Jay Lake: Writer

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[process] Drafting speed, and the perils thereof

There’s been a bit of chatter over Twitter the last couple of days about drafting speed, sparked by my daily updates on Sunspin productivity. As it happens, when I am in novel drafting mode (as I am currently), my goal is 2,500 words per day at least five days per week, or 12,500 per week. My ideal is higher, but that’s my basic target rate. Worldcon and chemotherapy have conspired against me somewhat these past weeks, but I’ve kept close to or on target nonetheless.

However, by being so public about my throughput, I think sometimes I risk creating problems for other people. I’ve been criticized in the past, both publicly and privately, for sharing these numbers on an ongoing basis. For my part, I do them for my own accountability. Rather like posting my weight every day on my blog. Except I am certain that no one reading here gives a rat’s patoot about my weight, while a fair number of you look at my wordcount production and think, “Hmmm…”

So I want to reiterate something I’ve said a number of times:

The only writer you can compare yourself to is you

It doesn’t matter that Jay Lake is writing 2,500 words+ a day on his current novel. It doesn’t matter that Elizabeth Bear is writing 1,000 words a day on her current novel. It doesn’t matter that anyone is doing anything, except what you are doing in the context of your commitments, goals and (if they are useful to you) your metrics.

I do a couple of things here that aren’t bog standard for writers. First, I draft at an unusually high rate of speed. When I’m really clipping along and have things well in hand, I can hit 2,500 words per hour. When I’m poking along but being productive, I still run about 1,800 words per hour. That practically qualifies me as a freak of nature. I’m weird.

The fact that I even know those numbers is also perhaps slightly unusual. I’ve been working in high tech since the mid-1980s, in various capacities. IT management, development, marketing, sales, etc. I’m very, very accustomed to both the requirement for contracted metrics and the practice of reporting on them.

This is publishing. The only metric anyone cares about is whether I deliver a worthwhile manuscript on deadline. Everything else is my internal process. But since I’m such a pathological extrovert, I conduct a lot of that process in public.

Because I measure things and do analysis both proactively and reactively, at this point I’ve written or co-written almost twenty novels, I know it takes me 50 to 100 hours to write a novel, depending on target length. I know that with my parenting and Day Jobbe commitments, absent health concerns or other schedule disruptions, I can count on consistently putting in about 10 hours per week on a novel project. This knowledge in turn allows me to schedule myself up to several years in advance for projects, making contract commitments with a confidence that my publishers share.

That’s just the way I do things. I count words and time, know my baselines, and hold myself accountable accordingly. The intersection of consistent access to my creative impulses, a decade-long data set for baselining, and the habits of accountability, means that I talk about this stuff in public, and do things with the resulting information.

Should you be doing it that way? I doubt it. I’m kind of anal about some stuff. I’m kind of unusual about some other stuff.

In my opinion, the only way you should be comparing yourself to me, or to anyone, is to ask yourself if you’re living up to your own goals and commitments. If some of my practices turn out to be useful in your own goal-setting, terrific. But the only aspect of my writing I intended to communicate to others as an example is the metapractice of professional commitment to craft and productivity.

Whatever that means to you.


All of the above makes me wonder if I should put together a workshop session sometime for writers on goal setting and productivity management, to help people do their own goal-setting and get a handle on their practices.

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