The Limits of the “500 Words Per Day” Writing Advice

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June Thomas: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. More. Hello and welcome to another episode of Working Overtime. The biweekly advice focused Frazier to workings. Cheers. I’m your host, June Thomas.

Isaac Butler: And I am the toss salad to June scrambled eggs. Isaac Butler.

June Thomas: Oh, no. I want to sing again. Okay.

Isaac Butler: Huh? How’s it going, Jean?

June Thomas: It is going very, very well.

Isaac Butler: So what are we talking about today?

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June Thomas: So today I want to talk about some advice that was given to me by Slate’s book critic, Laura Miller. Now. Here, it’s relevant to mention that Laura is also an author. She wrote the magician’s book, A Skeptics Guide to Narnia, about C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series.

Isaac Butler: Which is an amazing book.

June Thomas: I have not read it, but I really would.

Isaac Butler: It’s great to read it.

June Thomas: And that was why she was panicking. Advice to me. So she told me that when she was writing that book, she used a system that is usually attributed to Graham Greene. And it’s that six days a week, first thing in the morning, as soon as you’ve gotten some coffee, maybe a slice of toast into your body, you should sit down and write 500 words. Once you’ve got those 500 words. You can do whatever you like. You can carry on writing. Of course, you can do some research. You can edit, maybe even fall into drunken dissipation, which I believe is what Graham GREENE got up to after he’d met his daily target. But writing 500 words is all you absolutely have to do each day.

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June Thomas: Now, obviously, on one level, this is pretty standard advice. If you’re working on something big like a book, you should touch it every day. But there’s something very liberating for me in having a specific target. I mean, I know how to write. That’s something I’ve been doing professionally for years, but I haven’t written a book before. And it’s such a daunting prospect. So many words before you’re done. But 500. Oh, man, that’s easy. Why do you think?

Isaac Butler: Well, first of all, June, I imagine that a very specific word count goal is like catnip for you. I mean, it just seems like like what could be more delicious for you than a specific word. And I agree with you that doing any kind of huge project, you got to break it up into the smallest possible pieces to make it feel manageable. Otherwise, it gets so overwhelming. You know, you sort of don’t even know how to put one foot in front of another. I mean, you know, it’s sort of like that a baby steps in the office sequence of what about Bob or something? Yeah.

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Isaac Butler: So I think there’s a lot of wisdom here, but I do have some particular thoughts about this from my own situation. So when I was in graduate school, transitioning from being a theater director to a writer, I really had to figure out how to have a daily writing practice and how to develop that habit. For me, it was usually about 1000 words a day, I think, but the actual number almost doesn’t matter. It’s just that you’re doing something every day right. I needed to develop that muscle and that discipline to just sit down, block out the world, drink my cup of coffee and write. But my life can’t accommodate doing that anymore.

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Isaac Butler: Really, for a couple of reasons. First of all, my projects are research intensive and it is often not the right use of my time to be writing. Actually, usually. I need to be researching them. Once I’ve done enough of the research, then write every day for 500 to 1000 words or whatever. Mm hmm. The second is, I can’t do it first thing in the morning. I have a child, and I need to spend the first 90 minutes after I wake up doing things like walking a dog, brewing a pot of coffee, getting my kid breakfast, getting her ready for school. And obviously, you know, my wife and I do that together, but I’m not going to leave all those tasks for her. I miss being able to wake up, drink a cup of coffee, just dive right in, you know, get your brain to the page as quickly as possible.

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Isaac Butler: But one thing I’ve had to learn over the last seven years is how to have a writing practice that works around and accommodates responsible parenthood. Green could have kids and write 500 words first thing every day because he had money, because of the gender norms at his time, and because he abandoned his family in 1947. And so, you know, part of me is a little skeptical about this advice when it comes to people who might have a more complicated personal life.

June Thomas: Yeah, for real. And yes, it’s a very pleasant privilege to be able to even consider doing this, at least right now. I want to mention to one other element to this. So not only did GREENE apparently do this himself, he also had a proxy character actually write about it in one of his books. So in the end of the Affair, his protagonist, Maurice Bendix, who was himself a novelist, described a very similar method which included the line.

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June Thomas: I have always been very methodical and where my quota of work is done, I break off even in the middle of a scene. Now that seems crazy. I can’t imagine just packing up and I know going bowling or boozing for that matter. Once the 500 words were in the books, it’s just somehow that this target makes me feel like I could and I should at some point stop, rather. And just working until I don’t know how I pass out. Would you down tools as soon as your computer gave you that little signal that you’d gotten to 500 words?

Isaac Butler: Hell, no. That’s crazy talk. Not that I know what down tools means, but I assume that means shutting down my computer or something in mid-sentence. I remember on an earlier episode we mentioned the idea of leaving the work deliberately unfinished to help trigger your unconscious mind to work on the problems of the project when you’re away from it. And I actually do like that strategy, but to me, what you do is you don’t stop right before the end of the chapter. You blow through the end of the chapter maybe three paragraphs into the next one, and then stop or something like that. You know, those kinds of provocations for your subconscious are useful, but I definitely would not be like, Oh well, that’s done and dusted now. Time to drink my gin and tonics or whatever.

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June Thomas: Drew Now I know that it’s a bit silly to get stuck on the details of this. It’s not about anything magical, about 500 words or any number of words, but about breaking the task into smaller chunks.

Isaac Butler: What can I say, June, though one of the things that I love about you is that you are very attached to what is the target. I think that is one of the great things about you and one of the great differences between us and which is why I love these conversations so much.

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June Thomas: I know I imagine you don’t even have a spreadsheet or three apps keeping track of it, right?

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Isaac Butler: I do not have a spreadsheet of three apps. I have two Microsoft Word documents, I guess.

June Thomas: There we go. So I found an article online in which Susan Orlean said that when she was writing her first book and she was feeling overwhelmed, her New Yorker editor told her to do 800 words a day, which she found very helpful, and she eventually raised that target to a thousand words a day.

June Thomas: So wait, I’m not just saying something I’d said earlier. No, the reason I’m mentioning this is that she had already done all of her research at that point. She spent what she described as several years doing all that reporting and fact finding before she sat down to write. So, first of all, I just don’t think I could do that. It sounds like drinking gallons of water and then forcing yourself to wait like hours or maybe even days to pee. But I am aware, as I approach the end of the first chapter that I’ve written as a more or less full time writer, that I’d already done the research for that chapter.

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June Thomas: But starting very soon, I’ll need to restart that research engine. And I’m worried about losing momentum without the equivalent of a word count and the three apps to keep track of it. And I don’t want to feel like a failure because I didn’t get to 500. And I don’t think that certainly not at the beginning that I can write as I research. So Isaac pulled me out of this cycle of despondency.

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Isaac Butler: Well, the first thing I’m going to say is that it’s going to be okay, Jim. It’s really is going to be okay. You are going to figure this out. But the problem, I think, is that you’re trying to figure it out in your head. And it’s not a problem that’s solvable cognitively. It is a problem that it’s only solvable experimentally and experientially. You just have to try some shit and not all of it is going to work. But then you’re through that. You are going to find a process that’s going to work for you to solve this problem. So, for example, it is definitely not going to work for you to like research in the afternoon and then write 500 words about whatever you research. A lot of that writing is going to be completely pointless or kind of feel plagiarism or whatever.

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Isaac Butler: I know that I’ve mentioned a few times on this podcast about how I did the first part of the method one chapter a month, right, and broken up into research, outlining and then writing. That worked really well for part one, and I’d recommend you give it a shot and see what you think. But once I got to part two, for whatever reason, it just hit me. It was like a bolt of lightning. You have to do most of the research of the whole part before you sit down and do it. Doing it that way is not going to work anymore. And that was really true. And you know what? It was kind of weird to not really write for a couple of months, but then you get to do it and you like, sit down. You’re like, I just wrote a 7000 word chapter in one day. Oh, you know, whatever it is, you know, there is a thrill on the other end of it. But that approach wouldn’t have worked for part one. I think you just have to I know this is going to be hard. Let go of the target for a moment of 500 words a day or whatever. Or maybe set yourself a different, similar target for research, 200 pages of bread a day or, you know, whatever it is.

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Isaac Butler: But just I’m just going to say this and this is not just for you. I’m speaking to myself here and to anyone else listening. It’s all writing. All of that is writing, sitting there and reading. Research is writing, thinking about the project is writing going on a walk? Is writing. There are all sorts of things that are actually writing that do not look like what we in our culture calls writing. And if you get overly fixated on the act of generating words in a document that way, madness lies. I think laws of ICE is really great. I’m not actually saying anything negative about that. I’m saying I miss being able to practice that. But there are going to be times in your process when you cannot actually put words on the page with that is not the most useful part of your time. And so you have to learn to love and appreciate all of it as part of writing.

June Thomas: Yeah, well, first of all, I feel seen. So thank you for that, Isaac, and that makes a lot of sense. Okay, one more kind of aspect of all this, I promise will leave Graham Greene alone pretty soon.

Isaac Butler: I mean, he’s one of my favorite authors. Yeah.

June Thomas: I mean, Sam. Sam, to be clear, but still, one of the things that computers have made possible is what I think of as modular writing. That’s where you don’t try to write the next 500 or however many words each day, but any 500 or however many words each day. In each writing session, you focus on a particular theme or event or person, and then you figure out where that piece of writing belongs later. The writing doesn’t have to be sequential. In other words, the writing program Scrivener encourages this approach by making it easy to move chunks around, compile them in different ways. But Scrivener certainly isn’t necessary to do this. I don’t use it. Do you ever write that way?

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Isaac Butler: You know, there are a few things that I wrote module early in the method. It is almost entirely written in chronological order from beginning to end one sentence at a time, you know. But there were things where, particularly in part two, if I remember correctly, where I wrote that way. So, you know, I had done a lot of research about Broadway in New York City in the twenties when Stanislavski arrives. And I just felt so full of that that I just wanted to sit down and write those five paragraphs. And so I did. And then I went back to researching other things, those five paragraphs. It’s I don’t know that it’s exactly five, but then, then when I got to that chapter, I was like, Oh, right, I have that in this, you know, Google doc and I just, you know, put it right in and then smoothed it out. Yeah. And then when revising the book to editor’s notes, of course you’re writing module early because he says, Oh, you neglected to talk about or describe Stanislavski. Is death in the draft you gave me?

Isaac Butler: I was like, Oh, what’s better, go write those three paragraphs. So, you know, sometimes that stuff happens. I don’t generally work that way only because my brain goes to structure so early in the writing process that I usually know where things are going to go or have some general idea where things are going to go. And so it’s just easier for me to just go from beginning to end.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, but I do think that if you’re stuck, this is 100% what you should do is just write something. And often if I’m doing a freelance piece, that’s what I do. I have a whole bunch of notes in the notes app on my phone, which are ideas in no particular order other than when they came to me. And I copy those ideas into Microsoft Word or Google Docs. If I’m on my iPad, I pick whichever one I feel like I have the most to say and I just flesh it out until I hit a wall, which might even be I’m in the middle of a sentence, then I just type, this sucks, this sucks, this sucks. And then I find another one of those things that’s organically grabbing me and I do it again. And then usually you start to see, Oh, this is how you transition from this into this and this is what you need before that. And the piece kind of evolves out of that. Most of my freelance writing stuff these days kind of works like that. Well.

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June Thomas: I mean, the other part of that is if you do this kind of modular writing, it kind of forces you into editing brain a little earlier than you might want to, even though you know, your first draft is not, you know, the full, complete, it’s a draft. You need to have a sense of where it is going to go because you still need to know if there are any big holes that you need to fill. You don’t have to fill them them, but it’s good to have a sense of that kind of thing. So it just kind of pushes that maybe a little earlier in the process.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, totally. I mean, I found a similar thing when I was handwriting chapters and then typing them up is that, you know, you start revising immediately. You’re not going to type up exactly what you handwrote, especially because in my case I couldn’t read all of them, you know, so you’re going to start revising in the middle of that anyway and start to think about where things are going to go next in a way that I find really useful.

June Thomas: All right. Well, let’s take a break right here and we’ll be back to talk about more aspects of Laura’s advice.

Isaac Butler: How do you listeners Isaac Butler here? We love hearing from you whether it’s about tips for approaching big creative tasks, maybe things you’ve done that worked really well that you want to share with other listeners or problems you’re having that you need advice on. Whatever it is, please get in touch to talk with us. You can email us at working at Slate.com or even better. You can call us and leave a message at 3049339675. That’s 304933. w0rk. All right. Back to the show.

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June Thomas: So Isaac, the occasion for Laura sharing this advice with me was that I was leaving my day job to focus more or less full time on writing. And that actually is the tricky bit of this, right? Because very few people can do that, I suspect. Certainly not in the prime of life. So let’s talk about the things that we have to or can do to make it possible to write this magical 500 words a day. Does it require full time focus, do you think?

Isaac Butler: I think it varies person to person and day to day. There are some people who are very fastidious about each word and each sentence, and they’re actually going back and thinking about it over and over and over again in 500 words is really a full day of work. There are other people for whom 500 words is like 75 minutes of work. You know, they just can go and get it out. I am someone who writes best in the morning. It’s hard for me to write in the afternoon and a full writing day for me in terms of actually putting words on the page. A full writing day for me is probably 4 hours, I would guess. And then the rest of the day I’m trying to do other stuff related to it. You know, with the method, it was watching movies often in the afternoon. In fact, my mother in law said something very funny to me after she read the book because we lived with her during the pandemic and she was like, Every day I’d be watching your kid. And then I come down to the basement. You’d be sitting there watching a movie. I’d just be like, What the hell is this? But now I understand why you had to do that, and it was all worth it. I just thought that was really funny and really amazing.

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Isaac Butler: But yeah, so I think it depends. I do think that you need to clear the decks as much as possible until you figure out what your pace is kind of like. I think that especially when you’re first starting out trying to clear your schedule as much as possible, is great to figure out what you actually need because that’s really what you’re doing, is learning what you actually need. I think it’s really good to try to plan some stuff to keep refreshing yourself creatively that might not be immediately relevant to your project, whether it’s going to a gallery, having coffee with a smart friend and talking to get you out yourself, going to a movie, reading a book for fun, whatever, having some time in the week to do that. But you’re going to have to learn when you work best and then structure your day around that.

June Thomas: Obviously, whatever change you are able to make, it doesn’t have to be a forever change. You know, in journalism it’s relatively common for staff, writers or editors to negotiate a book leave that typically ranges from maybe eight weeks to six months. I think half a year is about the longest I can think of, and I suppose those are less common, to say the least, outside of journalism. But I get the sense also that more employers are becoming open to workers taking sabbaticals away from the workplace, whether that’s to take on some kind of big creative project or just to rest and recharge. Is that something you’ve ever done?

Isaac Butler: Well, I’ve been mostly freelance during my postgraduate school life. You know, I worked for an anti-discrimination think tank doing writing and strategy for them shortly after I left graduate school. And I was trying to make that work while writing and preparing to direct real enemies. And while Anne was pregnant, and at some point it was just all too much, I had to be like, I can’t finish the show and be a parent and do this job. It’s not fair to any of those things. I actually had to leave that job and I left on very good terms and still very close friends with those folks. But that was tricky.

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Isaac Butler: I would say the closest I’ve come recently is for the last six months of writing the method. I did not freelance. I think I wrote one piece for Slate, maybe two, and that was really scary. I was really worried that people would forget who I was, and then by the time the book came out, no one would remember who I was and want to buy it. Or, you know, Forest would forget who I was and assigning pieces. I mean, I just had a lot of anxiety and paranoia about that. But first of all, that did not happen. As soon as I was ready to write again, people were happy to have me. It really wasn’t that big a deal. And also I still had this show to do, which kept me in sort of regular touch with the creative world around me and I think was really valuable during that time.

June Thomas: Yeah, no, I, it’s, I think it’s good to have a little bit like it’s great to have time, but it’s also good to have a reason that forces you to get out of yourself. That feels really useful.

Isaac Butler: Yeah. And structure is also helpful, right? It’s like, I know that Thursday afternoons I’m going to be recording the banter for working, you know, two out of every three weeks. I know that if we have an interview to do, it’s probably going to be Thursday or Friday, you know, and then your week to sort of falls into place around that.

June Thomas: Right? It’s a little bit of structure which feels very useful. When I was contemplating taking a book leave, I asked a few colleagues who had taken one what they’d learned from theirs. And the response that most struck me was about timing. Someone said that you need to have a pretty good sense of what the book will look like before you take that precious break. You know, it seems so precious. It maybe that makes you treat it in cotton wool and kind of messes with your head, I think. But you want to get the flailing around and figuring things out, which sure is going to happen all through the process, but especially at the beginning. The more of that you can get out of the way before you get to the wonderful luxury of uninterrupted focus time, the better.

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Isaac Butler: I think that’s incredible advice. I think that’s totally true. It’s much the same way as we were actually talking about on the last working overtime that it’s really helpful to know how you’re going to use your work time. Yeah. Instead of sitting down and being like, Oh, now what do I do? You know, end your day the day before figuring out what you’re going to do first thing in the morning. It’s sort of the much grander version of that. I think once you’re dealing with all of that freedom from a schedule standpoint, if you’re also dealing with sort of unlimited freedom from a creative standpoint, it is very hard to maintain the discipline and the drive and the focus to keep moving forward. And that time really is precious. And so just knowing what you’re going to do with that and what you’re planning to do with that, even if you deviate from that, you know, having a clear idea is just going to really, really help sometimes.

June Thomas: I really wish I’d had twins so that I could call them discipline and focus. That would have been so amazing. Maybe two.

Isaac Butler: Cats I just.

June Thomas: Named this is to just getting to the cat and change keepers then.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, cats don’t know their own names. They’re idiots. They got a little Picken brains in there.

June Thomas: That’s right. No, they’re very, very smart. All right. That’s all the time we have for this episode. But before we go, why not make it a regular practice to listen to working at least once a week? If you like the show. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and if you have ideas for things we could do better or questions you’d like us to address, people you’d like us to talk to.

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June Thomas: We’d love to hear from you. You can send us an email at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk.

Isaac Butler: If you would like to support what we do. Why not sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com? Slash working. Plus you’ll get bonus content, including exclusive episodes of slow burn and Big Mood Little Mood, and you’ll be supporting what we do right here on work. Go to Slate.com, slash working plus to sign up.

June Thomas: Big thanks to Kevin Bendis and to our series producer, the brilliant Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back on Sunday with a brand new episode of Working. And in two weeks we’ll have another working overtime. Until then, get back to work.

June Thomas: So.