science of us

Just Write 500 Words

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Before sitting down to write this, I: washed dishes, scrubbed down my stovetop, took out the garbage and recycling, put new bags in the garbage and recycling bins, organized the stack of unread books on my desk by the expected likelihood of me eventually reading them, organized the cup of pens on my desk, took my dog on a walk around the block, and poured myself a second cup of coffee. Now I’m here, typing whatever, just to get to the next sentence. Will this be the best article I have ever written? No. But it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be done, so I can say I’ve accomplished something today.

Many people are familiar with this kind of procrastination pattern — suddenly, the chores we’d typically die before doing become irresistible and urgent, because there’s one thing we’d rather do even less: work. I think people in most careers experience this, but writers tend to pathologize it, claiming “writer’s block” and, like, an absent “muse” or whatever. I don’t think either of those things are real! Or, if they are, they’re not really excuses to not get anything done. (Haha, I was raised Catholic.) If you’re a writer, you can just … revise and redo your work if it turns out bad the first time, and it probably won’t affect anyone but you. How many professionals can say that? So here’s what you do: write 500 words a day, no matter what.

I’ll be honest: I kind of thought I invented the magic 500 words thing. I’ve been saying that’s my policy for years. I’ve written four books that way, more or less. But last week, author Rebecca Schuman tweeted that 500 words a day was her policy, suggesting it as a workable pace for any writer working on a long-term project. She called it the 5-5-5 rule: 500 words a day or five pages of edits, five days a week. Many of Schuman’s replies were positive, grateful for a reasonable and actionable daily goal. Others were snotty about it, which, fine. If you want to be a special and untameable creative force, enjoy.

But for most people, or at least people hoping to one day get paid for their work, 500 words a day seems to be a sweet spot. It’s a small enough goal to feel possible, which makes it easier to meet it consistently. (Productivity-wise, doing less really is more.) But it’s also enough words to fill a page or two (depending on your formatting), and those daily pages will add up faster than you think. (For me, for instance, this rate has led to finished first drafts within eight to ten months. Less than a year!) And, unless you’re really agonizing over every word, you can probably get that much written in an hour or two. Lots of writers like to pretend they write for eight hours a day, but they are lying. They are on Twitter with a blank Word document open in another tab. That doesn’t count as “writing.” This doesn’t have to be torture. Just write 500 words, and then stop. Until tomorrow.

Just Write 500 Words