Metrics for writers

Scott Adams warns us against mindless dependence upon metrics.




Alas, it’s all too easy to translate into Pointy-Haired-Writer lingo:

Dogbert: A good way to judge your writing productivity is to look at daily word count.

Pointy-Haired Writer: My daily word count is very high. I spend all my time writing first drafts, and never do any planning, outlining, editing, or research.

Dogbert: Maybe metrics aren’t the way to go here.…


A few writers out there, alas, seem to think that their value as writers can be solely and sufficiently measured by the size of their daily word count. I have read, just within the last 24 hours, that ‘the “brass ring” of daily productivity that indies aspire to is 10k’. That’s right: 10,000 words a day, every day. According to some people, if you write less than that, you’re not a real writer, just a piker and a hobbyist.

By way of comparison:

Shakespeare’s collected works come to a little less than 900,000 words, written over the span of about 25 years. That’s less than 100 words a day, on average.

Dickens, whom the ‘Pulp Speed’ people like to claim as one of their very own, wrote about 4.6 million published words. He submitted his first story to a publisher in 1833, and his first book was published in 1836; he died in 1870. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, ignore those first three years, and suppose that he wrote all of his output after 1836. That still only comes to about 370 words per day. Even if we assume that he took Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays off (excessively generous: few people took Saturdays off in Victorian England), that still only brings us up to about 560 words a day. What a piker that Dickens was! No wonder he was a total commercial failure.

Mark Twain, according to his own autobiography, wrote an average of 3,000 words per working day in his youth, but slowly declined to about half that in his old age; and he went through substantial periods when he did not write at all. Most of the things he wrote in his relatively prolific younger days are seldom reprinted and are remembered chiefly by Twain scholars, for good reason.

Even Isaac Asimov, the dean of prolific writers in the 20th century, averaged (by his own calculation) about 500,000 words a year at full tilt, or less than 1,500 words per day. (He wrote seven days a week, so we can’t make the excuse of taking weekends off.)

Charles Hamilton, the immensely prolific writer of the ‘Frank Richards’ school stories, published about 100,000,000 words from 1895 to his death in 1961. His lifetime average comes to about 4,200 words per day. At his peak, it is true, he published three serial instalments per week – one each under the names Frank Richards, Martin Clifford, and Owen Conquest – amounting to about 50,000 words for the three of them. Those stories were highly stylized and formulaic, heavily padded, slow-moving, and repetitive. It is highly likely that he would be forgotten altogether now if he had not created one world-famous character in Billy Bunter.

Most of the pulp writers who rivalled Hamilton’s productivity in his own time are completely forgotten today. Even in their day, they were generally regarded as hacks. Good writers got out of the pulps as quickly as they could, and into better-paying markets, where they would not have to earn a meagre living by cranking out and selling endless first drafts.

So maybe, just maybe, metrics really aren’t the way to go here.


  1. My advice on quota is that your writing quota should be at least the number of words it takes you to get warmed up.

    Revising? I have no clue what quota anyone could use there. I’ve tried both page count and word/anti-word count, and both have conspicuous flaws.

  2. Oh, there’s a lot to say here.

    First I’ll satisfy my annoying inner devil’s advocate by pointing out the difference between typing and writing by hand.

    Like you say, there’s a big difference between a factory that can produce X parts a day and a factory that sells X parts a day. Capacity does not equal production. Production does not equal shipping.

    The idea of “you gotta hit 10k words a day!” is a lot like the “10,000 hours to mastery” meme. The problem is, the author of that research says it’s constantly misrepresented. That time to mastery isn’t just time spent in rote repetition, but focused practice and thoughtful progression. Just doing the same thing over and over for 10,000 hours does nothing but reinforce bad habits. In the same way, 10k words a day is no guarantee. I guess if nothing else you can say you’re putting in the effort and time, but IMO those two things have to be guarded and shepherded very carefully.

    If you can hit 10k words a day and have it be worth something, good. If you can hit 20k, even better. The question is, is your fat lady singing well enough to star in the opera?

    (BTW I’ll be counting these 217 words towards my daily goals.)

    • In terms of composition speed, typing vs. writing by hand makes little difference. Most writers who write by hand can manage 15 to 20 words per minute for fairly extended periods, which would yield 4,500 to 6,000 words in a six-hour working day.

      Twain, as mentioned above, wrote 3,000 words a day in his early period, and wrote them all by hand. While he was the first writer to submit manuscripts in typewritten form, he continued to write first drafts by hand until quite late in his life. (He makes some mention of this in his autobiography – the later parts of which he dictated to a stenographer.)

      Everything you say about the ‘10,000 hours’ is quite true. As I have said in another context, if you spend 10,000 hours making the same mistakes over and over, all you learn is how to make those mistakes consistently. A hack golfer with a bad swing can play golf every day of his life and never turn into a scratch player. If he had gone to a golf pro for some proper lessons early on, he could have corrected his swing and become a better player; but after a certain point, the bad habits are so ingrained that nothing can cure them.

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