What I Learned from 1 Year of 1,000 Words a Day
In January 2016 I quietly set a New Year’s resolution to write 1,000 words every single workday, before I did anything else. My mantra was “1k before the day.” I had it stuck to the top of my laptop and everything. I didn’t really tell anyone about it because 1) I had no idea if it would work or not, and 2) I only wanted to be beholden to myself.
It was an eye-opening experience on many levels, and hugely successful on several. I didn’t end up keeping strict with the 1k/day rule after the first eight months, but it was a conscious decision to choose other benefits over a continued high word count. (More on that later.) It was still my most productive year ever, word-count wise, plus lessons learned about many other factors, so I thought I’d share in case any other writers are interested in resolving to their own 1k/day for 2017.
So first, let’s start with the “rules.” I knew before I started that I would need break days. I didn’t want to burn out, so I was pretty protective of my weekends. So 1k a day, for me, applied to workdays (weekdays) only, not every single day. This also gave me the flexibility to take sick days, mental health days, and vacation days as needed without feeling extra guilty about missing my 1k. Bottom line: if I was in the office, I was getting my 1k. If I wasn’t in the office, I didn’t sweat it.
As to what counts: Since creative work is my focus, I only allowed fiction and poetry to count as my 1k for the day, but I did include work nonfiction (essays, blogs, articles) in my total for the year. That may seem somewhat arbitrary, but my intent was to make sure I didn’t write a bunch of random blog posts instead of making progress on my actual creative work. But then again, my nonfiction work is still part of my job, so I counted it in the end total. What never counted for either were emails, tweets, social media statuses, blog comments, etc.
On days that I got my 1k, I got a checkmark sticker in my planner. (One check for each thousand words, actually, so some days had more than one.) On days that I was in the office but failed to get my 1k, I got a frowny-face sticker. Partway through the year I realized that I really don’t respond in a helpful way to negative reinforcement, so I dropped the frownies and kept the checks. A lack of checkmarks was enough to highlight my lack of progress on slip days. Your mileage may vary.
It’s December 15th as of my writing this, and so far I’ve logged 210,000 words in 2016. If you’re doing the math, that’s an average of 840 words a workday. If you account for days off, that’s probably pretty close to 1k/day. Did I make it, though? No, not technically.
First of all, there were some days when I sat down to work but didn’t get 1,000 fresh words. Not as many as I thought there’d be, but some. Sometimes it was because I just plain got stuck and was only able to drag out 200 words or so. A few times it’s because random deadlines or other non-drafting writing work got in my way. And at least once I was just a distracted little squirrel.
The beginning of the year was a series of short stories and flash pieces that I kept going to get my 1k before I started drafting a book. Then I spent about 100 workdays drafting my nine-year novel. The biggest “failure,” though, came after I finished that. I’d been working on it for most of the year, after all, and when it was done I found myself floundering. Suspecting that would happen, I officially gave myself an entire week off of the 1k/day rule to get into a new mindset for my next book.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
(That's ho, ho, ho if you're seasonal.)
Why do I never remember how long it takes me to gear up for a new project until I have to do it again? This was one of my biggest lessons: I need space between big projects. No matter how excited I am about the next book, how much research I’ve done, how much pre-planning, I need time to get bored and antsy, and I can’t do that if I’m churning out a dozen new short stories.
I have a one-track mind. I like to be consumed by a single project. I like it to sit in my brain all the time without having to jockey for a front-row seat. I want my subconscious to have a very clear arrow pointing at what bit to work on. I simply can’t do that effectively if I force myself to continue to produce short content between longer things.
So I ended up taking a nice big chunk of time to do that maddeningly immaterial “work” that comes before drafting something new. I chose this consciously when I realized what was going on, which was another valuable reminder: goals are set for our own benefit, not for some external reward. When it became more beneficial for me to break my goal than keep it, I had to allow myself to do that without considering it a failure.
Namely, I discovered what I’m capable of. I’ve done NaNoWriMo before and fast-drafted several novels at a much higher rate than 1k/day, so it’s not like I didn’t know how much work could be created quickly. In fact, it was almost the opposite. I had never allowed myself to go quite so slow while still remaining steady. It was the first time I found the sweet spot between mad dash and nine-years-in-the-making. Showing up every single day to work on the same thing at a reasonable pace (while still allowing myself to do other things, unlike when fast-drafting) was quite the eye-opener.
I also learned that my ‘1k before the day’ mantra wasn’t always the best option for me in practice. It was good when I was getting started, because it forced me to get that 1k first thing so I couldn’t “run out of time” due to poor planning. But once I’d found that groove and become accustomed to every workday being a drafting day, I started to realize that my brain was more alert in the afternoon than in the morning. Drafting later took less time and felt better. I enjoyed doing the more menial tasks like website maintenance, story submissions, and answering emails while I was having my coffee and still waking up, then tackling the good stuff once I felt sharpest.
Then, later in the year, I became active in some morning exercise classes and had to shift the schedules of my days altogether to accommodate that. (I really do believe that a healthy body is vital to a healthy mind, and a healthy mind is a writer’s best friend.) It was a nice reminder that sometimes having less time to do what you need to do actually makes you more productive than having a whole day free.
Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected side effect of my experiment was in my work itself. Because I knew that I would be right back at it the next day needing another 1,000 words, I most often stopped my drafting for that day as soon as I was “allowed,” only occasionally going past my minimum. Sometimes this resulted in stopping mid-scene, which was helpful to getting started the next day. More often, though, I ended up unintentionally writing my scenes to 1,000 words in length. Despite the popular advice to always stop mid-scene, I’ve always been a writer who ends on a completed scene. I hate stopping mid-flow. So in the end, this resulted in me subconsciously drafting 1,000 word scenes over and over. While that’s partially the nature of the particular project I was working on—and I moved away from it once I noticed the trend—it could also easily become a detrimental writing flaw. Rhythm is one thing, but near-identical scene length over an entire book would become quite predictable.
And last but not least, I got a nice refresher on what it feels like to show up, AIS, every single day to get a hardy chunk of writing done—and not just for a one-month NaNo blast, but for a prolonged and sustainable period. More important than the actual production I got from it is the sense of “how much work” feels attainable. How much should I struggle? How long should I go? When should I move on to my other tasks, and how much time should I give them? My newest lesson is, now that I have that sense, that word count isn’t as important to me as honest effort. Now, drafting my new new WIP, at the end of this year and going into next, I find myself not caring so much about word count (though I still keep track of it so I know if I slide way off track) as I do about productivity.
If I genuinely need half my work day to research an unexpected element of my WIP, that’s okay—as long as I’m on task and pushing diligently toward the next step. If 3,000 words come pouring out one day and only 250 the next, that’s okay too, as longs as both days I sat down with the intent to put good work on the page. If I’m groggy and grumpy and can’t decide what happens next, I should get to work anyway, whether that be filling out prompt worksheets or drafting a scene that may get deleted later. But if I genuinely need a refueling, brainstorming, mental health day to go on a hike and talk out loud, that’s exactly what I should do.
All things said and done, my year of 1,000 words a day was a great experiment. Did I technically reach my goal? No, but I still got two hundred thousand words, which ain't nothing. Did I get value from it? More than I even imagined. Should you try your own version? Absolutely.
Good luck to those of you who do. And to those of you who already have (or tried something similar), I’d love to hear about your experiences and trials in the comments.
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