What counts as writing?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard (or read) this advice from professional writers to starry-eyed amateurs like myself:

“If you want to write professionally, you should keep professional hours: eight hours a day, five days a week minimum.”

Or…

“You should write 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, and do that every day for the next five years.”

But what does that actually mean? What counts as writing? Does outlining count as writing? What about researching the market? Do you get to count editing a 5,000-page story in your “thousand words a day” quota? What about blogging and promotion? Reading Tolstoy? Does that stuff count?

I didn’t edit or delete anything when I first started writing fiction, which made it easy to keep track of my word count. It also gave me confidence.

Instead of feeling depressed about how bad I was, I looked at this stream-of-consciousness pile of crap and said, “Wow. I wrote 400 pages!”

I couldn’t have written that much if I’d slowed down enough to actually judge my work. (If there are any timid beginning writers out there, I definitely suggest giving yourself a ream of paper to play around with–don’t even reread it. You’ll just get discouraged if you judge your early work too harshly.) I filed those early stories away and promised myself I’d get back to them later…when I knew what I was doing.

My struggle with how to quantify my work came when I began researching, outlining, and editing.

The trouble with only keeping track of your word count is that you can pad your writing with crap. I can write a thousand words in an hour, but will my writing be any good? Not always. Writing well, for me, usually requires some planning ahead of time and editing after the fact; both of those tasks usually shrink my word count.

The problem with only keeping track of the hours is that you can sink months–even years–into researching and outlining a novel, yet not have anything substantial to show for yourself. It’s hard to judge when “researching” turns into “procrastinating.” It’s hard to feel like a real writer when you’re not watching a stack of pages grow.

I’ve heard that some writers spend part of their day producing new fiction–2,000 words, or whatever–and doing other writerly tasks once their minimum word count is done: researching their next novel, editing, proffering to editors, etc.

For the time being, I’m experimenting with a modified version of Heinlein’s Rules as a way to structure my day because there are lots of writing tasks, but some of them are more important than others. Each day I try to start with Rule #1 and accomplish that before I move to Rule #2, and so on.

RULE #1: YOU MUST WRITE.
The reason it’s first is because it’s the most important. The rest of the machinery doesn’t work unless you’ve got new words.

RULE #2: YOU MUST FINISH WHAT YOU WRITE.
For me, this means writing in chunks so that I can have a finished scene, chapter, or story that I can put aside and say, “This is ready for my alpha reader.” Proofreading for typos, misspelled, or missing words counts in this category. I try to keep editing at a minimum because of Rule #3. If there are any notes from my alpha reader, than this is when I implement them before moving onto Rule #4.

RULE #3: YOU MUST REFRAIN FROM REWRITING, EXCEPT TO EDITORIAL ORDER.
The part I emphasize here is “Editorial Order.” This is the point in my day where I check-in with my audience: post my word count, blog, and share my story with an alpha reader (or readers). More on alpha readers in another post. Basically what I use an alpha reader for is to see if the movie playing in my head is what’s playing in the reader’s head. If there are any discrepancies than those are the parts I rewrite…and I don’t touch anything else. I try to do it all as quickly as possible so I can move onto Rule #4.

RULE #4: YOU MUST PUT YOUR STORY ON THE MARKET.
I write a cover letter and mail a story. Ultimately, I’d like to be able to mail at least one story a week, but I’m not quite there yet. Someday….

RULE # 5: YOU MUST KEEP YOUR STORY ON THE MARKET UNTIL IT HAS SOLD.
A rejection notice is just a reminder to stick a story in a new envelope and mail it again. Come to think of it…acceptance letters are like that too, only you have to be a little more careful with copyright. If there are any hours left in the day, I try to spend them researching new markets, reading, and planning my next writing day by doing any research or outlining I need to do.

Here’s how I keep track: I keep a spreadsheet of my word-count and hours spent writing. I try to touch on each of the steps if I have the luxury of a full day to write. If my time is limited than I just write as much new stuff as I can.

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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