How much is a decent day's work for the jobbing writer? I've often been asked about my own working habits, and I've tried as far as possible to answer honestly. I aim to produce 3000 words each working day, which for me is essentially the normal working week; I'll generally do a bit of work on weekends, but that's more about catching up and maintaining momentum, than hitting a set target.
But that aim of 3000 words is exactly that: an aim. It's something I'll do my best to achieve, and on a good day, or near a deadline, I'll shoot well past it. But I won't kill myself if I don't hit it; what counts is that week in, week out, there's a sense of productivity. 3000 words is a short chapter, or about half of a normal one (by my standards). It's half to a third of a short story. It's a fiftieth of a long novel. The main thing is that if I can hit somewhere between 10 and 15,000 words of fiction a week, I know that the work is going well and that I will eventually produce enough raw wordage to begin to shape a submission-quality draft. The secret to finishing a novel is not writing tens of thousands of words in a single caffeine-fuelled writing binge, but steady work over many months. Most of us will know what it's like to work ridiculously hard to meet a deadline, but by the same token we will also know the draining muscular and mental fatigue that follows. We all have to do it sometimes (I've done 10,000 words in one day) but that's no way to sustain a writing career that one hopes will span decades, rather than years.
However - here's the key thing: I didn't always write 3000 words a day and I'd hate anyone to think that this was some absolute gold standard that must be met. Far from it: I know writers who produce much less than this, and who do perfectly well. I also know at least one writer who cranks out 5000 words a day, again to no obvious detriment to either career or health. Ultimately, the individual must find the working habits that best suit their lifestyle and temperament. Do you produce 500 meticulously polished words of near-publishable prose, or 3000 words of rougher material that nonetheless moves the story along and can be edited and shaped further down the line?
When I had a day job, and a lengthy commute to and from work, I found it just about manageable to produce 2000 words of fiction an evening. But this wasn't always easy, and I could only do it because my wife was there to keep me suitably fed and watered. And that 2000 words was only achieved when I'd already had a good number of years of serious work behind me. I certainly couldn't hit anything like that wordage when I was beginning to find my way into writing.
Writing is an art, but as with any art there are elements of craft which can only be learned with time. The novice writer struggles with the basic units of prose: it's tricky to put together a decent sentence, let alone more than one. The rhythm's off. One sentence doesn't lead fluidly into the next. That paragraph break feels like it's in the wrong place, but you can't quite put your finger on where it ought to be. But if you work at it hard enough, and over a long enough period, you'll eventually get to the point where you'll have internalised the basics well enough to be able to write almost effortlessly on the level of sentence and paragraph. (That's not to say that it's all suddenly become easy, it's just that you've raised your game enough to be worrying about a whole truckload of other things). During this phase you're a bit like a learner driver, still trying to get to grips with the rudiments of clutch, throttle and brakes. And just as you wouldn't set out to drive 5000 miles before you'd got to grips with the basics of gear shifting, so I don't think it's realistic to set yourself difficult word targets before you've reached some basic level of fluency with the elements of prose. Put another way, by all means try and write 2000 or 3000 words if you think you can attain that, but don't feel too bad if you can't. Like most things, it will come with time.
Speaking for myself, I did 2000 words today. But I also did a lengthy telephone interview, and tomorrow I have a function to prepare for. The key thing is flexibility. Find a personal work target, set it, and aim for it as best you can. Be strict, but at the same time cut yourself some slack when the goal is clearly unattainable. We all have off days. If you exhaust yourself trying to meet today's target, you're probably not going to have too easy a time of it meeting tomorrow's...