Writing One Million Words

Writing One Million Words

Main Points
• 1,000,000 words is a great milestone to achieve, but it’s not the most important thing to focus on. Instead get in the habit of the following:
• Write a lot;
• Immerse yourself in learning from great teachers;
• Get a lot of feedback, especially averages from multiple people;
• Learn what you need to fix/strengths you can leverage;
• Create feedback loops to practice and grow;
• Find ways to teach what you’ve learned.

Introduction
One million words. One million (read in Dr. Evil’s voice). I was at a NaNoWriMo event last year when one of our members announced he’d just hit his first one million words. We all looked at him impressed. I was stunned. One million isn’t a small number, especially when most books are around 80-130K words long. So 1,000,000 words is about the equivalent of writing ten books.

David Eddings is most likely the person who popularized this milestone concept of writing a 1,000,000 words. His specific advice was “Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin,” (for a fascinating read of where the term originated, check out this link: http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/03/one-million-words-to-competency-who-said-it-first.html).

For most people, hitting 1,000,000 words will take about 10 years, or about a book a year. Mileage varies. While researching for this post, I came across an author who writes about 1,000,000 words every year. That blew me away! However, he seems disillusioned with his own word count success (http://www.bigskywords.com/writing-blog/1000000-words-written-this-yearso-far).

So what’s the deal? Is 1,000,000 words worth writing? Is it a goal worth having? Or is it just a happy milestone we pass on our way to true expertise?

Origins 10,000 hours and 1,000,000 words
You’ve probably heard about the 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The short version is that to become an expert in anything, all it takes is a dedicated amount of practice–10,000 hours to be precise, which (as you guessed) will take most people around 10 years to complete. I’ve heard the 1,000,000 word rule as a sort of equivalent to the 10,000 hour rule. They fit in nicely after all. The problem is, the rule is an oversimplification, one which Gladwell has attempted to clarify and the originators of the study he cites have spoken against.

It feels good that we could master just about anything in only 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. It feels good that we could become expert writers by just pumping out 1,000,000 words, but both of these are dead wrong. It takes a lot more than that and often much less than that to become an expert. An arbitrary goal is not a guarantee of expertise. Instead, it’s much more helpful to utilize a system that builds success.

I’ve taken a lot of the following from an article from Make Use Of that I’ll refer to throughout (https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/10000-hour-rule-wrong-really-master-skill/). I’ll also use Brandon Sanderson as an example of doing things right as his writing, world-building, personal history, and success are all phenomenal for our purposes.

Building a System of Success Steps toward actual mastery
Write a lot
Brandon Sanderson wrote a ton before getting published. You can read his own account online (https://brandonsanderson.com/euology-my-history-as-a-writer/) but I’ll summarize it here. He wrote something like 8 books before the 9th eventually got published, and 13 before he found out he was getting published. Since Sanderson’s books tend to be long, (each was probably over 200K words) that might be 2.6 million words for those 13 books, not counting outlines. I’m not saying that the actual rule for expertise is having to write 2 million words instead of 1. What I am saying is that you have to write a lot. But how much varies from person to person.

Sanderson himself writes about 300K words a year as of 2016 (link). His advice (from the link above) is “I suggest to new writers that 2k a week be a minimum. That gives you a book in about a year.” This turns out to be 2,000×52=104,000 or about 1,000,000 words in 10 years, which is a somewhat funny coincidence with the 10,000 hour/10 year/1,000,000 word rule.

Immerse yourself
There are plenty of resources to learn to improve your writing. From actual books on how to do specific or general things, to reading good writing, to analyzing what great authors are doing, to hiring coaches, going to workshops, learning from podcasts, reading blogs, the possibilities for learning are endless. While this might seem overwhelming from the sheer potential of what’s out there, the point here is that to master a skill you have to learn about it. When I learned to speak Spanish, the best thing was living in Spain for two years. I had to learn the language because I was so immersed in it. It surrounded me everywhere. I would spend time learning grammar and lessons at home, then go out and practice in the world. And it worked. While that kind of immersion might not be possible for writing (especially if it’s more of a hobby), there are still ways we can immerse ourselves more.

Get feedback to know what’s wrong and what’s right
Importantly, it’s not enough to just write a bunch words, they need to be good ones. In his story, Sanderson points this out, that he was most productive when he surrounded himself by fellow writers who critiqued his work: magazine groups, writers’ groups, etc. Our work needs to be read. While that might seem scary, we can’t grow without others’ help. We might think our writing is the cat’s meow, but if we have a fatal flaw in our writing, we’re going to keep perpetuating that error until someone points it out. Granted, this doesn’t have to come from other people. We can read good writing and self-correct a lot of our own mistakes. But there’s something magical that comes when you bring in outside perspectives. I’ve written before about how my writers’ group helped me write better romance and teenagers. Given how much I’ve submitted to them, they know my weaknesses fairly well. And the more I submit, the more I sharpen my skills. Right now, I’m coming to realize I often fail to make main characters as interesting as side character. It’s something I’m practicing now and submitting for review.

Of similar importance is knowing what you’re doing right. Knowing that you write great action, romance, characters, or whatever will help you leverage what’s working and make your books shine by emphasizing the skills you already have. Feedback will point this out too. Once you know what you do well, you can incorporate those skills into your writing to better engage readers.

Get average feedback from large numbers
One really important thing on feedback, it’s important to get averages. When my friend Paul Bishop submitted a story to two different editors, one told him his action was great but his characters’ needed work; the other said his characters’ were great but his action needed work. Who was right? It’s nearly impossible to tell with only two people saying completely different things. But if 5 editors had all agreed on one thing, they’d probably be right. The same thing happens with my writers’ group. If all 3 other people think something is off, they’re likely right. If one thinks I should fix something and the others disagree, I might be safe ignoring the one’s advice. This gets easier to tell the more eyes look at your work. That’s why beta and alpha readers are so important–if 15 people are telling you to change something, chances are you need to look into it. Of course, it’s impossible to get so many readers for all of your writing. That’s why writers’ groups who’re committed to helping you (and you’re committed to helping them) are so useful for workshopping smaller chunks until you submit full-length pieces to beta readers. Things like Wattpad can also help getting more feedback.

Averages also help with the subjective problems inherit in writing. Good writing (and great writing) varies in definition from person to person. Prose might be beautiful to one and purple to another. Other skills, such as sports or music, are much more objective. You can measure if a person is playing the violin well or making layups in basketball. Whether or not you’re writing good action or characters can be harder to determine as we’ve seen in Paul Bishop’s example. Having large amounts of feedback helps parse through this subjectivity and starts getting more at objectivity. Twilight may be poor writing, but the fact of its success proves that Stephanie Meyer is doing something right. The numbers prove it.

Build feedback loops
You can’t know what to fix without knowing what’s broken, so after you know, what now? Practice, practice, practice. Learn how other authors do your weakness well; study how to write great action if that’s something people are telling you. Then practice and submit to people who can give you feedback. As the Make Use Of article relates, this creates feedback loops to hone your skills–you work on something, you submit it, you get feedback, you submit later to correct your mistakes to get even more feedback to practice on and it becomes a loop. In my writers’ group, we often require each other to include their weakness in their short story submissions so we improve more. The loops build on each other and we do get better. And I’m not just producing content and letting it go to the wind.

Teach it
Something else the Make Use Of article shares is the power of teaching. After you’ve learned how to do something good (or at least better than you were doing before), share it with someone else–how to make a good scene, how to write good romance, how to do whatever, or what pitfalls to avoid. Teaching ingrains learning better than anything else and there are two really easy ways to try this: (1) teach it to your writers’ group, or some friends you’re helping out, maybe writers with less experience than yourself; (2) write out what you’ve learned in an essay, a playlist, or *gasp* a blog! I’ll admit that part of why I’m writing my blog is to help me learn. Even if no one read my posts, I’d still get a ton of value out of it, both in learning and practicing.

Conclusion Back to the 1,000,000 words
So what does all this mean? Is 1,000,000 words worth it? Not really. The rule only ties into one aspect of mastering a skill–to practice a lot–but it leaves out more important things like getting feedback, and actually learning the skill.

While 1,000,000 words is a happy milestone, it’s not one that will guarantee anything. Instead, it’s a goal that should be pleasantly waved at as a joyous accomplishment along the way while we get back to focusing on the real work.

As an aside, I’m almost to my first million words. I’ll leave my progress at the end because it’s something I am proud of despite knowing it’s limitations. I’ll be waving at it happily once I go past it.

But what about you? What do you think about the 1,000,000 word goal? Worth your time? A fun badge of honor? Hopeless distraction? Let me know below!

My Current Word Count by Book (past 7 or 8 years)

Book

Word Count

Nefarious

124,343

Forgotten of Avalon

82,249

I, Lighmen

103,502

Steampunk Happy

40,841

Cat Story I

88,261

Tyranny

214,491

Ma’Shani (Villain Backstory)

56,306

Udystopia

30,084

Cat Story II

85,673

Blog

39,568

Writing Excuses (54 short stories starting Oct. 2014)

75,789

Total

941,107

 


4 thoughts on “Writing One Million Words

  1. Well…
    I don’t have an accurate count of my younger writing (pre-NaNo). But, at a guesstimate, I’m at 800k or so, with only a subset of that being brought to revision stage. 2/3 of that is from NaNo events (camp and otherwise).
    At this point, I’m OK at planning/plotting, at least enough to be able to blast through a first draft without really stumbling much. I’m absolutely terrible at revision, which is why this year is dedicated to learning to revise.
    I don’t know if it’s still his process, but Piers Anthony wrote about his process in his novels from the 80s. At his peak, then, he would do three full drafts (each starting from scratch, the later two using the earlier drafts as guidelines) of each book (three books per year), which weighed in right around 1 million words per year. But that was the habit he established with a dozen or more published novels under his belt, fully in his stride.

    1. That’s amazing progress! I totally agree on the drafting part too. I’m more in that area as well where I need to start working on a revising more than first drafting.

      That sounds intense with Piers Anthony but really interesting. So to clarify, he’d write one book 3 times each from scratch? (using each new ‘first draft’ as the outline). That’s really interesting. I might have to try that sometime.

      1. Yes. I’m going from memory, and I can’t recall how much outlining he did. My impression is that it was more noodling around with the story a bit, poking at it until he has an idea, then sitting down and pushing out a draft.
        I *think* the most complete description might be in the Author’s Note from On A Pale Horse. From memory, he writes it out (with inline notes of other thoughts, etc.) for the first draft, working his way through the story. It sounded like he had an outline, but was discovery writing his way from point to point.
        Then, once it’s done, he pulls out all the notes into a separate file, to be handled however they would be handled, rereads, takes more notes, thinks about it, and writes a whole new draft from scratch, guided by the things he wrote before and the things he wanted to fix.
        Then he does it a third time.
        Now. I’ve tried this, because I’ve got the word emitting portion down pretty well. It hasn’t worked for me, and see several reasons why.
        First, I can’t write full-time. I can’t sit in the story and steep and just live inside the story. I have family time, I write code for my day job (and have to deep dive into problems there, sometimes.), etc.
        Second, I can’t seem to fix too many things at once, because I freeze on trying to get it right. That is, analysis paralysis strikes, and the gap between where I am and where I want to be is too big.
        Third, the rough draft is way too messy. It sounds to me like his first drafts are cleaner than mine — but we’re talking about a point in time where he’d had somewhere between a dozen and a score (or more?) traditionally published. He was selling on spec, not from completed drafts, and he knew what stories he was good at telling, and he knew his process very well.
        I’m probably going to take a stab at that approach again in the future, but for now I have to learn a lot more about my own process first.

        1. Thanks for sharing all this! And for sharing you thoughts on why that kind of process might not work for everyone. It does entail a huge amount of time investment and sitting inside the story. Thanks again!

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