Before I really dive into this, I want to make one thing clear: The number of books you’ve written neither dictates nor determines your worth as a prolific writer.
It has to be stated, because often I hear writers lament about their writing speed, the size of their catalogs, the books left unwritten in a series. “How to write fast” has become a hot enough topic that there are hundreds of books and podcasts and YouTube videos on the subject. I even have one of my own. But I want us to pause for a minute, take a breath, and realize that it’s ok to produce a book at a time. And that being a “prolific writer” doesn’t have to mean writing twelve books in twelve months.
There is one simple key to being a prolific writer, and it’s so common sense and mundane that I almost hesitate to mention it, for fear of causing undue strain from all the eye-rolling. But here it goes:
Write. A lot.
Ok, that’s a little too succinct. So let me expand on it a bit:
Write regularly and routinely, with targets and goals that you can meet through a honed system of self-discipline.
Or in other words, “Write a lot.”
Now I could technically end this blog post here, having given you the full secret behind being a prolific writer, but I can already sense the rising ire and frustration, and I could never leave you hanging like that. So I’ll admit, “write a lot” isn’t the full story. Everything makes more sense and gels better when we give it some context and structure, so let’s get to the bones that help support your writing muscle and the workflow that will let you produce books on a regular basis.
KNOW YOUR GOAL
Every year, in November, thousands (maybe millions) of writers participate in National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo, which is far more fun to say.
The goal of a NaNoWriMo author is pretty simple: Write a fifty-thousand-word novel in just 30 days. Starting November first, you have until the end of the month to complete the book. That’s your goal.
There’s really only one way to reach this goal, and that is to write — a lot. Every day, every lunch break, every evening after work, every spare minute. Family gets the brush off for the month. Thanksgiving dinner is eaten in a rush, standing over the sink. Showers are, regrettably, missed. A true test for a prolific writer.
The rush to complete 50,000 words in 30 days can be exciting, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Some authors get frantic about this process, but in reality, they’re being initiated into a fellowship of sorts. They’re joining the ranks of generations of published authors who had to crank the words out and produce their books quickly and consistently, or risk missing out on things like food and shelter.
Back in the Pulp Fiction era, authors such as Ray Bradbury, Dashiell Hammett, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft were burning through typewriter ribbon and paper at a rate that might be considered suicidal by today’s standards. Forget “a book a month.” Some of these folks were writing a book a week, or more.
Often, some of these authors would write “the end” on one book, pull that final page from their fairly smoking typewriter, and roll in a fresh sheet to start the next book, pausing only long enough to sip their Scotch and take a drag from a cigarette.
Many of these writers became some of the most prolific authors in history, with records that still stand unbroken to this day. Despite the liver failure and the lung cancer.
You don’t have to imitate their life choices to learn a trick or two from them, though. And the thing that put them on a steady roll of producing one book after another was that they never let anything stop them from writing. Whether they felt inspired, felt rested, felt stressed, or felt relaxed, they wrote. They had their target goals for each and every day, and they hit them.
That’s step one to being a prolific writer, then: Set a goal.
This can be anything, as long as you hit it consistently. But some common goals are:
– Word count: The number is up to you, and it should be something you are comfortable with. Write a hundred words, or a thousand, or 2,500. Your choice. I would recommend, however, that once you find a comfortable word count, you should periodically push yourself past it. If you settle into a groove of 500 words per day, spend two days per week trying to write 800. Hold a competition with yourself to see how far you can push it. This will let you reset your limits, so you can produce more words per day without extra strain.
– Page count: Similar to word count, you can determine how many pages make up your daily minimum, and then stick to that. In the era of writing on digital devices, this can sometimes be a little trickier to gauge. But most word processing programs will tell you how many pages you’ve written, right alongside the word count. Just like we mentioned above, find what’s comfortable for you, but periodically push yourself for more. It can be a big psychological boost to know out an extra page or two each day. And it can move you toward a completed book much faster.
– Books per year: To me, this is a slightly more stressful way to measure your output, but many authors find it helpful to set an annual goal. Some only want one book per year, and that’s enough. Some want two, three, maybe even ten or twelve. This output is achievable, but it does come down to writing consistently. Putting out one to three books per year can be a pretty comfortable pace for most authors, and you can work backward from each book to determine how much you should be writing each day. Just don’t wait until December to try to catch up on your three-book goal. It makes for a lousy holiday season.
DO THE MATH
I sort of hinted at this above, but once you have a goal you can reverse engineer that desired result to figure out how much work you should be doing, and on what timeline.
I wrote a book about this that gives what I call my 30-Day Author formula, but I’ll save you the five bucks and tell you exactly what this boils down to.
Using the NaNoWriMo guidelines as an example, let’s say you want to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. My 30-Day formula works like this:
Total Word Target (TWT) divided by Target Days to Completion (TDC) equals Total Daily Target (TDT).
And in our case, we know that we want to hit 50K words in 30 days. That’s two pieces in our little math puzzle:
50,000 / 30 = TDT
So our Total Daily Target would be ~1,667 words per day.
If you’d prefer your metric to be pages, you can fairly estimate that a typed page is going to average around 500 words.
1,667/500 = 3.33 pages
Consequently, we also know that our target number of pages in this example will be around 100.
Knowing this formula will help you figure out your targets, and from there you know exactly how much work you should be putting in each day, week, or month. You may not care to complete a book in 30 days, or you may want a book three times the length, it’s all up to you. But having a formula will help you work out how to meet your goal to be the prolific writer you want to become.
DO YOUR JOB AND ONLY YOUR JOB
This last bit of advice is sometimes a hard pill to swallow but hear me out, and I think you’ll agree with me (at least intellectually).
When you are writing, that’s your job. You are a writer. Not an editor. So do not do the editor’s job.
Trying to edit while you write is a surefire way to exponentially increase the odds that you will never finish the book. I’m serious about this one … fight the impulse.
The reason is, writing and editing engage very different parts of your brain. One is the free-flowing, creative part that got you through all those years of playing with dolls and pretending to be a superhero while you learned how to cope with the outside world. Your Creative Brain is the brain that knows story instinctually, and that just wants to have fun with it.
This is good. We want this. We want just enough left-brained logic and control to keep the story near the lines, but not necessarily in the lines.
Later, though, we can let our Inner Editor have some sway. Once the writing is done, the Editor arrives to clean it up, to fight back the Grammar Gaffs, and to make the book better.
When you write, you are the Writer. When you edit, you are the Editor. Don’t try to be both at the same time. There’s a word for that, and it’s “schizophrenia.” You’ll drive yourself nuts.
That said …
Ok, I used to take a very hard line on this sort of thing, but I’ve softened a bit over the years. And that softening is due, in part, to reading Writing into the Dark, by Dean Wesley Smith. In this must-read book, Dean gives writers a process for writing without an outline. One of the methods he uses is something he calls “cycling.”
I can never remember that term for some reason, so I refer to it as “looping.” But the gist of the idea is that you write without editing for a bit, then cycle or loop back and edit what you just wrote, then plunge on and write the next bit.
Dean does this in groups of 500 words (or a typed page, as we’ve discovered). For 500 words he’s free-flowing. Then he cycles back and edits what he wrote, and from there he uses the momentum to carry him through the next 500 words.
My own version of this is similar but less immediate.
I write my word count for the day (let’s say 2,500 words just to put a number on it). I’m done, so I go about other things (unless I’m on a roll and want to knock out even more words). But the next day, I start by looping back to read, edit, and rewrite the previous day’s work. By doing this I’m not only improving the story and scratching that itch that makes me want to edit as I go, but I also get my head right back into the story, so I can carry through for that day’s word/page count.
I like this process quite a bit, and I don’t consider it breaking my rule about editing while writing. It works because it’s finite and regimented. It allows you to write freely, to “play” for a set amount of time, and then come inside and do your homework. And when your homework is done, you can go right back out and play some more.
MOMENTUM IS THE KEY
You’ll hear and read a lot about developing a daily discipline when it comes to your writing. And I know how dreadful that can sound. So let’s reframe it a bit.
What you’re really looking for here is momentum.
If you can get yourself into a rhythm of writing regularly, and doing it in such a way that you can count on yourself to follow through, then wonderful things start to happen.
You first build up some of that writing muscle we talked about earlier that is pivotal to becoming a talented and prolific writer. You start to hone your skill, improve your craft, and get past blocks that might have slowed you down or caused anxiety in the past.
The second benefit is that you learn to trust yourself. We hardly ever think about it, but sometimes we sabotage our own efforts by having no faith in our capabilities. We’ve let ourselves down too often—we gave in and ate that pizza in the middle of the night, so there goes the diet. Or we caved and watched 11 hours of Netflix and didn’t get any writing done. Or we succumbed to the voice of our grade school English teacher who insisted that our writing had to be perfect from the first draft or we might be called out and humiliated in class. So we edit while we write, and as a result, have a drawer for of “first thirds” of manuscripts we’ve started and stopped a hundred times over the years.
I’m hip. I was right there with ya for a lot of years.
But the shift comes when we start getting organized and taking action with our writing. It can be a little slow and grueling at first, but that’s just the nature of movement in our universe. It takes more energy to get a boulder rolling than it takes to keep it rolling. And that’s exactly the truth for writing and producing books.
If your goal is to be a prolific writer, the secret isn’t a secret by any stretch. It simply comes down to “write a lot.”
Spend your time and energy now on developing a daily writing habit. Treat every bit of writing you do (emails, blog posts, social media posts, even text messages) as practice. Engage your writer brain early and often and always. Put it to work daily, and it will build up some callouses so it can keep working when it really counts.
Commit to a daily target and start meeting it, then push yourself to exceed it. You’ll thank me when you have a shelf full of books to point to.