1,000 Words a Day Challenge: What I Learned*

* Your mileage may vary.

From November 10 through December 31 of last year, I challenged myself to write at least 1,000 words each day – a goal of 52,000 words over that span. My end total, on New Year’s Eve, was 51,249, which is extremely close, given my discoveries throughout the process. Along the way, it was a joy and it was a slog; it was an unwavering taskmaster and an incredible productivity tool; an amazing release of creativity and a series of difficult mental challenges.

Here’s what I found out:

  1. The rigid requirements can be great. There is no grey area: you need to write 1,000 words a day. If you do, you pass. If you don’t, you fail. Knowing that was a requirement every single day had a lot to do with how I pushed myself to get it done. If I had a bad day – or worse, a zero day – I had to work a lot harder in subsequent days to go beyond my daily goal and make up for it.
  2. The rigid requirements can be awful. One thousand words every single day, with no breaks, is a huge mental challenge, as well as a major organizational challenge. I often found that if I knew what I was writing, the thousand words flowed out of me easily. If I had to consider where the story was headed, make some internal structural decision, or if I flat out had no idea what happened next and needed to think, I wouldn’t make my daily goal. This is actually my biggest criticism of the 1,000 Words a Day Challenge – it didn’t give me time to think and dream and plot and plan. I’m a hybrid writer. I don’t plot everything out meticulously in advance, but I also don’t just start typing and pray. I have ideas that I want to get written and a general sense of how to do that. At the keyboard, I let ideas flow on my path from a known A to (generally) known B. I find this gives my work structure and sense, while allowing the moments to feel more fluid and real. Without time to think about where the story would go in the next increment (chapter or sub-chapter), I couldn’t just start typing. Those were the days when my word count suffered. However, I will say that once I took a day or so break to think, the following days were often my most productive, and often far exceeded 1,000 words.
  3. Life gets in the way. The fact of the matter is that I have a day job and a family. The day job doesn’t take kindly to writing breaks, which meant that I had to do all my writing during family time. On weekdays, this wasn’t such an issue, as people all have their weekly routines. On weekends, however, it meant that I could be disrupting plans or simply acting like a hermit.
  4. Holidays/events get in the way. I chose, somewhat unwisely, to do this challenge over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays. That was partially good, as it meant breaks from the 9-5 daily routine, but it also meant there were a lot of outside commitments like family get-togethers, gift exchanges, dinners, etc. Along with the requisite prep time for each (gifts don’t buy themselves!), this meant less time for writing.
  5. Changing projects can deal your goals a major blow. When I first began the challenge, I was most of the way through writing my novel Struck. Since it was already underway, picking up the pace on it was rather easy. I finished that novel on day 16 of the challenge. That’s when my first problem occurred: what would I do the next day to make 1,000 words? The answer: nothing. On day 17, my total word count was zero. The next day, I picked up with another work-in-progress, White Fire, and started editing its older portions. It was a solid eight days of editing and getting back up to speed, during which I only achieved 1,000 daily words of new material twice. Thankfully, White Fire is a long book, with a long way to go. It kept me occupied through the remainder of the challenge (and still has about 20,000 words to go), so I didn’t have the hurdle of switching projects again. Still, I can see how that would be a major problem for keeping up a word count every single day.
  6. It was amazing for productivity. To be blunt, I never in my life thought that I would release a 90,000 word novel in August (the final John Black novel, In the Black Veins of the Earth), a 10,000 word short story (“Cloak of Black, Mantle of Sorrow,” the last John Black short) plus the reformatted box set of all John Black books in October, and a completely new 56,000 word novel, Struck, in December, and be 82,000 words into my next 100,000 word novel, White Fire, by January. That’s an unheard-of level of production for me, and it was really satisfying to get all that accomplished.
  7. It didn’t account for everything I need to do as a writer. As noted above regarding planning out stories, simply typing the actual novel is not all there is to get through a book. All the notes and bullet-pointed lists of necessary items, the scrawled interconnections between beats and characters and moments – those are not counted in any daily total, but they’re still necessary work. Plus, the words I’m writing right now (this blog posted totals 1,236 words) don’t count either, even though they are part of the universe of “Things You Do as a Writer.” Sure, this blog post isn’t as critical as making sure I know where a novel is heading, but it still means something to me, and hopefully a little something to those who read it.
  8. It kept me in the moment with the story. Writing every day meant not forgetting where you were and having to backtrack. It meant knowing what each character was thinking, how they would react, and what they would say, without having to go back and read their entire history again. It meant that my seat-of-the-pants style of writing in between bullet-pointed beats of the story could flow more easily, already being clear on my setting, the characters, their goals, what came before, and what would come soon after. This was the best aspect of the challenge from an artistic point of view; being in the moment makes it all feel more connected, real, and immersive.

So, what now? It’s a new year, and often that means resolutions. I won’t go there, but instead, I will challenge myself to a new, revised goal:

5,000 words per week over 50 weeks, for a total of 250,000 words in 2019

Yep, that’s the new plan. It keeps the idea of 1,000 words a day, but it gives me 2 days off per week to think and breathe and generally live. And, it gives me two weeks where I can just do nothing. I fully expect I will blather on about the pros and cons of this experience in a year, too, but for now, that’s the plan.

Best of all… if you read my last blog post talking about how a writer’s first million words are just practice, well, adding 250,000 words to my overall total by the end of 2019 will mean that finally, finally, I will be done practicing and ready to write come New Year’s Day 2020. That’ll make for an interesting future, I think.