The writing habit: 500 words a day

In January, I began a new habit of writing 500 words per weekday in what I call my “fiction file.” At first I hacked my way through a 19,000-word novella. As I ended that, I realized that this was probably a bigger story, but I had no real sense of what direction it would take. I could find out where I wanted to go by thinking hard about it. Writing a certain number of words per day is one way to guarantee I would make space in my life for such thinking.

(It’s similar to what some people do with “morning pages” — for fans of Julia Cameron.)

It’s April now, and I’ve been pretty consistent. I took a week off when we were in London (honestly, I forgot the first weekday, then realized what I had done. I decided that since I write for a living, being on vacation was a reason to take a short break). In those 500 word spurts, I’ve played with different plot ideas, and what different characters might be like. Or I crank out descriptions. Or something random that occurs to me.

I am not sure how much of it will ever be usable. The past few days in particular I have felt like I have nothing to say. Why do I keep doing this?

Here’s why: daily writing practice helps improve my skills. Setting a daily word goal forces me to make space amid everything else for this practice. A violinist wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) complain that playing her scales wasn’t leading to anything. Or that she wasn’t inspired to play the scales.

So what? Inspiration is over-rated.

And so the 500 words per day continue. It doesn’t take much time, but it’s about making sure this time does exist in my life amid all the parts of a writing career that don’t involve writing.

What skills are you practicing daily?

In other news: I talk about the idea of “streaks” (be they running or writing streaks — or other things, like time-tracking!) in my next book, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. The book will be out May 29. If you like this blog, or the podcast when we don’t have audio issues, would you please pre-order a copy? Pre-orders help show there is interest in a book, and influence early coverage and how many copies retailers stock and how prominently they feature the book. I appreciate your support! Retailer links and pre-orders benefits outlined here.

10 thoughts on “The writing habit: 500 words a day

  1. I recently started writing fiction and playing violin again. I’m rusty at both – the violin more than the fiction though. I’m not necessarily looking to create anything right now. It’s not a project really, but a practice and I’m finding it’s opening up my creativity in other areas too.

  2. When do you do this 500 words practice? Do you block out that time in your planner every day so that it’s sacrosanct and can’t be folded into schedule creep? How long do you give yourself?

    I am a new reader of your blog. Hi!

    1. @Simi- hi! Welcome, and thanks for reading!

      I just put “500 words” on my to-do list for the day. If the day is very packed, I will assign it a time. If not, I will do it when I do it, generally in the morning, since that’s my focused time. But since I do everything on my to-do list for the day (or make an active decision to cancel it or move it to a different day) it will get done.

  3. I have a goal of writing fifty (yes, that’s right, 50!) words a day. I set a timer for 30 minutes, and get between 600 and 1,200 most of the time. But then there are Those Days – when I’m sick or stressed out or whatever lame excuse. Those days, I tell myself I can stop after 50 words. I usually get 300 or 400.

    1. @Ruth – brilliant. Lower your expectations to the point where success is very very possible. Then you feel no resistance. This is why my running streak is about doing 1 mile a day. I almost always do more. Sometimes much more. But the 1 mile requirement is for those days when I really don’t feel like it. It’s only a mile. Just like it’s only 50 words.

  4. Hi, Laura! That’s so awesome that you have been able to stick to your habit and seen all this progress! May I ask if you write in a particular software, or do you just save your files to Word/Pages? Also, would youb plain more about getting everything in your to-do list done (in the above comment)? I so struggle with this! Thank you very much! And, may I say, I can’t wait for the new book!

    1. @Ledys – ah, the to-do list. This could be its own whole post (I may have written such a post!) Basically, a few things. First, I don’t put things on my to-do list unless I actually plan to do them. I mean, what’s the point of lying to myself? There’s no virtue in putting something on a to-do list, and then not doing. It’s just as not-done as if you’d never put it on the list in the first place. Only now you feel bad about it too! Definitely a worse outcome. So be honest about what you intend to do, and then keep the list short. Don’t make your list of the length you’d accomplish on a perfect day. Think about your normal life, where stuff comes up (good stuff and bad stuff!) and you get interrupted, and a kid calls home sick from school and you run out of energy and so forth. If you finish with your (short!) to do list, and then you want to go find some more stuff, awesome. But by keeping the list short, it gets done.

  5. So timely! It’s T-3 months before my thesis defense, and the dissertation needs to be in 2 weeks prior to that. I’m going to definitely try and stick to this so I get enough words on a page to feel like I have something valuable to edit in a month or two!

    And thanks to an upcoming meeting that is taking time away from doing experiments, I decided to reframe my attitude and utilize my time in a remote ski resort to work on the papers/dissertation. With 2000 people at this conference, no one will notice if I slip away to do work.

  6. Ha! As a violin teacher I know plenty of violinists who don’t think scales are worth their time, especially on the days where the music doesn’t come easy. However, I’m pretty convinced I get the most out of my practice sessions where everything feels hard. I have to think of the details that make a good sound, where to adjust my posture, or vibrato, or bow distribution to get a more even sound. I have to learn how to overcome on the days where I don’t feel “talented.” You never know how you’re going to feel on the day of the performance. Pretty sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

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