Write Only 500 Words Per Day and Publish 50+ Books: Graham Greene’s Writing Method

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Nobody can write a book. That is, nobody can write a book at a stroke — unless aid­ed by aggres­sive­ly mind-invig­o­rat­ing sub­stances, and even then they sel­dom pull it off. As pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers know all too well, com­pos­ing just one pass­able chap­ter at a sit­ting demands a Stakhanovite for­ti­tude (or more com­mon­ly, a threat­en­ing­ly close dead­line). Books are writ­ten less one chap­ter at a time than one sec­tion at a time, less one sec­tion at a time than one para­graph at a time, less one para­graph at a time than one sen­tence at a time, and less one sen­tence at a time than one word at a time. Gra­ham Greene wrote his for­mi­da­ble body of work, more than 50 books, includ­ing nov­els, poet­ry and short fic­tion col­lec­tions, mem­oirs, and chil­dren’s sto­ries, 500 words at a time.

In one of his most beloved nov­els, 1951’s The End of the Affair, Greene has his writer pro­tag­o­nist Mau­rice Ben­drix describe a work­ing method much like his own:

Over twen­ty years I have prob­a­bly aver­aged five hun­dred words a day for five days a week. I can pro­duce a nov­el in a year, and that allows time for revi­sion and the cor­rec­tion of the type­script. I have always been very method­i­cal, and when my quo­ta of work is done I break off, even in the mid­dle of a scene. Every now and then dur­ing the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hun­dreds on my man­u­script. No print­er need make a care­ful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the fig­ure — 83,764.

In his youth, Ben­drix notes, “not even a love affair would alter my sched­ule,” nor could one inter­rupt the night­ly phase of his process: “How­ev­er late I might be in get­ting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it.”

Much of a nov­el­ist’s writ­ing, he believes, “takes place in the uncon­scious; in those depths the last word is writ­ten before the first word appears on paper. We remem­ber the details of our sto­ry, we do not invent them.” Greene, too, set enough store by the uncon­scious to keep a dream jour­nal. A few year after The End of the Affair, writesThe New York­er’s Maria Kon­niko­va, “he faced a cre­ative ‘block­age,’ as he called it, that pre­vent­ed him from see­ing the devel­op­ment of a sto­ry or even, at times, its start. The dream jour­nal proved to be his sav­ior.”

All of us who write, what­ev­er we write, can learn from Greene’s meth­ods; Michael Kor­da got to wit­ness them first-hand. In the sum­mer of 1950 he was invit­ed by his uncle, the film pro­duc­er Alexan­der Kor­da, to come along on a French-Riv­iera cruise with a vari­ety of major indus­try fig­ures, Greene includ­ed. By that point Greene had already writ­ten a fair few screen­plays, includ­ing adap­ta­tions of his own nov­els Brighton Rock and The Third Man. But each morn­ing on the yacht he worked on a more per­son­al project, as the six­teen-year-old Kor­da watched:

An ear­ly ris­er, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pock­et a small black leather note­book and a black foun­tain pen, the top of which he unscrewed care­ful­ly. Slow­ly, word by word, with­out cross­ing out any­thing, and in neat, square hand­writ­ing, the let­ters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempt­ing to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Gra­ham wrote, over the next hour or so, exact­ly five hun­dred words. He count­ed each word accord­ing to some arcane sys­tem of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turn­ing to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have break­fast?” I did not, of course, know that he was com­plet­ing The End of the Affair.

This work­ing rit­u­al, a Kor­da describes it, suits the sen­si­bil­i­ties of the writer, a con­vert to Catholi­cism who dealt with themes of reli­gious prac­tice in his work:

Greene’s self-dis­ci­pline was such that, no mat­ter what, he always stopped at five hun­dred words, even if it left him in the mid­dle of a sen­tence. It was as if he brought to writ­ing the pre­ci­sion of a watch­mak­er, or per­haps it was that in a life full of moral uncer­tain­ties and con­fu­sion he sim­ply need­ed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute. What­ev­er else was going on, his dai­ly writ­ing, like a reli­gious devo­tion, was sacred and com­plete. Once the dai­ly penance of five hun­dred words was achieved, he put the note­book away and did­n’t think about it again until the next morn­ing.

Just as Greene’s adher­ence to Catholi­cism lost some of its rig­or in his lat­er years (he claimed to have been con­vert­ed by argu­ments, then for­got­ten the argu­ments), his dai­ly word count decreased. “In the old days, at the begin­ning of a book, I’d set myself 500 words a day, but now I’d put the mark to about 300 words,” a 66-year-old Greene told the New York Times in 1971. But such are the wages of the nov­el­ist’s art, in which Greene felt a demand to “know — even if I’m not writ­ing it — where my char­ac­ter’s sit­ting, what his move­ments are. It’s this focus­ing, even though it’s not focus­ing on the page, that strains my eyes, as though I were watch­ing some­thing too close.”

Greene was­n’t alone in writ­ing a cer­tain num­ber of words each day. Accord­ing to a post at Word Counter, Ernest Hem­ing­way got start­ed on his own 500 dai­ly words at first light. Ian McE­wan says he aims “for about six hun­dred words a day and hope for at least a thou­sand when I’m on a roll.” For the more pro­lif­ic J.G. Bal­lard, a thou­sand was the min­i­mum, “even if I’ve got a hang­over. You’ve got to dis­ci­pline your­self if you’re pro­fes­sion­al. There’s no oth­er way.” The near-inhu­man­ly pro­lif­ic Stephen King dou­bles that: “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words,” he says in his mem­oir On Writ­ing. “On some days those ten pages come eas­i­ly; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thir­ty in the morn­ing, perky as a rat in liv­er­wurst. More fre­quent­ly, as I grow old­er, I find myself eat­ing lunch at my desk and fin­ish­ing the day’s work around one-thir­ty in the after­noon.”

John Updike, no slouch when it came to pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, rec­om­mend­ed writ­ing for a length of time rather than to a num­ber of words. “Even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say — or more — a day to write,” he says in an inter­view clip pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. “Some very good things have been writ­ten on an hour a day.” At The Guardian, nov­el­ist Neil Grif­fiths dis­cuss­es his apos­ta­sy from the thou­sand-words-a-day method: “I’m writ­ing a nov­el — an artis­tic enter­prise, one hopes — but I was mea­sur­ing my work­ing day by a num­ber.” Switch­ing to the “fin­ish the bit you’re work­ing on” method, he writes, means he does­n’t have “half an eye on what is going to hap­pen in the next bit because with­out it I’ll nev­er make the day’s 1000. My sole con­cern is the words before me, how­ev­er many or few they are, and get­ting them right before mov­ing on.” And so, it seems, those of us try­ing to get our life’s work writ­ten have two options: do what Gra­ham Greene did, or do the oppo­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Updike’s Advice to Young Writ­ers: ‘Reserve an Hour a Day’

David Sedaris Breaks Down His Writ­ing Process: Keep a Diary, Car­ry a Note­book, Read Out Loud, Aban­don Hope

Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Dai­ly Rou­tine: The Dis­ci­pline That Fueled Her Imag­i­na­tion

The Dai­ly Rou­tines of Famous Cre­ative Peo­ple, Pre­sent­ed in an Inter­ac­tive Info­graph­ic

Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writ­ers

The Sev­en Road-Test­ed Habits of Effec­tive Artists

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Arlene Mussche says:

    Thank you for your newslet­ter, always inter­est­ing to read and then I hope fer­vent­ly that I may retain some of it for fur­ther dis­cus­sion.

    If Lilacs would bloom every month of the year , would they still be as spe­cial?

    Keep writ­ing and shar­ing Lau­ra.
    Thank you, Arlene

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