How to Increase Your Daily Word Count by 75%

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Recently (twenty-one days ago), I modified my morning writing routine according to advice by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. The change I made was simple: swap out one behavior (fiction writing) for another (surfing the internet) in response to the trigger of preparing and drinking coffee.

My previous routine was something like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Morning meditation (just a few minutes) and journal writing/day notes (also very short).
  3. Shower and dress, have first coffee.
  4. Breakfast with family, get daughter ready for school or camp.
  5. Drink coffee while reading the entire internet, until heart is racing and mind is full of bad news and cute animal pictures.
  6. Force self to begin writing. Write for 30-60 minutes until it’s time for lunch.
  7. Record word count and other variables in writing log.

This actually wasn’t a bad routine. I completed the first half of my current novel this way! I always felt great after meeting my tiny word count quota, and the writing process flowed once I got started (no writer’s block, no shortage of ideas).

But I knew that I was wasting time and that I could do better. In fact, I did better last year, averaging 726 words a day from May 2, 2013 through August 10, 2013. Recently, I knew I’d been writing much less than that. What changed? Part of the problem was that I was writing a sequel, and thus having to check the previous novel frequently to maintain continuity. I was also working with a looser outline this time, writing more by the seat of my pants. I had also lowered my daily quota. But the main problem was that I was getting a late start and wasting time.

Watching the Jonathan Fields interview with Duhigg provided the tool I needed to change. Coffee was a major behavioral trigger for me, but the behavior it was triggering wasn’t productive. So needed to substitute one behavior for another.

At first, effectively, this meant withholding coffee until I had actually started the writing ritual (opening documents, recording my start time, reading previous day’s work, etc.). But over the last few weeks I’ve noticed that the first sip of coffee now propels me into my work. Weird, freaky, easy. I’m back in a good groove.

I wanted to wait a few weeks before reporting any results to make sure the behavior change and productivity boost wasn’t a fluke. Here are the actual results.

Twenty-one days before starting “coffee trigger” experiment:
Total word count: 6,481
Average daily word count: 309
Average start time: 11:33am

Twenty-one days after starting “coffee trigger” experiment:
Total word count: 11,437
Average daily word count: 545
Average start time: 9:20am

Feel free to check my math, but that’s a 75% boost in word count, and I’m definitely getting an earlier start.

The new morning routine looks something like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Morning meditation and journal writing/day notes.
  3. Shower and dress.
  4. Breakfast with family, get daughter ready for school or camp.
  5. Check email, quick look at most interesting news items.
  6. Drink coffee and write fiction for 1-2 hours.
  7. Record word count and other variables in writing log.

What’s Your Trigger?

What I recommend is not necessarily that you tie your creative process to caffeine intake, but rather that you note what environmental and chemical cues already exist in your routine and then tie your creative process to those cues. If you have a bad habit you’d like to substitute with a new behavior, think about what triggers the cigarette smoking, doughnut eating, or internet browsing. Waking up? The startup chime of your computer? The whistle of the tea kettle? What do those particular sights, sounds, and smells propel you to do?

If Duhigg is right, we can’t just “turn off” our reaction to the cue, but we can modify our behavior so that we do something else in response.

Should You Use a Word Quota? What’s the Right Number?

My daily word count may look laughably small to some professional writers. Stephen King’s quota is 2000 words per day, every day. My quota is 600 words/day, most days (weekends and holidays I still write and revise, but without a quota).

My current monthly goal is 15,000 words. That gives me a rough draft in approximately 6 or 7 months. That’s slower than King recommends for a first draft (in On Writing, he states that he likes to bang out a draft in 3-4 months), but it’s where I’m at right now.

Last year, when my daily average word count was higher, I was working with a higher quota (1000 words a day), but missing it a lot. I lowered my quota with the thought that meeting an easy goal provides motivation and ultimately increases productivity, but maybe I made it too low.

Ideally I’d like to consistently hit 1000 words/day without expending too much willpower. Maybe I just need to type faster. As a first step I’m considering raising my quota to 800 words/day.

At the moment I have ideas and rough notes for 17 novels. I’d love to achieve a pace of one novel per year. I realize I’m getting ahead of myself; I haven’t published any fiction, I don’t have an agent or connections. But what I’m doing now is working the process. If I succeed at fiction writing the reward will be more fiction writing, so I might as well get a good system going.

After I finish my current draft I plan to write music for a couple months while it’s being read. Ideally I’d like to get into some kind of regular production schedule where fiction writing is the main activity but there are breaks for immersion into music production, other kinds of writing, collaborative projects, and the like. While I haven’t yet worked out the details, what is clear to me is that I need a daily creative practice (with some intensity and pressure and measurable output) to maintain my mental health, wits, and love of life.

Please share your own thoughts, questions, and experiences in the comments.

6 responses to “How to Increase Your Daily Word Count by 75%

  1. Reblogged this on Cognitive Dissonance and commented:
    Neat ideas on changing habits. I have been trying several things myself, not just for writing, but also for working out. Since being in a car accident, my old habits were disrupted. Then I pulled my back. And started drinking beer. I’m working around changing those habits now (Back to wine, set a daily goal for writing time and workout time, etc.

    I’m also using a daily journal at work. We will see if that might work for home as well. Habits are interesting things.

  2. Good to see that the technique is working. Nice followup on your last blog post. I’ll have to check out more Charles Duhigg, the last video you posted was intriguing.

    • Haven’t read his book yet but he seems to have a deep understanding of habits. Even just seeing the interview changed my thinking significantly. I think what stood out most is the idea that you can’t really change a habit once you have it (in terms of doing something in response to a trigger), but you can change the behavior itself that is linked to the trigger. Simple, but I had never thought of it that way.

  3. I like the distinction between a behavior and a trigger; it adds nuance to the concept of a habit. I can’t help but think that there’s also an element of conditioning at work. I’ve been writing with a friend in a coffee shop once a week for the last couple of years. At first, I found myself very fidgety and prone to chatting with her or listening to the other patrons. Now, as soon as I sit down in my usual spot and flip open my computer, I somehow effect a shift into writing mode. Now if only I could do that as easily at home!

  4. Pingback: Weekly review: Week ending August 15, 2014 - sacha chua :: living an awesome life

  5. Pingback: No Rest Days (Until I Crashed) | J.D. Moyer

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