Shotguns vs. Rifles

I have a confession to make. I’m not a jealous person to begin with, but one thing I do suffer from is word-count envy.

Being a writer invariably means associating with other writers, for both mutual support and commiseration. There’s no way around it. Generally it’s a good thing. We help each other with plot problems and story ideas and struggle through crippling blocks together. But our measure of success (in theory) is the easily-quantifiable word count. Even when I’m not with other writers, the simple question is: “How much did you do today?” I’m asked it so often, usually daily, that I just give a standard answer of “a page and a half.”

The plain fact is I’m not that fast of a writer. Most of the time, I’m just trying to figure out how to compose a paragraph and what I’m trying to say within it. I bog down on things like logic and theme rather than simple word choice or getting caught up in outside distractions (although that happens too). But for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been that way—even with personal letters and e-mails. My “average” day is about a page and a half—about 400 words. On a good one I’ll manage 750. My all-time best for fiction is 3,400 words, when the stars were perfectly aligned and I spent an entire day “in the zone.”

I tried NaNoWriMo once to see if I could break the routine and brute-force a heavy word count through peer support and timed writing exercises. Let’s just say the results fell into “extreme failure” territory. Not only was I less productive overall, but the result was nearly unusable, which wasn’t normal at all for me. But the experiment did reinforce a theory I’d suspected over time: there are actually two different types of writers.

To use a weapon analogy, the first type is like firing a shotgun. If you’ve ever used one, you’ll know what I mean. You don’t actually aim a shotgun. You sight down the length of the barrel and use it as a pointer to focus your vision, almost like skimming a paragraph with the tip of a pencil. When the target moves in your peripheral vision, you turn your head and the gun together to look at it, lead slightly ahead and pull the trigger. The whole process is mostly instinct and reflex. Thinking slows you down, as does conscious aiming. You don’t need to—as long as you’re in the right vicinity, some of the pellets from the expanding blast will hit the target.

Contrast that with a rifle, which is all about aiming and accuracy because you’re firing one bullet, not a scattering of pellets. You have to set your stance, level your sights on the target, hold steady, control your breathing and gently squeeze the trigger.

If the goal of shooting is to simply hit your target, then neither weapon is “better.” Instead, it’s merely a question of approach, of what you’re comfortable with.

Shotgun writers blast out words on a page. They can churn out those insane word counts of thousands a day, almost without thinking, almost by reflex. It’s impressive. But like a shotgun blast, not all of the words hit their mark. I’ve seen and heard of writers who can churn out fifty, sixty or even a hundred thousand words, then dump them all out to start over “for real.” Their first draft is sometimes just a practice run to get their story ideas together. Others bog down in editing while trying to sort through and give shape to the pile of words they’ve generated. They often lose heart there, amid their rewrites and in despair of having to throw large sections of their hard work away.

I’m definitely in the rifle camp. As I mentioned, my productive “average” is about 400 words a day. Each word, each sentence can be grueling. That scene of Jack bouncing the ball against the wall in The Shining? That’s me. I’ll write a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph, then I’ll have to clear my head for a bit. I’ll stretch my legs, make a fresh cup of tea, maybe go to the bathroom to get rid of the last cup of tea. I’d do the bouncy ball thing if it didn’t make me think of The Shining too much. If you’ve noticed, I keep putting “average” in quotes—on a bad day, I might only manage a sentence or two, which is where I lose heart.

What I have learned, however, is that the words I do write generally survive through editing and make it to the final draft. I’ll kill a sentence here or there or sometimes cut a whole paragraph as I tighten up the manuscript, but my only major revision in Snyper involved rewriting one entire chapter. Simple line edits fixed most of the other issues. So my actual word throughput is high, around 90%, which means that even though I’m not a “fast” writer in terms of daily word count, I seem to be saving time on the back end during the revision and editing process.

The rule of thumb I’ve stumbled upon is that total book production time generally breaks down into three equal parts: writing, revising and editing. Call that a 33/33/33 percentage split. Shotgun-style writing might skew those numbers closer to 20/40/40, whereas my “rifle” figures seem to be around 70/10/20. Is that “bad?” “Better?” Not at all—it’s a difference in approach. And anecdotally, I’ve no reason to believe either method takes longer in overall production time even though the component percentages can vary wildly between styles and individuals.

So if you’re a “slower” writer like me, don’t get discouraged if you can’t keep pace with your friends and acquaintances as they shotgun-blast words onto paper. I’ve nothing against NaNoWriMo, but be aware that it isn’t geared for everyone’s individual writing needs. It may also help to set your word-count goals lower.

One of my author heroes is Terry Pratchett, who has dozens of Discworld and other novels, but whose writing goal is just 400 words a day. That’s a minimum goal, of course, but he does it every day and the words pile up. Which makes him, as far as I’m concerned, the king of rifle marksmen.


  1. Kenneth Fees says:

    Thanks for that! I have been slogging away at the same chapter for sometime, and I tend to revise as I go. it’s promising that the pace I have been writing in, can lead to success.

  2. First, allow me to express that it was nice surprise meeting you today at the WV POPCON, another individual enjoys “writing”.

    I can relate to much of this blog, and Kenneth’s comment. I’m usually somewhere between a shotgun and a rifle.

    For me, success has always been relative to how I feel about myself at the end of the day, and not about how many words I’ve written. I do, however, envy writers who can consistently put down thousand of words per day, and produce a “Best Selling” five hundred page book.

    My memoir and short stories, all came from personal experiences. I don’t excel at writing fiction. Perhaps this is why none of my published works have exceeded 30,000 words.

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