Write a Million Words and Throw It Away?

There’s a writing pearl of wisdom that states you need to write a million words before you actually know what you’re doing.  This is often accompanied by advice to throw out the first millions words.  I guess I can’t really speak on this because I’ve only written about 220,000 words of fiction since I started 5 years ago.  I’d say the biggest leap of improvement was in those first 100,000 words.  When I left fanfiction I pulled down all of my stories, partly because I didn’t see the point in keeping a crappy unfinished story publicly posted.  I’m not going into the other reasons I removed my stories in this post.  But I want to keep it to have as a reference point.  

I’m still improving, and I guess that I’ll be much better after a million words, but I’m not willing to accept that I need to write a million words before I write something worthy of seeing the light of day.  I write really slow too.  Well, I used to write fast when my fiction sounded like this blog XD  I mean I guess it doesn’t matter how true it is or not because I’m always giving it my best effort, and really that’s all you can do.  I’m just curious to hear other’s thoughts on this.  I don’t know, maybe after a million words I’ll change my mind.  At my current writing pace that will be another 15-20 years.  

26 thoughts on “Write a Million Words and Throw It Away?

  1. I’ve been writing for as long as I could hold a pencil, so I think there is some truth to the one-million words idea. This being said, I think one has to concentrate on their work as they go. They can’t simply write anything to improve in specific areas. In my opinion.

    • Yeah, I was assuming that comment implies one gives it their best effort in the attainment of one million words. If you just write a million words and don’t really take efforts to improve then I don’t think it’s the same thing. I don’t really consider blogging a part of that for me because I’m putting in almost zero effort XD The way I blog is very similar to the way I talk.

      Actually, thinking back on one of my favorite fanfic authors, she probably wrote 100,000 words before she was awesome. We were friends, but she was a private person, and I never stopped to ask her about it. I’ve gone back to read her stuff and it’s always more awesome than I remember. Perhaps she is an exception to the rule.

  2. I have kept a whole stack of notebooks, and the first drafts of my novel just in case. I think in a way they are good to keep because you can refer back to them and see how much you have progressed. I’m constantly learning and hopefully improving. I’m doing my final edits at the moment so I’ve set myself a goal to have everything finalised by September. Hope I’ll get there.

    • I think that is a good way to go about it 🙂 I mean I pour my heart and soul into everything I write, and that’s all I can do. Maybe I won’t have anything worth reading before a million words, but it is what it is. Oh, that’s pretty soon. I was hoping to have my short story finalized by September so I could submit it to literary magazines. I can’t imagine how long it would take me for a novel :$ I hope you get there too! It’s good to set challenging goals though because then you are always pushing yourself 🙂

  3. Whoa, with one million words our writing changes so much! Maybe it’s because we’ve then had time to experiment and dabble into different genres and styles. I think the one million words idea is a hyperbole that refers to practicing. With practice, we all get better 🙂

    • I think you are right. Maybe it’s not to be taken literally. I think anyone would be better after a million words. Considering The Great Gatsby was about 50,000 words, a million words would be 20 novels XD When I think of my favorite authors they haven’t even written that many books and they are old now, so they never will. I like short stories because you can experiment with different writing styles 🙂 You can take bigger risks because it’s just a short story.

  4. I don’t think so, actually. Maybe the first 100,000. And maybe revising first drafts. But never 1 million. At my rate (and I’ve been writing as long as I can remember), I won’t get to a million words for another 20 or 30 years. And I don’t want that.

    By the way, I’ve tagged you in the bookshelf blog hop/tag, where you answer questions about your bookshelf/books you like to read: http://booksandbark.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/bookshelf-tag/

    • Yeah, it seems a bit of a stretch to me. I read a book Cormac McCarthy wrote 40 years ago, Child of God, and it is not as good as his current work, The Road, but it was still good in it’s own merit. When I was reading it there were bits of awkward prose with really complicated words. After I finished looking them up I realized it made no sense. Then I found out it was one of his first published stories, and it made sense. His later work was better, but his early work was still good enough to receive critical acclaim. I think there is some truth to it meaning you will be a hell of a lot better after writing a million words, but I don’t necessarily agree you can’t write anything of quality in the interim.

      Oh, thanks for tagging me 🙂 I’ll probably do it later today or tomorrow ^^

  5. If I waited till after I had written 1 million words to keep anything, no one would ever take me seriously because there’d be no visible progress. I’d probably never get anything written either because my husband would stop catering to my writing dreams and force me to get a job that pays the bills. Write at night? Yeah, right. Not in my family. I’m grabbing the bull by the horns now, not later.

    That being said, I see the point of the million words thing. The more I write, the better I get. Of course, the older and more mature I get, the better my writing gets too.

    • Yeah, I’ve done about 200,000 words, but I’d say anything from 100,000+ words I could edit it and create something good. To be honest, I think my improvement in even the first 500,000 words will be much more significant than 500,000 words to a million. I think the first 100,000 was the most dramatic for me. And I suppose that is different for everyone. I was attempting poetic prose, and it often came out awkward and very purple XD My husband got on my case for writing fanfiction because it could never be published. He asked me what the point of it was. I said, “I enjoy it.” He usually responded with a sigh. My husband is the practical one while I have my head in the clouds.

      I think it’s awesome that you are pursuing your dream, and I’m going about it in a similar way. I’m planning on submitting the short stories that I write, and fixing them up to the best of my ability. I always give it my best, and that’s all you can do. Yeah, even Cormac McCarthy improved a lot from 40 years ago, so even the best of the best keep improving. I’m happily following along with your progress 🙂 I think the best way to learn is to just go for it.

      • I understand what you’re talking about with your husband. Mine does the same thing. In his eyes if it doesn’t bring in some money then what’s the point in doing it. 😉 hehe I’ll sit crocheting afghans or whatever and all he can think is how much I can sell them for. My only thought was what a lovely gift they’d make for so-n-so. lol

  6. I don’t take sayings like that literally… I think the spirit behind it says you must keep revising and revising and revising, no matter how much you end up discarding, to get your writing to be the best it can possibly be. To me, that sounds daunting enough even without the word count!

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂 Yeah, I guess I kind of take it with a grain of salt. If someone is diligent when writing, I think they will be much better after a million words of writing, but there are probably many published authors who have popular, perhaps even critically acclaimed, novels before reaching that elusive million word count. Hmmmm, the point you made about revising is a good one 🙂 I’m kind of going through that currently with my short stories. The one I’m working on now has gone through one revision, but some parts even more. I think after I finish this second revision I’m going to set it aside for a few weeks, come back and revise it again, and then I’ll probably submit it. It’s not that I’m submitting something that I think is good enough. My writing is never good enough XD At some point I have to realize that the changes I’m making aren’t necessarily improving the story. For a short story I think that’s when it’s time to submit. Novels are more complicated I imagine!

    • Seconded.

      If you think you can polish up some of your early words instead of starting fresh, then cowabunga, do iiit. It might be harder work than if you started a new story from scratch (as I’m finding out) but it can be done.

      Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds was re-written a gazillion times, even being written in different POV once, and another time as a script, but it’s selling great now. On the other hand Jim Butcher threw away several epic fantasy stories at the beginning of his career. He did so because re-writing multiple 200,000 word sacks of… bad writing… still wasn’t going to help him pitch at a genre where he had any hope of commercial success (epic fantasy being a seriously tough nut). He wrote a short Urban Fantasy to prove to his writing teacher how terrible it would be, and the rest is history. He’s up to, I think, book fifteen now? And makin’ big bucks.

      As long as you’re really planning out your next work, you don’t need to scrap the million 🙂

      • Yeah, if my fanfic novel was original fiction I might try to salvage it. But I can’t publish it so it was just writing practice, lol. Years ago I tried to go back and edit it, but it took me just as long to edit it as it did to write the chapter. So I revised 2 chapters and gave up on revision. Thanks for sharing those stories with me about Chuck Wending and Jim Butcher 🙂 I’m debating between writing a fantasy novel or a literature one in the future. But if one doesn’t work out, I could just try the other genre XD I like both. Kind of reminds me in college how I was debating being an English major or a Chemistry major. I chose Chemistry because it better aligned with the requirements of the grad school I wanted to attend. Yeah, I’m planning on submitting my short stories because it’s not that difficult (compared to publishing a novel), and I don’t have much to lose. I just hope I don’t look back at it in five years and cringe XD I’m going to set the suicide story to the side for a few weeks before I do the final revision.

        Oh, thanks again for talking with me about the theme, and showing me Wendig’s article on it. He’s a funny guy XD It really helped. I also realized forgiveness by itself isn’t a theme, but something like, “There is no peace without forgiveness,” is. I started looking through quotes and trying to find applicable ones to my story. When I do the final revision I will try to tailor the story to proving those themes.

      • No peace without forgiveness sounds good! And yeah, you can work your protags journey and climax around that realisation fairly well. *waves pom poms* you can do it!

  7. Thought I’d weigh in from the older perspective! Just did some math, and figuring that I have had about 50 years available to write (starting in mid teens) then I would have to write about 55 words a day to make a million. Very easily met since I write all the time, whether technical, fiction or prose… I have undoubtedly exceeded that million attested by boxes of handwritten stuff in the attic, and various computers through the years. Could also easily say all have all been thrown away.
    Does that mean I’m ready write well now? Nope. Not by a long shot. More likely indicates an addiction to writing.
    I have learned a few things through the million words exercise:
    1.) My vocabulary has expanded
    2) Thanks to grammar school, spell check and other online tools, I am technically proficient.
    3) As I get older I have gained more perspective and experience.
    4) I will undoubtedly write until they pry the cold hard keyboard from my cold dead hands!
    Other than that, I am just beginning to learn the craft of writing. I am a mere babe in the woods!
    Bottom line: It’s not the word count that counts! It’s writing with emotion and heart and energy, and transferring that to the reader.
    …. back to working on the next million words!

    • I think you were the one that shared your knowledge of filter words with me. That was so helpful! I even talked to another blogger about it, and he knew the concept, but never knew what those words were called. So you helped two people 🙂 My grammar is okay. To be honest, I don’t understand most of the rules, I just write what feels right. I got a book from “Grammar Girl,” a while ago for my husband because his first language is Japanese. I should go through it. She actually has a way of presenting concepts that is somewhat entertaining, for grammar that is.

      There was a line I had in one of my stories. Something like, “Her heart had shattered. . .” and that was how I wrote it originally. Then someone corrected it to, “Her heart shattered. . .” Then someone else corrected it back to, “Her heart had shattered. . .” Apparently if you are writing in past tense and are trying to refer to something that happened before the story you use “had.” I agonized over that point too. I wrote it correctly the first time because it felt right, but when people started telling me other things I got very confused because I didn’t know what the rule was for it. So being technically proficient is a very good skill to have as a writer!

      The lovely thing about writing is that you can do it till you are on your death bed. With many other hobbies it’s harder to do that. The more I learn about writing the more I realize how little I actually do know XD Maybe I’ll get to a point where I feel like I know something, lol. I think part of being able to transfer emotion and heart to the reader is skill. I remember the first fanfic piece I wrote I never posted. It was about two lovers meeting up together in the afterlife. It was really cheesy and the prose was awkward XD The emotions that I poured into it were so strong, but I couldn’t express myself that well. I think you are right though, it’s more about the quality of the words than the quantity 🙂

      I don’t have anything I wrote from before I started creative writing 5 years ago. That fanfic story I never published was lost on an old computer, thank goodness XD I don’t have my creative writing attempts from highschool. I imagine those would be entertaining if I found them again, lol. I have all of the old letters I wrote to my husband when we were dating though 🙂 He kept them in a treasure box. So cute ^^

  8. What a compelling post. I’ve been writing on and off since my teens which makes many decades now. I’ve no doubt written at least a million words and as I go through all of those old notebooks, binders, scraps, and napkins, I’m sure there’s some value there. Unfortunately, it’s just a sentence in one, a paragraph in another and most definitely a punctuation mark not used in another!

    • We all have to start out somewhere! I’m glad I don’t have access to my writing in high school XD From what I remember I over-used the word “gossamer,” and I’m sure I used purple prose. I remember my mom having fits of hysterical laughter while reading my essays because they were so bad. I don’t think it hurt me that much actually. But it’s been many years so maybe it was. Now I look back on it and find it amusing. I spent 5 years writing a fanfiction story. Well I was gone for 2 years, and would take periods of absence due to my health issues. I can’t ever publish it, but I can reuse some of the metaphors XD It was good practice though. The only way to become good at something is lots of practice 😉

  9. If you want my personal experience, I’ve been writing about 3,000 words of diary entries every day for some time. By simple math, after a full year of that, I’d have written a million words’ worth of diaries. Now that I’ve shifted my focus to my blog, i still produce about three or four 500-word blog posts each day. It’ll take longer than one year to reach a million words, but not longer by too many orders of magnitude. It helps that I worked as a dicta typist for 15 years and still type at a pretty good clip.

    Theoretically speaking? People have said that you improve as a writer with every sentence you crank out. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, or creative nonfiction, or nonfiction, or poetry, or letters and emails, or diary entries. The sheer practice refines your eye and makes you better. Which is a good thing, because what’s better than enjoying the act of writing itself and having it serve a constructive purpose at the same time?

    • Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂 Wow, that’s a lot of writing daily! I guess I write a lot of letters and e-mails. My chat is very non-formal though. Like, there’s not even basic sentence structure there XD But in e-mails, letters, and blog posts I’m trying to do without adverbs, which is really hard to do 😛

      • Myself and another online person are thinking of setting up The Netizen Society or The Society of Good Netizens. It would be for people who spend the bulk of our waking lives online, as well as for those who accept the way we live and don’t judge us. Would you be interested in being a founding member? If so, feel free to email me about it.

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