Friday, May 13, 2011

A Million Words

Among the reams of advice available to writers is something like, “You need to write a million words before you can make it as a writer.” Now that seems rather arbitrary. A million is a nice round number, but why would a round number such as that be the number that designates a certain level of expertise? Why isn’t it 955,000 words, or 1,243,000 words?

I’ve also seen it stated this way: It takes 10,000 hours working at something to become an expert in it. Again the round number, but this isn’t exclusively for writing, but about any endeavor. Want to be an expert chef? Prepare to devote 10,000 hours to the trade. Want to be a floodplain engineering expert? Spend 10,000 hours dealing with all aspects of floodplains.

While 10,000 is still a round number, it seems less arbitrary than 1,000,000 words. In terms of a normal work week of forty hours, and a normal work year of fifty weeks, 10,000 hours works out to five years. I’m sure some things take more. Surgery comes to mind, and maybe rocket science. But still, the 10,000 number looks good. Doing the math, 10,000 hours and a million words works out to a hundred words an hour. As a net figure, considering re-writes, edits, craft study, art study, industry study, etc., that seems a valid number.

Of course, the type of writing and the ability of the person writing those million words will have an impact. Write a million words of garbage and you won’t be any more of an expert at writing than you would if you spend five years engineering floodplains the wrong way. So the words in the writer’s apprentice period must have increasing quality. The writer needs to be improving both craft and art with those many words, not just shoving out the same drivel as at the start.
A while ago I realized that I was probably at those million words, maybe a bit over. This would not even include the many words I’ve poured into business letters, technical reports, construction specifications, and marketing materials. Here’s what I calculate.

155,000 – Doctor Luke’s Assistant
15,000 – In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People
40,000 – Documenting America
101,000 – articles at
15,000 – articles at
70,000 – miscellaneous articles and essays, most not published
15,000 – poetry (economy of words results in few of ’em)
300,000 – poetry critiques
340,000 – An Arrow Through the Air posts

That should add up to 1,036,000 words. I don’t think I’ve really counted everything. I think I’m 150,000 or so higher if I could think of everything else. Of course, a lot of that wasn’t intended and doesn’t really count as creative writing. And, does the time spent on prose count for fiction, and the time spent on fiction count for prose?

All of which could probably be chalked up to idle chatter, filling out a blog post at the end of a Friday workday, preparing for the weekend and return of my wife tomorrow. It’s an indication, though, that I’ve stuck with my writing over a number of years. Hopefully it’s beginning to pay off.

Oh, just remembered! 10,000 words for Seth Boynton Cheney: Mystery Man of the West.

No comments: