fret (as much) about the ‘voice’ being inconsistent (the worst!).
BUT! Something McPhee doesn’t address in the interview is his research and thinking time. And here’s where the 500 words a day method becomes a bit sticky. Can you write 500 words without conducting contextual research or thinking through what it is you have to say? Will that 500 words be any good to you if they are factually incorrect or contain a major plot hole? Five hundred words a day sounds incredibly doable, something you could probably get done in 30-40 minutes, but that’s only if you are prepared.
If you have to conduct research or think deeply about what your argument is or an aspect of the story (character/plot/theme etc), those 500 words are no longer so simple.
And that’s the thing about writing, it is nuanced and it involves a lot more than just putting words on the page.
Setting the goal of 500 words a day is good, and I think it is immensely important that we create small and achievable goals because tiny steps can lead to big accomplishments, but we also need to be honest about what it can take to make that 500 words happen.
Thinking, reading, researching, editing, and imagining all count as writing. And you won’t get 500 good, usable, publishable words without also making time for these aspects of writing.
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