Whenever a group of writers gets together and the topic of productivity comes up, inevitably the discussion turns to “words per hour” or “words per day.”
“I once did 8,000 words in a day.”
“I can write 1,000 words an hour, easily.”
“I had a terrible session, only 500 words.”
This conversation might lead an insecure writer to believe that there’s some ideal benchmark of words per hour to achieve, and anything less is falling short.
I don’t believe that.
Counting words per hour or day has its use, but not as a measure of writing productivity.
What does it mean to be a productive writer?
Let’s say that you can crank out 1,000 words per hour, and work at this pace four hours ever day. Wow, you feel productive, right?
But if you don’t like what you write or if it doesn’t serve the purpose that you’ve set out to achieve, then that time is not spent productively.
If those thousands of words are never published, your real-world productivity is zero.
People who speak of words per hour are measuring the drafting phase of the writing process. But a rough draft isn’t the end game. The true measure of writing productivity is how many completed works make their way into the world – published works that meet the needs of the audience.
Real productivity is measured in finished work, not word counts.
The factors that contribute to real-world productivity
The first draft is only the midpoint of the writing journey.
Before you ever sit down to write, you think about the topic or research it. You may talk with people about it, rehearsing and exploring your ideas as you speak.
Next you plan and outline what you draft. You may also let the thoughts incubate, giving them time to simmer in the background processes of the brain.
These processes, which take place before you sit down to write, set you up for being productive in the drafting phase.
Then there’s the work entailed in getting the project out into the world: revision, editing, approvals, proofreading, publication. Projects that get bogged down in those phases may never see an audience.
The truly productive writer moves through this entire cycle as efficiently and effectively as possible. It doesn’t matter how many words per minute happen in the drafting phase if the products roll out the door on schedule and reach readers.
A better use of the “words per hour” metric
Despite the title of this post, I do pay attention to roughly how many words I write during drafting sessions. The word rate offers a reasonable measure of how well I have prepared myself to write and adhered to my process.
The work you do in the early phases (researching, incubating, outlining) primes your brain for drafting. If I follow my process and do the groundwork, then the drafting is usually rapid and fluid.
Most of us have an ideal writing rate—the speed we compose in a state of flow or “in the zone.” I have some sense of what that number is for me, and it becomes my personal high-water benchmark for a well-prepared drafting session. I also know what my usual writing speed is, under ordinary circumstances.
When you manage a high number of words per hour (compared to your normal speed), it’s probably because you’ve done the work ahead of time to set up the writing, so that you might get into the flow.
An unusually slow writing pace often signals a problem:
- I haven’t thought deeply enough about the topic, or have an unresolved problem to address.
- I’m not drafting in the right environment; for example, I’m distracted by other things, or not feeling well.
- I’ve tried to short-cut the writing process and go straight to drafting. (Somehow I feel like it will save time.)
When this happens, I’ve learned to move on to other things, letting the unwritten draft “simmer” in the background. Even if I didn’t manage to get many words written, I know that the struggle of trying to write is productive, as “immersion” in the problem represents the first phase in the overall creative process.
By all means, keep an overall eye on your “words per hour” during drafting sessions. But rather than claiming bragging rights, use this number track how well you’re managing your overall process. And don’t forget the end game: the quantity and quality of ideas that you put out into the world.