Mar 21 2013 5:00pm

Writing Routines: Word Counting and Other Habits

Neal Asher Writing Routines

When I started out I didn’t have any writing routine, I had a job. Writing was a hobby I indulged in over the weekends or in the evening when I wasn’t too knackered, watching TV, reading a book, or up the pub. I only ever started counting words upon discovering, in John Braine’s Writing a Novel, that this might be a professional approach. This was probably when I was in my early twenties, and then I used the old technique of working out a line average and from that a page average. It wasn’t until I had been writing on and off for maybe ten years that I started to establish any kind of routine, thought I couldn’t put a finger on an exact date, and this routine relates simply to the aphorism “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

When you start word-counting you realize that the pages you have written ain’t adding up to a book (and here I’m talking about the time when the average SF novel was a mere 70,000 words). The prospect can be daunting, and my approach was to ensure that I wrote something every day. That’s all.

The next routine I established was when I went self-employed. Getting tired of working in factories on milling machines and lathes, I looked elsewhere. This was perhaps because of a boredom factor creeping in when I was either on production work (Neal, we want a thousand square aluminium blocks this size with a hole drilled in them) or pressing the start button on some computerized machine. I tried building and then, as a result of some work I did clearing up the mess left by the storm of 1987, ended up doing tree-work, hedging, contract grass cutting and just about anything else I could turn my hand to. The bulk of this work was during the summer, so I had plenty of spare time in the winter. I spent most of my free days during those winters writing, almost as if this was a real job.

Neal Asher Writing Routines

I started writing down my daily word-count, then I got the stunning idea that maybe I should set targets for myself. Well, I think it was my idea, though it’s just as likely I picked it up out of some “How to” book. I can’t remember the target I set, but suspect it might have been about 1,000 words. It was during this time I discovered the small presses, had my first short story published in Back Brain Recluse, then a series of stories elsewhere, then Mindgames: Fool’s Mate, The Parasite and The Engineer. Then came the big hit when Gridlinked, The Skinner and a third book as yet not written were picked up by Macmillan. Sensible word-counts briefly went out the window when Peter Lavery wanted Gridlinked expanded from about 65,000 words, (I took it up to 135,000 in a few weeks—and added Mr Crane) and The Skinner expanded from 80,000 words (I was a little bit more leisurely over that as I took it up to 150,000 words).

I gave up the day job a year or so after this—after Gridlinked and The Skinner had been published and while The Line of Polity was growing nicely—and began to establish a proper routine. Here I was at an advantage over many writers in that I’d been self-employed for fifteen years, therefore knew what it was to motivate myself. I knew how to get up and get to work without the driving fear of a clocking-in clock, angry foreman or written warnings. The cuts to the pay packet were there, of course, in that the moment I stopped working, even for a cup of coffee, I would cease to earn.

Writing Routines Neal AsherI started the new job by being up at 8.00am and writing until 5.00pm. I aimed to write 1,000 words a day for five days a week (the words were of course now much easier to count with a word processor program), but after a year found myself way ahead and knew the target was just too easy. I upped this to 2,000 and still found it too easy, but then this was all my words, so next I discounted journal entries, blog posts, and stuff I put on message boards (yes, I even counted the words in them) and reset my target to 2,000 words of fiction. This is what I’ve stuck to ever since. When I get started each day I read through and correct the previous day’s 2,000 words, then start on the next. As I reach that figure I try to simply stop, and not go on until reaching a natural break. If you just stop while you know what you’re going to write next, it’s easier to get going again the next day.

Now, those of you with a mathematical turn of mind will be thinking, where’s the 365,000 word novel every year? Unfortunately, turning professional brings home to you the importance of other aspects of writing that can take up many weeks. And now, I no longer feel guilty when I simply write the word “editing,” in my journal, where I usually note down my word-count.

That’s it really: the glamorous life of a writer.

This article was originally published on the Tor UK blog.

Neal Asher was born in Billericay, Essex, and divides his time between here and Crete. His previous full-length novels are Gridlinked, The Skinner, The Line of Polity, Cowl, Brass Man, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, Polity Agent, Hilldiggers, Prador Moon, The Line War, Shadow of the Scorpion, Orbus, The Technician and The Departure. Zero Point is his most recent novel and is now out in paperback in the UK. Please click here to see more on Neal Asher and his books on

Tim Ward
1. tcward
Thanks for sharing your story, Neal. (Man those covers are wicked). It was encouraging to hear how you were advised to expand. In my latest draft, I increased my word count from 72k, to 110 and going. I like it better, but there was still a voice telling me how much harder it would be to sell with the larger word count.

I spent a day two days ago without fixing two sentences, instead long handing notes on how to end the book. I felt guilty because I had nothing to put on my excel sheet for my .8% goal, even though I knew that the work was just as significant. Thanks for encouraging me in this as well. The last two days have been great writing, and I'm excited with how this new ending is surprising me.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Thanks, Neal.

I keep hearing "Just write", but its all like levels of a platform game. As hard as that is, the next level "Edit until it bleeds" ups the ante considerably...
Alan Brown
3. AlanBrown
Good article. I always like reading about the habits of successful writers, as I aspire to be one.
I never counted words until I tried out National Novel Writing Month, 50K words is your target for the month of November, which is pretty close to that 2K per day target. My first stories were kind of outline-ish in form, the longer the tale, the more events in it. But I am learning to flesh things out, and take the time with detail, and sensory inputs, and characterization, and sub-plots, and find that a good story does not need to be chock full of events.
I have written about 230K words of fiction now, with about half of that being shorts, and the rest in a trilogy of YA books that is just getting into the third book. And I am starting to realize why people say that you have to write a book to learn how to do it.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
4. spinfuzz
Though I agree with the sentiment that you should write every day, and track it as a means of understanding how much you are working towards your goals, I'd argue that "professional" is a term that we need to get away from. Not that writing shouldn't pay your bills, or that you shouldn't be diligent about writing to pay your bills. But I like to think that the "amateur" mindset keeps a person loose and open to new ideas, new methods, and new opportunities. I just think intellectually that's a healthier way of dealing with the energy each novel requires. I don't want to work 9-5, but I definitely want to write a book, and if that entails 9-5, I'll put it in. You could say it's semantics, but its the difference between feeling drained after a day of work and needing a beer to cool off, and feeling energized and excited to tell everybody about your new project. So I guess I'm saying motivation isn't even a question if you think about it the "right" way?

And with that lead off, I still have to thank you for being so open with your process.
Neal Asher
5. nealasher
tcward, about 120,000 words minimum seems standard in the UK now - big change from those slim SF novels I used to read. Not sure, but I think it may be lower in the US. Know how you feel. I felt guilty yesterday after spending all day searching out 'seemed' across three books and making alterations e.g. 'seemed to have' can so often be simply replaced with 'had' etc.

PrinceJvstin: 'Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds' - Douglas Adams.

AlanBrown, the learning curve never levels out. I'm past a million published words now and still fighting bad habits and errors. But then, maybe when you feel you have nothing more to learn is the time to stop writing.

spinfuzz, approaching it professionally doesn't necessarily mean you turn it into drudgery, it just means the publisher is less likely to toss you out the window, and you're less likely to need a second job to keep the gabbleduck from the door . It's still the best job in the world.
Tim Ward
6. tcward
Thanks for that, Neal. And I often use "seem" to avoid POV violation in 3 lim. when describing others thoughts/intentions. My recent editor has been on me about readers reading more literally. That may be a whole other conversation, but that's what I thought after your response.
Jack Flynn
7. JackofMidworld
I really liked this article. Personally, one of my biggest problems is that I can write for hours on end when I'm writing every day but when life gets in the way and something interrupts that daily flow and I don't write for a couple of days, I find it soooooo hard to get back into that groove. That said...

When I get started each day I read through and correct the previous day’s 2,000 words, then start on the next. As I reach that figure I try to simply stop, and not go on until reaching a natural break. If you just stop while you know what you’re going to write next, it’s easier to get going again the next day.

...might be the best piece of take-away advice I've gotten since "apply butt to chair and write."
8. NotInventedHere
I always find it interesting to hear about a writer's process, thank you for sharing yours. You're not the first author I've heard mention leaving off at a specific word count, or before a natural stopping point, so that you have somewhere to start up again the next day. I've given that a try a couple times, but seeing as I only manage to find a couple hours a week to sit down and write, I inevitably end up having changed my mind about what I was going to write, or forgetting where I was going with whatever thought I left off with. I suppose it is different when you are breaking off knowing you will be getting back to it the next day, without three or four days of the trials and tribulations of work and life interrupting.

On a (mostly) unrelated note, any idea if/when Line of Polity might be available in a physical form in the U.S. again? I can't find it anywhere, except used or as an e-book (or with exorbitant international shipping rates). I know, you're not the one to complain to... but how often does one get a chance to complain to the author that you "can't" buy one of their books?
9. Natenanimous
@8 - Try the Book Depository. They're based in the UK, have access to all UK books, but offer free shipping worldwide, including the US. No catches, no strings attached, no jacked up prices to compensate. In fact, I just checked and they do appear to have The Line of Polity by Neal Asher.
Ian Johnson
10. IanPJohnson
When you start word-counting you realize that the pages you have written ain’t adding up to a book (and here I’m talking about the time when the average SF novel was a mere 70,000 words).
Geez, I'd love to have that problem. Right now my problem is that my book is too goddamn long.

I'm in the middle of the second draft of my novel, and I'll consider myself lucky if I don't have to cut about 50,000 words before I can even think of sending it out.

I'm not trying to brag. I'd really love to have my novel be too short rather than too long. I like all the words I've written in it. I don't want to get rid of any of them.
11. Kelsiegates
I will only say this. My writing career started while drinking cheap Carlo Rossi wine one evening. I started writing with a pencil and a pad. Three sheets to the wind, you might say. Sometime later, I bought a computer with word count and spell check. Not knowing what I was doing, I started writing a fantasy story. Half way finished with it I lost interest and started writing a western called Chad'tu. It was so much easier with a computer. But you know what really kept me going, was the six people reading the story, and asking where the hell is the next chapter. Taped on my moniter, I have write one page a day and in a year you will have written a novel. It was fun. But I really got sick and tired of the editing. And now my first book Chad'tu, is published as an e-book. Good luck to everyone, and may we all meet someday.
12. JohnArmstrong
Thanks for this, Neal. Bizarrre to read, as it's almost exactly my own routine: wordcount goal for each session, usually 1500, always stop where you know what's going to happen next, always begin by rewriting/editing the previous day's work. Sometimes I go back a bit farther, just by feel for where I good get a better grip on it and tell it better.
Works for me
13. GeneHilgreen
Just curious, about how to find out how many words are in a novel. I started editing my first novel a couple of months ago. I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew, is that, I always wanted to write a suspense thriller, and at 60, I'm finally doing it. One of those learn English as you go. When I got to the halfway point, I edited it three time, and removed 30,000 words of (hey it didn't belong in there), then continued writing. I'm shooting for 75,000 after I smooth the prose. But I'm curious about word count. I know Patterson can do whatever he wants and can make up his own rules so to speak. Every editor I speak to say, "shoot for 3000 words a chapter". Not Patterson, his new book Second Honeymoon, has 122 chapters none more than four pages. The book is 403 pages. Now minus 120 pages for his half page title and half page (finish the chapter) and the book is about 280 pages. Probably 250 to 260 with all his other tricks. For $25... no way. I want to know how many words are really in it. How do I find out? I took it out of the library and will read it tonight. Hell, I read my crummy book every day, while I edit away. How long can it take to read a fast paced Patterson.
Jack Flynn
14. JackofMidworld
This may or may not be related but if you're writing a screenplay, each scene is "supposed" to be about 3 pages long (1 minute per page, 3 pages per minute, 30 scenes per movie = 1 90 minute movie). I've noticed that some books seem to be written with the same mindset, where each chapter is only three-four pages long, and it seems to make for a much faster read. I know that doesn't help with a final word count, but it may explain why chapters are getting shorter.

Unsolicited advice? Don't stress over-much about the word count when you're still doing your first draft. Tell your story first, get it all out there, and cut the words you don't need later. Hell, you may find that something you wrote in chapter 4 that "didn't belong in there" works perfect in chapter 12. If you've already cut it by trying to fit to a preset word count...well, you can see my point?

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