Why You Shouldn’t Care About Writing a Set Number of Words Per Day


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As a writer, I try hard to stay connected with other writers, especially on social media. And one thing that’s always puzzled me is how writers will tell others how many words they want to write that day, or how many they’ve written.

To be clear, having a goal for yourself in your writing isn’t a bad thing. And having a concept of a daily word count can help you with pacing your writing if you have to complete a project by a set date.

But I can’t help but feel like, more often than not, those word counts are merely an extension of a bigger social problem–that is, the idea that the more we do, the more value our work has, and by extension, the more value we have ourselves. After all, when writers post about meeting huge word counts, they usually get tons of “kudos” posts in response.

Alternately, people will lament that they can’t or didn’t reach that level for the day, too. Which reveals another issue–the tendency for writers to compare themselves to one another. If we aren’t matching what “the other guy/gal” puts on the page, we think, then somehow we aren’t “real” writers who are serious about the craft, or we haven’t made it in the industry. We’re somehow missing talent or ability or real voice, or perhaps our message is meaningless.

This is perhaps the most troublesome part of it for me, to see writers berate themselves at the end of the day, remark how they feel like somehow they’ve blown it or aren’t up to snuff if they didn’t make their quota, or act as if the day was “off” because word count was low. When you see yourself as having failed or missed the mark, it can create real anxiety and stress. And neuroscience tells us that stress isn’t a friend to your brain–it makes it harder to think and remember, which influences your decisions about your writing as well as your ability to do simple things like rationally decide whether a paragraph is suitable or not. Creativity also flows better when you are relaxed and can let your mind wander. So if you’re not hitting an arbitrary word count, it very well could be that you’re just putting too much pressure on yourself.

The way I see it, books, articles, blogs–no matter what you are writing, your message takes the space it takes. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is no less influential, for instance, than Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. And getting it right on the page takes the time it takes, too–books like Gone with the Wind and Lord of the Ring took well over a decade to put together, while works like A Study in Scarlet and Casino Royale took just a month or two. And while I won’t knock wildly prolific writers like Danielle Steele (she’s reportedly written 179 books to date), quantity is not at all what makes a work profound or meaningful. So why use word count as a metric for your success at all?

Then there’s the fact that overall, productivity tends to even out over time anyway, like a diet. Some days are feasts and words pour onto the pages. Others, you only nibble and maybe do a few paragraphs at best. But in the long run, you’re still taking in what you need, and the project eventually gets done. So the idea that you’re losing productivity on low-word days is a myth.

As a final point against writing word quotas, in my experience, the best writing happens when the narration seems so natural that the storyteller disappears, when you cannot sense them trying too hard and get distracted for it. And that only happens if you focus on the message instead of its length. If you work on a quota, if you try to force it, you’ll probably never have something that feels as natural and transparent as if you simply let the thoughts out as they come.

So just write. Maybe that’s one word. Maybe it’s a few thousand. It doesn’t matter. The story is what counts.

 

What I’ve Learned From One Year of Querying Literary Agents

Literary agents offer an incredible service to serious writers. Their whole job is to do all the footwork to find a publisher that’s willing to get your book out into the world. They get a percentage of what the book makes in return, but the arrangement is wonderful for writers because you get more time to do what you really love–write more stuff!

That said, I’m in the process of querying for my own agent. I’ve sent out dozens of messages over the past year in my search, and I consider myself a lot wiser for the wear. These are the biggest things I’ve learned.

1) Write your query as book copy and a humble-brag list.

Query letters start with first paragraph that hooks the agent in. If you just summarize your project, that’s not enough. The hook has to read like the back of a book jacket and leave the agent wondering what the resolution is going to be.

Once you’ve done that, you can summarize the book less dramatically in the next paragraph, which should offer details like genre and word count.

The letter should end with some accomplishments you’ve had with your writing. If you haven’t been published, then tell the agent relevant work you’ve done, such as the fact you served as a detective for a decade before writing your murder mystery. DON’T draw attention to your inexperience, brag about the quality of the book (that should speak for itself) or ask for exceptions to the agent’s guidelines/preferences.

2) Check the guidelines for both the agent and the literary agency.

Literary houses generally will give you general guidance for how to submit a query. These rules are pretty straightforward if the agency simply takes general queries and the agents decide whether to work with you as a group.

But sometimes, if the agency allows you to query individual agents directly, the agents can list personal preferences that aren’t the same as the preferences for the house. For example, an agent might want you to submit 50 pages of your work, while the house might specify just 25.

In my view, it’s always better to submit directly to the agent you like when possible, because then you can study their history and client list, tailor your query letter better and really make a case for why they’d enjoy working with you. But either way, don’t submit until you’re clear on what to send. When in doubt, ask.

3) Study the agent’s client/book list.

If you can submit directly to individual agents at a house, the house almost always tells you to check the agents’ profile pages for details. You can get good info there, such as specific email addresses (those might be on a separate contact page, too).

But don’t expect those pages to automatically reveal what the agent is looking for. They often read like a professional bio and crow about awards their clients have won (without naming the clients), skipping information about what they really prefer to represent. Your only hope in those cases is to inquire through the agency for details, or to check sites like LinkedIn, Manuscriptwishlist or the Association of Author’s Representatives.

The closer you can get to understanding the voices and plots the agent has worked with, the easier it will be for you to tell if the query is a good fit.

4) Understand the rules for follow up.

Some agencies (and individual agents) actively encourage you to followup if you haven’t heard from them by a specified time. Others specifically tell you they’re not going to answer you unless they’re interested, in which case a followup probably isn’t going to do much good. Still other houses tell you you can assume an agent isn’t interested by a set date, but that it’s perfectly fine to requery a different agent. And some houses will tell you that a rejection from one agent is a rejection from the whole house. So read the submission guidelines closely and followup (or not) like they tell you to.

5) Build a tracking system. 

QueryManager is a great site that lets you keep track of the agents you’ve submitted messages to. But if its not your cup of tea, then you still need to have a way to stay organized.

I personally use a basic spreadsheet, because it allows me to see a lot of information (e.g., address, query response time, what to submit, etc.) in one location and view. Then, when I send a query, I set a simple reminder in Google calendar on the date I should follow up or scrap the query as rejected.

6) Go for bulk.

This doesn’t mean throw everything you’ve got at the wall and see what sticks with your queries. Don’t waste your time querying any agent you find–focus on the ones that love your genre and type of work.

But the odds of finding an open agent and winning out over potentially hundreds of submissions are, realistically, low. (Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s true.) So send out as many clean queries as you can to up your chances of success. I recommend working in batches. This way, you can use whatever feedback you get from one batch to improve the next. Just make sure that the agencies allow simultaneous submissions (most do), and specify that your query is simultaneous at the end of your cover letter.

7) Prep a ton of stuff. 

You will need a solid query letter and sample pages for your work, guaranteed. But depending on the agent you query and the type of work you’re submitting, you might also need a

  • complete proposal
  • market analysis
  • chapter summaries
  • short synopsis (around 3 pages tops)
  • long synopsis (around 10 pages)
  • cover page mockups
  • marketing plan
  • author biography
  • marketing copy (back of book cover blurb, one sentence hook, etc.)
  • sample chapters or pages in varying lengths (5, 10, 25 and 50 are most common)
  • polished manuscript

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. But if you get all of this around from the beginning, it’s simply a matter of finding the right file to send based on the agent’s requirements, and you can send out a full set of queries quite quickly.

As you look at each of these pieces of advice, the biggest key is…

DON’T QUIT.

As agents love to tell you in their rejection letters, publishing and representation is incredibly subjective. If one agent rejects you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work isn’t good, or that it’s not ready to publish. It just means that that particular agent doesn’t feel like they can represent it well or has other interests. If you really believe in your work, be its best advocate right from the start and keep trying until you find the house or agent that’s perfect for you.