Posts on writing seem to get quite a bit of interest here, so I’ll use classicist Mary Beard’s question to say a little more about this again.
In her TLS column, Beard asks ‘How many words can you write in a day?’ She quotes a friend who claims 500 words is as good as you can get – 500 words of “proper original academic writing” that is. Beard is trying for 1,000, which is partly a result of a deadline for the next project. I’ve discussed this question before (then in relation to Foucault), and also picked the 500 words as a notional figure. Part of the reason for that was that with a relatively small number of writing days a week it quickly added up to a substantial amount.
As I tried to clarify in a comment to that earlier post, the 500 words target is good, finished, polished, and properly footnoted text. I write, edit, rewrite, etc. multiple times. I’ve recently been working on my ‘Secure the Volume’ text – the lecture given in Kentucky and at the RGS, and destined for Political Geography. In over-writing the text I had for the two lectures I’ve filled in some of the things I said as I delivered it, added some comments and more extensive references, clarified a few things, elaborated a bit, changed the order of some of the sections, improved links, etc. I’ve been editing it for the past six days, and it’s increased in length from just over 8,000 words (the draft I circulated before the RGS for my discussants to read) to just over 11,000 words. That’s coincidently an increase of 500 words a day. But the 11,000 words are pretty polished, whereas what was circulated wasn’t, so much of the writing work isn’t visible in the crude numbers.
One other thought – I don’t get why people don’t count footnotes as they go. Journal articles, books, etc. are all inclusive words, because words mean pages, which is what journal editors need to plan for, and what book publishers use to calculate costs. So count the footnotes/references in the total – it all adds up.
For other inspiration, check out this site which collects the daily routines of famous writers – mentioned in the comments thread following Beard’s article. Some good stuff there. I don’t suggest you follow W.H. Auden!