The habits of famous writers are a source of fascination and perhaps inspiration for book lovers and aspiring writers: aesthetics of their writing retreat; curios in their space; rituals performed before sitting down to work; writing tools; and, perhaps ‘easiest’ for the aspiring writer to replicate: their daily word quota.
Should we follow Michael Crichton’s gruelling 10,000 words per day, or keep it easy breezy at Ernest Hemingway’s 500?
To answer this question, I looked at available data on 39 famous writers and drew inferences on:
‘Reward’ for one’s efforts is subjective and depends as much on the individual writer’s outlook as on the person making the comparison. Generally, writers want their words to be read, and to be read usually requires publication. Expectations of monetary reward and/or fame with publication will obviously vary, so I based ‘Reward’ on rate of publication (based on total number of publications and years between first and last publication, with year of death used where last publications were posthumous). Word quota of the 39 famous writers was based on an insightful article by Amanda Patterson, founder of writerswrite.co.za.
Sorting the writers into quartiles for both ‘Effort’ and ‘Reward’, it was possible to plot them on a variation of an Action Priority Matrix (APM), a time management tool for prioritising work based on relative effort against rewards. APM divides tasks into four quadrants:
- Quick Wins (low effort, high reward)
- Major Projects (high effort, high reward)
- Hard Slogs (high effort, low reward)
- Fill Ins (low effort, low reward)
It is interesting to note an almost even split of writers in opposing quadrants, with the bulk of the group split between the low-effort/low-reward and high-effort/high-reward quadrants (40% and 35% fell into ‘Fill Ins’ and ‘Major Projects’ respectively, and 15% and 20% in the ‘Quick Wins’ and ‘Hard Slogs’ quadrants respectively). I can only assume that this trend (with all things being equal) can be attributed to more daily words generally leading to more potential publishable output, and conversely for less words.
Quick Wins are where you get huge returns for little effort. Proponents of APM focus on these tasks. Only a small number of writers fell in this quadrant, with none in the extremity of minimal effort (500 – 750 words/day) and maximum rewards (2.1 – 20.4 publications/year). The lesson here is that writing takes discipline and work (effort): as attractive as a quick win may be, it is a rarity.
Major Projects are those that reap rewards but are time consuming. The highly prolific writers of the group (2.1 – 20.4 publications/year) have a higher daily quota (> 3,000 words per day)– they’re hanging out in the upper right hand side of Quadrant 2. APM recommends working in this quadrant only some of the time, but as a writer,
is it possible to immerse yourself in your craft only some of the time?
As an aspiring writer not yet reaping monetary rewards, the deterrent to working in this area is the reality of other obligations and a need to earn an income, but let’s be honest and ask ourselves:
is potential writing time being squandered on unnecessary activities?
Hard Slogs may make one feel they are getting nowhere. Some writers (as you can see in Quadrant 3) put in huge amounts of daily writing but have a low publication rate. APM recommends abandoning these tasks. This then begs the question:
is publication the only motivator?
Writing surely has other benefits as a conduit to understanding life, meaning and one’s self, and connecting with your life purpose. Only 5% of this group fell in the extreme of this quadrant: maximum effort (3,000-10,000 words per day) and minimal output (0.3 – 0.6 publications/year).
Writers with the lower degree of effort (500 –1,000 words per day) fell largely in the Fill Ins Quadrant (4) with a low reward (0.3 – 1 publication/year). ‘Fill Ins’ by its very name is a space for tasks of the lowest priority, when you probably have something better to do. APM recommends working on these tasks only if you have time to spare, and either dropping or delegating them. For an aspiring writer juggling realities of life and conflicting priorities, that might well be all the time available (and a better alternative to engaging a ghost writer). A little is better than nothing; after all, it has worked for the likes of Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan and J.G. Ballard.
The median effort (1,000 words per day) seems a happy ground for possibility, with writer’s who adhere to this quota represented in each quartile of rewards.
The tipping point of > 1 publication/year seems to be the adoption of > 1,400 words per day.
In reviewing bibliographies, I noticed that writers with high output tended to have a higher proportion of short stories, novellas and articles in their bibliography than more arduous writing projects (novels, memoirs). Among them are Jack London, one of the first writers to become well known for magazine fiction; Earl Stanley Gardner who published 588 short stories or novellas; and John Creasey whose 600+ publications included the use of a phenomenal 28 noms de plume!
What is the story in the distribution of women across the matrix?
15 of the 39 writers are women (in white to locate them with a quick scan).
A clear majority (47%) of the women fell into the lower quartiles for both effort and reward (‘Fill Ins’, Quadrant 4). This seems to align with biases borne of traditional [binary] gender stereotypes and the patriarchal nature of the industry: difficulty in securing publication; under-representation in shortlisting for awards; impact of child rearing on women’s careers; and, perhaps greater aspirations of work/life balance among women.
Interestingly, the sole woman in the high-effort/high-reward quadrant (Susan Wittig Albert) only dedicated herself fully to writing after abandoning her full time job well after her 3 children had entered adulthood. Prior to being a full time writer, she was already eschewing stereotypes, with achievements that include being the first female Vice President of Southwest Texas State University.
Using the matrix, it was only possible to gauge extrinsic rewards. To assess the writer’s degree of satisfaction with their reward for the effort expended, I took a leaf out of an interesting article by Andrezej Marczewski, a gamification expert who plots the game player’s emotional experience across the spectrums of perceived effort and perceived value of reward.
Marczewski’s ideas draw on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s Flow Theory, which applies science to that holy grail of creative endeavours: being in the zone, as well as Effort Justification (an off-shoot of cognitive dissonance theory) based on the idea that people place greater value on outcomes achieved through greater effort.
I superimposed Marczewski’s graph on my effort/reward matrix to uncover the writers’ perception of their rewards for effort.
The figure with the overlay indicates a contradiction between perceived value of reward and the the APM approach for prioritising tasks. ‘Valued’ and ‘Satisfied’ fall in the two quadrants that the APM approach advises against (‘Fill Ins’ and ‘Major Effort’: Quadrants 4 and 2 respectively), and the recommended ‘Quick Wins’ (Quadrant 1) apparently leaves one ‘Confused’ – likely to do with not having clarity on how the effort is translating into such large rewards. This contradiction highlights the limitation of using APM as it takes a narrow view of ‘Reward’. No surprise that we see most of these famous and published authors falling into ‘Valued’ and ‘Satisfied’. Remember the discussion on gender? Well, ‘Satisfied’ seems to be the state of most women writers in the group.
In interpreting the matrix with the overlay, it is important to bear in mind the arbitrary placement of names in the smallest squares of the matrix; it is easy for the placement of a writer in the overlaying graph to shift, e.g. Grahame Greene could be in the ‘Happy’ or ‘Confused’ sections depending on placement within his square (it would have required more of my time to create a more exact placement, time I’ve instead spent writing). The only ‘certainties’ are those in the extremities of the underlying matrix, i.e. the three outer squares that fall in ‘Satisfied’, ‘Valued’ and ‘Insulted’. To assess how much weight to place on the perceived value of reward, I picked a writer in each of these 3 categories and was struck by how easily I found information in the public domain to support their suggested states:
- Satisfied: Arthur Hailey dedicated a lot of time to researching his works, which may explain the low output. In an interview two years before his death, he said ‘I have worked hard, but I have also been very lucky.’
- Valued: Erle Stanley Gardner was, at the time of his death, the best-selling American writer of the 20th century.
- Insulted: This area overlaps the ‘Hard Slog’ of high-effort/low-reward. Norman Mailer’s obituary noted his masochistic tendencies.
With a little less ‘certainty’ I also looked at the other categories:
- Rewarded: W. Somerset Maugham was among the most popular writers of his era and apparently the highest paid author of the 1930’s.
- Confused: Graham Greene had a thing for dividing his works into ‘thrillers’, ‘entertainments’ and for more literary works, ‘novels’ but this caused confusion to himself and readers, and the categories were eventually abandoned, with all now called ‘novels’. As further indication of confusion- Greene thought it was ‘novels’ that earnt him his literary reputation.
- Happy: Kate De Camillo is the author of the beautiful children’s book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. A quote from the book speaks of a writer that gets the stuff of happiness: if you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless…
- Apathetic & Unmotivated: These are difficult to discern, as they are not necessarily states that a person would disclose publicly. It should also be noted that with the arbitrary placement of a writer’s name in their square, it is possible that none of the 39 writers fell into these areas.
So, after delving into the bibliography and daily word quota of 39 famous writers; dipping our toes into statistics and matrices; and, applying psychology to discern the writers’ psyche’s,
what lessons can the aspiring writer take away?
Prolific writers tend to have a higher daily quota; no surprises as they have more room to uncover gems among their 3,000+ words per day to add to their publication tally.
1,000 – 1,400 words per day quota is the level where possibilities are open for a range of prolificacy, but even as little as 500 words per day can help you achieve your writing goals and give you satisfaction.
We are a species motivated by rewards. One way to increase extrinsic rewards for your efforts is to diversify your publication venues and writing form to get the occasional ‘Quick Wins’ rather than focusing on just the one ‘Major Project’ of writing that great (insert nationality) novel. Consider also whether you are challenging yourself and working hard to achieve your writing goals as that can make all the difference not only in honing your craft, but also in the intrinsic reward of finding contentment.
Whatever your quota, make it daily!