Art by quota

Do a search for writing advice. Read blogs or posts on Reddit or Quora. It won’t be long before you come across someone saying that the best way to level up your ability and make words do backflips is to write x words a day. One thousand is the most common value for x. The number is arbitrary; the point is that striving for that number compels you to sit down and write every single day.

But as someone who has written and published every day for almost a year and a half now, I have to say that that advice is complete and utter bullshit. As well as dangerous. Especially when, as usually happens, the number is prioritised over the point behind it.

A few days ago, I got into a conversation with Kartik Agaram. We were talking about how typical software is written and Kartik was explaining an idea using the discovery of the law of gravity. His point was that many things that came before that discovery were just a special case of a fundamental law. That once you understood the fundamental law you can induct from it to find all those special cases. 

More than anything, it was a point about density. Kartik also recommended a Ribbonfarm article–Seeking Density in the Gonzo Theater—which explored the theme of density further. And it wasn’t until I read it that I realised exactly why I have such a strong reaction to the write x words a day advice; it ignores density.

To show you what I mean, let me ask you a question. Imagine you’ve decided and fully believe that hitting an arbitrary word count every day is what will propel you towards writing mastery. Yesterday, you dashed off 1500 words. Five hundred more than you needed. Today, so far, you’ve only managed 100. And you had to fight for them. But you feel that they represent an important insight, a personal discovery. Now, if you still cannot write any more, do you see today as a failure? You’ve only written 100 words, but those 100 words are strong and important. Yet you’re still 900 short. Is today a failure?

No fucking way. Length or breadth of creation isn’t what matters. Firstly, the motto of “something is better than nothing” applies. Writing ten words is better than writing none. But secondly, the idea of density applies. Ten words that matter are better than a thousand that don’t. 

Don’t strive to write x words a day. Instead, strive to write something dense. It’s as simple as that. Write something, and try to make it matter or reveal something important or interesting or entertaining. If that requires 3000 words fine. If it requires 50, that’s fine too. Just don’t fall for the seductive illusion that art by quota can propel you to the heights of a form.