By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.

– Stephen King, On Writing

Everyone who writes–absolutely everyone–has heard the ol’ spiel about how you should write at least 1,000 words a day. This advice seems simple. I mean, 1,000 words a day, right? What’s to misunderstand? But if you look across the wilds of the Internet, you’ll see people interpreting it a million different ways.

I hang out on a few writing boards, and I’ve seen people take this advice in a completely different way than I have. For example, I’ve seen:

  • People who are anxious that not meeting 1,000 words a day means they’re failing as a writer.
  • People claim you have to write 1,000 words of new prose every day, and that you have to find some other time to edit, outline, or brainstorm.
  • Someone who was afraid to try 1,000 words a day because they thought it was an extremely difficult challenge that only the most creative people could manage.

I disagree with all of this. Let’s talk about what I do think!

It’s About the Habit, not the Words

I’m not going to speak for Stephen King, especially since he says a lot more about 1,000-words-a-day than what I quoted above. But that quote at the top of this post? That’s a very gentle message. It says you need to make writing a habit and that 1,000 words  a day is an easy, low number to start at. The “1,000” is a suggestion.

And that’s what I’ve always thought about the “you must write XXX a day” advice. The point isn’t to write 1,000 words. The point is to write regularly. The form that habit takes–and the exact number of words written–isn’t as important.

So, let’s illustrate this with a briefly off-topic example. If you decided to learn an instrument, what would you do? You’d practice, right? And you’d probably want to do a little bit almost every day, right? How good would you get if your plan was “play 15 minutes once a month” or “only practice when you feel like it”?

But new writers do this all the time. They only write “when the muse hits.” They take 5 years to write a first draft. They write a chapter or two every few months.

And that’s why people suggest a daily writing goal. The “1,000 words” isn’t the important part. The point is to do a little work every day.

That makes you write regularly. And writing regularly means you improve at a steady pace and don’t forget the things you’ve learned. And writing regularly means you’re taking an intimidatingly big project (an 80-to-100,000 word novel) and breaking it into manageable pieces (1,000 words at a time).

It’s not a death pact where you meet 1,000 words–and no less!–or fall on your sword in shame. It’s just a recommendation to do a little work every day. And maybe that’s 1,000 words a day. Maybe it’s not. It doesn’t have to be.

It’s About Making Time for Writing

I also firmly, firmly believe that the point is not to just write new prose and do nothing else. If the point of the exercise is to work on your writing every day, then all of these should “count” as your “1,000 words”:

  • Editing
  • Outlining
  • Research
  • Idea-generation exercises: Everything from writing prompts to idea-association
  • Worldbuilding files: Character profiles, descriptions of settings, places, things

I mean, editing isn’t optional. You’re going to have to do it sometime. Why not count it as a meaningful use of your writing time? And everything else is helpful for idea generation. Many of these can be good “warmup” activities, too–you can do them before you write to help get yourself in a creative headspace.

(That said, there does have to be a balance. You should write more often than you do anything else. That’s probably why it’s “write 1,000 words a day” and not “do something writing-related every day”–to keep people from just noodling endlessly about a story. Goodness knows there are a million would-be fantasy authors who have spent years on worldbuilding and never written a single word of prose.)

When I have an active project, I definitely write thousands of words, every day, until I finish the thing. But when I’m between projects, I’ll spend my writing time on all kinds of brainstorming exercises. And that’s OK. You don’t have to produce, non-stop, forever. You have to fill the creative well sometimes, too.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up About It

And for goodness’s sake, if you don’t meet your daily quota, don’t whip yourself over it. If you’re putting aside time to work on your writing every day–or every weekday, or 3 times a week, or whatever works with your life–then you’re doing a heck of a lot more than someone who daydreams about writing a novel but has never written more than a chapter or two.

If you have a regular writing habit, no matter what it looks like, you’re doing well and you’re making progress. And that, in my opinion, is what the “write 1,000 words a day” advice is trying to do. It’s trying to make you build a habit. And it shouldn’t be treated like a limiting, prescriptive law.

So don’t take “1,000 words” too literally. Don’t make it a cross you have to bear, or an overly-strict rule you have to beat yourself up over. It’s advice–and good, useful, and practical advice. But it’s also just a suggestion.