How many words a day?

Here’s a thought experiment. Sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and a list of topics. Work through them, one at a time, writing 500 words on each topic. How many topics do you get to over the course of the day? Assume for the moment the typical number of online distractions. Each piece you are writing will have its own set of distractions from the net.

I am forever impressed by people who can sit down and crank out clean copy ready for publication. It’s not easy to do this, and every written work can be improved by judicious editing. A remarkable skill: typing as fast as you can and making sense when you do.

Blogging was my outlet for this, to capture a moment and a topic of fleeting interest. This was not writing a novel, and not writing a little piece of a 20-page or 400-page non-fiction work. It’s what musician Michelle Shocked called the “incomplete image”. You may have to wait for the full story.

I know from experience that I can put together 500 words in a sitting on one topic without taking a break and without needing to consult an outline. The much more challenging part is making a long, coherent single narrative out of these intermediate pieces parts. The skill of impromptu essay writing is by no means the same as the skill of book writing, and the task of challenging yourself to come up with a story that moves the current understanding a bit forward is a challenge.

To some degree, I’m willing to pad out those words with ample quotations from other sources, a sort of journalistic cut-and-paste that sifts through less well known sources to string together a story. (Of course the excerpts are carefully hyperlinked to avoid any suggestion of use without attribution.) Careful reuse of existing copy is one of the qualities that blogging can take advantage of that isn’t generally OK in journalism circles.

If all you wrote were impromptu essays for the net, you’d quickly find out what was a keeper by the traffic you were able to draw in. On a good day, I’m happy to write three or four blog posts that either satisfy my own interest in preserving a bit of news or that advance some larger story or that answer a question that’s on more than one person’s mind right now. That would translate into 2000 words on a good day, and that doesn’t sound like a lot. I think you’d have to work hard to keep the hopper full of article ideas and to keep up the research that fed a constant stream of ideas to work from, and to work doubly hard to collect the sort of essay-sized chunks that would eventually tell a story that’s longer and more carefully planned.

(Inspired by #writechat on Sunday, 8 December 2013.) (Edited to omit some words, 30 September 2017.)