Earlier this month, Ray Bradbury passed away. Bradbury, of course, was known for his award-winning short stories, plays, and novels. In fact, his writing was so prolific that his online biography recounts that he “published more than thirty books [and] close to 600 short stories.” At the Powerline blog, Steven Hayward, of the American Enterprise Institute, posted a tribute to Bradbury that I thought was particularly germane to one of the topics we’ve addressed several times on this site, namely, the practical steps a person must take to become a good writer.
I owe Bradbury the one piece of advice that has made all the difference in my own approach to writing. I never met him, though my mother, who published one romance novel in the mid-1970s, got to have lunch with Bradbury once. Having just read Fahrenheit 451 in high school, I was immensely jealous that I couldn’t tag along, so I quizzed mom for everything the great man said. I’ve forgotten everything she told me about lunch except this:
He said, “Anyone who wants to be a writer should write at least 1,000 words a day. Every day.”
That was Bradbury’s practice, and it eventually became mine. It turns out to be the only way to get a long book written (or even a short one for that matter). You stay at your writing pad or keyboard until you get 1,000 words down. Before word processing programs with word count functions, it would be about two and half pages on the single-spaced, narrow-ruled yellow pads that I liked to use. Some days this goes quickly and smoothly; other days, it takes all day and much agony and involves many false starts and dead ends.
I’ve posted here about what I think it takes to be a good writer, and I pointed out that, in The Written Word (1962), Gorham Munson claimed that “professional writers, discounting even marked talent, say that nobody can be called a writer until he has written a million words, the equivalent of ten good-sized books.” So following Bradbury’s view, and applying it to Munson’s standard, a person can become a “real” writer in a little more than three years, if the person writes 1,000 words each day for three straight years, without taking a day off.
Of course, that’s not realistic for must of us. But it does emphasize the more general point echoed by Munson and Bradbury and Hayward: It’s not how much you write during your entire lifetime, it’s that you focus on writing as much and as often as possible. In other words, it’s the short-term, limited quantities of writing that ultimately result in long-term writing excellence.
If you are having difficultly finding opportunities to write (say, for example, your day job isn’t giving you the opportunity to write as much as you’d like), it is possible to improve your writing skills by seeking outside writing projects. That could mean volunteering to write articles or essays for your local bar-association publication or your local legal newspaper. (In Minnesota, for example, the Minnesota Lawyer is always looking for outside contributors). It could mean authoring an internal-firm memoranda on a topic of general interest to the attorneys in the firm. Or it could even mean writing about a topic you are interested in, if just for yourself.
Regardless of how you do it, do whatever you have to do to practice your writing every day. You may not become another Bradbury or Hayward, but you certainly won’t be disappointed with how your writing will slowly improve over time.