Sunday, 8 February 2015

The 500 words method

Although I still consider myself a newbie to the world of being a professional writer, I have a reasonable number of events, signings and talks under my belt already. I love doing events, because they're always unique, and you always get at least one or two questions that nobody has asked before.

I also hear some questions again and again, which I don't mind in the least because a) it's natural that there will be some aspects of being a writer that everyone is interested in, and b) answering the same question multiple times gives me a chance to really think about the answer.

One of the questions I'm consistently asked (whether at events or just when people find out I'm a writer in conversation) is, "How do you find the time to write a novel?"

I think there are two main reasons people always ask this: either they're awestruck about how anyone could sit down and write enough words to fill an entire book, or they're aspiring writers who would like to give it a go, but don't know how they can fit in the time to do all that writing. A mainstream commercial novel these days is usually somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 words. Whichever way you cut it, that's a lot of words. I can completely understand why the size of the task intimidates people, because it intimidated the hell out of me before I gave it a try.

All writers get asked the 'How do you find the time?' question. The glib answer is "One word at a time." The answer that's closer to the truth for me is, "Five hundred words at a time."

When I first thought seriously about writing a novel, I realised that I would have to structure my time so that I could write every day (or as near as I could manage). I read a lot of advice that suggested I'd need to aim for a thousand words a day. Hell, Stephen King does at least two thousand a day, seven days a week. That freaked me out. For me, sitting down at the desk after a long day in the real world, in the knowledge that I'd have to write such a big chunk of words, would be a one-way ticket to writer's block. To cap it all, I read one moronic article online that loftily proclaimed "If you don't have time to write a thousand words a day, you don't have time to be a writer."

I can now confidently assert that the above advice is bullshit.

My turning point was talking to a friend at work and bemoaning the fact that, with a full-time day job, a part-time night job and a young family, it would be tough to find the time to write a thousand words a day.  His advice was simple: "Don't. Write five hundred words a day."

I thought about it. Five hundred seemed a little more doable. But it couldn't really be that simple, could it?

I did some calculations. Five hundred a day, say six days a week, makes 3,000 words a week. That's over 12,000 words in a month, which would be close to the word count of the longest story I'd ever written. In six months, at that pace, I'd have around 80,000 words, which is a novel. I remembered John Grisham saying he wrote his first novel at the rate of one page a day until it was done. Suddenly, the impossible task seemed almost... possible.

So I tried it out. Every night, I sat down with the intention of writing five hundred words. Most nights, I didn't stick to that. Most nights, once I got started, I wrote more than five hundred words. Sometimes a lot more. Freed from the pressure of having to meet a high word count, I relaxed and got into the daily routine. The other thing it did was get me in the habit of being able to write anywhere. If I had a half hour in a coffee shop or a train journey, it was an opportunity to get my words for the day done. If I had a laptop, great. If not, I could write longhand and type it up later.

It doesn't take long to write five hundred words - when I put my mind to it, I can get five hundred words down in fifteen or twenty minutes. Even with some procrastination time and wasting a while on Facebook, Twitter or 'research' when I first sit down, I can get it all done in an hour, no problem. If you have time to walk the dog, go jogging, commit to a half-hour soap opera, you have time to write a book.

To this day, I still rely on that method. Even though I have deadlines now and I know I'll need to average quite a bit more than five hundred a day in order to hit them, I can always fool myself into getting started by promising myself I can stop at five hundred. Occasionally I do, but more often than not, I'll be walking away from the keyboard with another eight hundred, a thousand, even two thousand words in the bank.

If you're reading this and you've been trying to find the time to write a novel, stop thinking about that mountain of words you need to climb.

Just think about the next five hundred.


  1. Well, how about this? You wrote this on my birthday and I just found it through a post by a friend of mine, Michael J Malone. Isn't it funny how we listen to "the rules" without even thinking there might be an alternative? I was struggling with the same problem and one day made up a spreadsheet with a minimum and maximum word count just to see what I could do in the months when the job is busy and at other times. I was amazed at how the words could add up. Now I write wherever, whenever, and however I can and I actually write more because, as you mentioned, the pressure is off. Great post, Mason. Keep writing.

  2. Thank you! I'm a fellow spreadsheet fan too

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks Noelle - great to meet you at the weekend