Doing the Work: Math and Science for Writers
26 Aug 2016

Doing the Work: Math and Science for Writers

26 Aug 2016

Many writers I know, myself included, tend to steer clear of the so-called STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. But when it comes to getting words on a page, most of us would do well to tap into our left brain a little more often.

For instance, if you’re working on a large writing project and it seems like you may never finish, do the math. A typical non-fiction trade paperback book could run anywhere from 45,000 to 80,000 words. Most novels slip in at about 60,000 to 80,000 (unless you’re J.K. Rowling: the shortest Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was 76,944. Five of the seven books were more than 100,000 words, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was 257,045 words.). So, in order to make efficient progress toward writing your 80,000-word book in a year (hey, you’re no J.K. Rowling … yet!), you would need to write about 300 words a day, five days a week.

“Just 300 words a day?” you say. “That’s nothing.”

Actually, that’s math! Suddenly, the impossible goal of writing your first book sounds totally doable.

doing-the-work

Of course, you might do the math a little differently. Say you already write 1,000 words a day, five days a week while working on lots of smaller projects. If you redirected those words into a book, how long would it take to finish? Well, a nice eBook or slim self-published book could be as little as 10,000 words, or maybe more like 30,000 words. (If you’re self-publishing, there’s really no limit on either end except for printing specs. For eBooks, you don’t even have to worry about those.) But if you stick to the five-days-a-week model, at 1,000 words a day, you could write an eBook in two to six weeks. That 80,000 word novel now takes only 16 weeks. That’s less than four months. If you started today, you could have it done by Christmas.

“You can’t improve what you don’t measure,” Ann Handley reminds us in Everybody Writes. “Putting some goals and metrics in place has value for anyone who wants to become a more agile and hale writer.”

Obviously, there are a few caveats to offer here. These word count math epiphanies generally only account for a rough draft. You’ll need additional time to go back through and do the rewriting and revision we’ve all come to expect. Not to mention, if you’re going to self-publish, you’ll want to hire an editor and possibly a designer to lay out your cover and interior pages (unless you can do that yourself). Still, when most of us struggle to finish a project, it’s not so much about making time to add page numbers. It’s usually more about getting the story down.

Some of you may feel the word count goal creates too much pressure, and you’d rather set a timer for yourself. I do that sometimes. But what if we get nothing done in our allotted time? How will we feel about our writing then?
“Staring at an empty page for half an hour doesn’t count, nor does half an hour of really good thinking, for that matter (at least in this case),” Handley says. “In other words (specifically, Yoda’s): ‘There is no try, there is only do.’”

Others of you may say, “300 words a day (or 1,000 words a day), that’s too much! I’ll never be able to write that much.” In that case, we turn to the world of sports medicine for help with a “start with what you can do” approach. Handley writes about a friend who refers to this as his writer’s “weight class.” I like to think of it as the “Couch to Completed Novel” approach.

See, recently I purchased an app for my phone that’s supposed to help me go from the couch to running a 5k in nine weeks. I simply use the app when I am working out and the voice prompts me when to walk and when to run. In the beginning, I walk about twice as much as I run. Over time, those ratios will flip, and eventually, I’ll be running the whole time. In your writing, the principle is basically to start with a low word count and work your way up.

Our writing may be all art, but getting the work done might take a little science and math. And yes, you can use your calculator.


everybody writes coverFor the next few weeks, I’m writing my Resources for Writers based on principles from Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. If you’d like to read along with me, pick up a copy of Ann’s book at your local library or bookstore. Or, if you’d like to support what I do here, order a copy using my Amazon affiliate link.

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  1. Michelle Ortega September 2nd, 2016 11:02PM

    So, I “did the math” and set a word goal of 500 words a day for 15 days, leaving me 15 days to integrate them, revise and rewrite the intro draft. Thanks, Coach! 😉

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