Clerestory

Inexhaustible

September 14, 2019

Lately I’ve been thinking about what the upper limit might be for writing, in terms of words written per day.

A fast typist can type 100 words per minute. Once, even I could type that fast. But now I can’t sustain anything like that without wrist pain later in the day. 50wpm, though, is achievable. Easy, even. That would mean 3,000 words per hour, were typing the only limit.

But it’s not the only limit. Time is another, and not just how long one happens to have free. I know from experience that however empty my calendar, I cannot write sustainably for more than four hours per day—when timed strictly (and ignoring, for now, the fact that the maximum duration has increased with practice).

If I write for longer, in other words, I cannot write for as long on the day that follows. Still, that would mean 12,000 words a day.

That number is clearly unachievable, or, if achieved, then unsustainable. I have Googled this question on other occasions (whether in procrastination or at the end of a proud day), and I have found posts like this one, listing the averages asserted by various authors. The highest is by Michael Crichton, at 10,000, and he’s an outlier. A more common upper limit seems to be 3 or 4,000.

The wrists, then, are not really the limiting factor for writing. Perhaps this makes sense. The mouth is not really a limiting factor for speaking. When I used to drink more heavily, I could speak for days on end. But little of it was likely to be enlightening. And the limiting factor was the length of time I could remain upright, and not the movement of my jaw.

I am unable not to measure things, and words are no exception. For the past few days I’ve managed almost 5,000 per day, recording the events from a very eventful few weeks, in which we walked the final 70 miles of the Camino de Santiago. That is to say, I was not composing fiction, which would have been much slower. In four days I wrote a total of 19,102 words, excluding what I handwrote. This represents something close to my (current) upper limit.

I suppose I should also add the adjective “meaningful,” as in “the upper limit for meaningful writing, in terms of words written per day.” Perhaps, then, it is the mind itself that is the limiting factor. But it too seems to be inexhaustible, at least when its output is measured over time. This is not just because it is possible to speak ceaselessly. I firmly believe that demanding more of the mind, over time, causes it to change and grow.

Or at least that’s what I’ll be telling myself as I attempt to post more frequently. Already, committing to broadcasting more often seems to have caused my mind to generate more topics, more ideas. I am convinced that in order to improve, one needs to practice—and that anyone who does anything exceptionally well also does that thing in exceptional quantities.

So let this post represent a toast, an avowal to write more. At least to be loquacious, on a good day to be garrulous. Let us promise to expatiate, and to remember that practice makes prolix. Let not the peril of pleonasm prevent us from improving.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.