What a Million Words Will Get You

I have heard it said, or more likely I have read, that we writers don’t find our voice until we’ve written one million words.

The first five times I read this it didn’t sink in.  I read “million words” and thought ‘it will take me forever to write a million words – I’m just not going to worry about it.’  But you know what I did worry about?  For the last twenty years I have lamented the fact that I did not have a real, independent and bona fide style.  I had no idea where this ‘style’ thing came from, how my favorite writers got it, why I couldn’t find it.  I was like David Banner trying to discover the answer to the tragedy of why I couldn’t make an important difference when things depended on it.  But even then I was no closer to becoming the Hulk.

For writers style is everything.  Style determines our use of language, the originality of our expression, the nature of our themes.  Style is about the choices we make and how we tell our own individual truth.  Without style we are still amateurs at best, and perhaps we are still imitating other writers.  Imitation is fine.  It has its place and time.  Eventually, however, we must arrive at our own style.

I have to admit that style is a concept I have largely ignored outside of fretting over not having it.  I never directly addressed style in teaching writing students about writing.  Perhaps this is a good thing, or at least justifiable in the sense that most writing students (freshmen and sophomores) haven’t written enough to know their style.  This is not to say that young writers can’t or don’t have a unique voice.  Some people are just well attuned to their own nature from an early age and can express themselves with fair originality.  But style, I mean style.  That comes from somewhere else.

For Christmas I was given two books by writer Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.  I just finished reading Wild Mind and among the gems of writerly wisdom that she imparted in that book was a return to this notion of a million words.  A writer does not find his or her style until they have written a million words.  She wasn’t even saying it as a fact, but was passingly observing the adage, yet the realization finally bloomed for me that I had not yet accomplished style because I simply had not written enough!


As weird as it might sound I had toe-giggles when I realized that I wasn’t a no-talent loser, I was still just finding myself.  Why hadn’t I gotten the message before?  All of the angst I carried prior to this epiphany was like the lost despair of the ugly duckling.  I wasn’t good at what I was supposed to be – and yet, all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.

Oddly enough, though not so oddly considering that this is how I do things in life, as the realization that I needed to write my million words to gain my style finally settled on me, I also realized that I have finally identified my style – and just recently.  This fall I wrote a story that not only manages the characteristics of magical realism which I thoroughly embrace, but also the lyricism of poetry.  This story I wrote, which is in revision right now, was unlike anything I had ever written.  It was relaxed, fluid, ephemeral, mystical.  Many of the things I deeply enjoy in the books, movies and music I experience.  I like the unusual, the weird.  Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Daniel Johnston.  But because I was out of practice (being inexperienced due to a lack of writing enough) my writing had been stiff, distant, cautious.  At last, however, the event met with the training, and I am happy to say that my style is now on the horizon.

I admonish all writers, from this moment on free yourself from worry that you don’t have the talent or that you don’t have an original voice.  Write your million words – and I do mean a million.  Write out some terrible, bland stories, even a whole novel as I did.  Remember last year I finished a 560 page manuscript?  Remember how I edited it down to 330?  It turns out that the exercise was largely to fulfill my million words, and next year I will be rewriting the entire thing with . . . wait for it . . . style!

Have I actually written a million words?  Honestly I don’t know.  A million words is around 3,000 pages.  Yeah, I’d say I’ve written that much in my time.  Probably almost three times that.  But I don’t think all of those words count.  Our million words need to be intentional, focused, unflinching writing in our most creative moments.  A million words of fiction, a million words of memoir, a million words of poetry.  A serious writer can do it in a few short years.  This is how many famous writers established their careers as twenty-somethings.  But regardless of how and when you do it, what you will get for a million words is yourself, and your readers will get you, too, and your stories, and all of the enrichment that literature brings.

Enjoy the process, my friends.  There is nothing like the call to create – take the steps necessary to honor your craft.  Read a million words.  Write a million words.

And then write a million more.


140 comments on “What a Million Words Will Get You

  1. TJ Kelly says:

    I think,, well I think you may have just inspired me, good person. Merci. I’ve recently assigned myself the challenge to write at least 500 words a day. It’s not much, but it gets me sitting down (or standing, however the mood makes me), and postulating my innards for either later review, or, if worthy, the blog. Thanks a jil for justifying my present habit.
    All the best with your own work.

    • handikwani02 says:

      I have had several ideas of what I want to write about but I can not just get myself motivated to write. I get inspired every time I finish reading some one else’s book but get stuck the moment I want to write. Any ideas to just get me started please!

      • emperort says:

        Recognize first of all that writing is hard work to begin with. The feelings you have of isolation, boredom, distraction, and guilt all go with the territory. If you don’t feel you’ve practiced writing enough, try imitating a few of your favorite writers or spend some time copying a story line by line. Also, if you do not already have a notebook that you carry with you everywhere you go, and/or a voice recorder, get one. Finally, get a copy of an inspiring guide to writing. I suggest several in my posts. I was partial to John Gardner when I was in college, and I continue to laud Goldberg. There are a number of books out there and I suggest you thumb through a few and grab the one that feels most personal to you. After that its about committing to the work, a little or a lot each day.

      • handikwani02 says:

        Thank you ever so much for all the ideas you have kindly shared with me I will go and get the books you have recommended. This will be a major work I will be trying as I have not written before.

      • handikwani02 says:

        Thank you for your help. Yes I have been keeping journals which I have made entries on a daily basis. I have now started posting posts on a weekly basis so I am slowly getting there. Thank you for responding.

      • I find it helps to have an attitude that you are writing a draft. It doesn’t have to be good the first time around. In fact, it can be crap. Really crappy crap. I usually write my first draft on paper and it is usually awful. But, it helps me feel out where I am going and helps me to get there.
        I just recently published my first novel. The first draft was a historical romance about a girl who was being physically abused by her father and so the hero marries her and makes her fall in love with him through gentle kindness.
        The published novel is a futuristic dystopian romance.
        I think just writing without worrying about it much lets your mind go and allows you to write uninhibited and be the most creative. You will probably junk most of it but you will have a starting point. And even if you don’t have a whole idea write the scenes/ideas you have.
        Hope this helps.
        Good Luck!

      • emperort says:

        Good point, Jane – thank you for sharing your insights and congratulations on your novel.

      • whathasmylifecome2 says:

        KEEP READING! After every time you read, even if only for 20 minutes, force yourself to write something. It can be journal entry-style, creative, or even a book report of what you just read. Eventually you will become selfish, and want your own words on paper, rather than reading someone else’s. Good luck!

  2. […] What a Million Words Will Get You. […]

  3. I’m only just starting out, probably haven’t even passed 5000 words yet and this post has given me a much needed confidence boast about worries over style and subjects to write about. Thank you.

  4. Those are two of my favorite books in my library. Great application! Writing a million and counting…

  5. A million words speak more than a million actions, they can change your life forever and inspire generations.

  6. smiley4better says:

    Reblogged this on Smiley4better.

  7. smiley4better says:

    this is amazing 😀 thnx

  8. brain4rent says:

    Great read. and look it only took you til this many words (your number here) to be Freshly Pressed, that must mean you’re close

  9. Moa'bite says:

    While writing, I never reached one million words! If I ever did, I will surely remember your article 🙂

  10. Jhaneel says:

    This is just what I needed to read. At 21 years old, I constantly jump between worrying on developing my style– or voice, if you will — and telling myself I’ve got plenty of time. What I really need to do above all is continue writing and stop letting excuses and fear stop me before I even start.

  11. emperort says:

    Thank you all for your comments! Glad to see so many inspired writers answering the call to this amazing craft.

  12. Enjoying the process is what it is all about for me. I am well on my way to a million words, and often get a little annoyed at myself for writing too much. I’m currently catching up on my travel experiences between Mexico and Peru, and try to keep each post to a max of 1,500 words. This is no easy feat, because I remember almost every little detail of every sense that surrounds me. But I can also feel my writing style developing, through trial and error, and now have a digital log of it’s evolution. It is important to write, write, write, but, like you stated, write with an idea of your own style in mind to really cultivate your sense of expression. Congratulations on being freshly pressed, and good luck with the flood of emails!

  13. Very inspiring indeed! I have no style, whatesoever. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But someday, somehow…many millions of words later – I will get it, the readers will get it. I hope! Thanks for sharing!

  14. letizia says:

    “toe-giggles”: I love that! There’s one word that’s definitely unique, intriguing, and made me laugh 😀

  15. hookandply says:

    Thought provoking. This could be applied to other disciplines and something I have experienced with painting. Finding my own style…..?

  16. authorallisonkennedy says:

    Fantastic blog. Thank you!

  17. jimceastman says:

    What an inspiring post. Beautifully written. I’ve learned a lot from your advice. Thanks and Congratulations for getting on FP!

  18. Baxterwrites says:

    Write a your million words.. then write a million more…. Inspiring is the word that comes to mind. Well written. Thank you for the inspirational boost!

  19. elizjamison says:

    Thanks for this post. I will enjoy the process! In fact, I am surprised at how much I love writing my blog… so now I have to transfer that to dissertation writing!

  20. I have just finished reading an autobiography about Malcom X. The guy said he didn’t learn to articulate until writing a million words!

  21. lpaigewrites says:

    Love the wisdom here. Finding your writing style can add so much to who you believe you are as a person. Your style is how you express that inner you, the voice that doesn’t always come out on a regular basis, but wants to, more than anything, be understood. Thank you for the encouragement. Keep writing!

  22. cartoonmick says:

    Or simply draw a heap of cartoons ….. a picture is worth a thousand words.

    Drawing a cartoon is creative, and, as a secondary effect, it creates laughter.




  23. Chris Bronsk says:

    Great post. Reminds me of th 10,000 hours rule about mastery.

  24. myithaca says:

    I`m a writer.. and boy, am I inspired after reading your blog ! 🙂 Very well said – the million word rule .. something like the “ten thousand hour” rule. Writers must keep writing. Just keep writing.

  25. Reblogged this on Whistling Voices and commented:
    I m inspired to write my million words.Thanks a ton.

  26. kateginnivan says:

    Thank you. This is just what I needed to read whilst feeling jaded and purposeless with my writing. You have given me a goal. A million words you say? Yeah, I CAN do that… 🙂

  27. avadapalabra says:

    Well… what to say?
    First of all, congrats on being FP’ed! As most likely most of us here leaving comments, I’d never been to your blog. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts (no sci-fi pun intended) and I even identified here and there. Of course I still would not call myself a writer, though some people insist on calling me that. Or maybe I am, for after all I keep writing.
    What I am not too sure about is that question of the million words. Maybe because I have actually not read that much in my life, maybe just a few millions, and lately I’ve been reading lots of “unpublished stories” on blogs and the like, I naturally go by my own experience rather than my supposed “literary” college background. I have come across simply great short stories by “unknown” writers (hate the label), considering either the twist or the use of the language. [Mind you, I am a native speaker of Spanish and therefore may tend to be impressed by what might not strike others, but then again I’ve been learning and using English forever. AND my college education and work is in English]
    All in all, it all depends on the day and the mood, like many things, I believe. I sometimes find myself wondering at some of my own writing, while at times I just loathe most of it. Some days regale me with delightful reading by both well-established writers and guys like me.
    It may be writers’ own style, readers’ preferences (of course), erudites’ “professional criticism”. One may actually be reading another writer’s style, or writing it for that matter. It all comes down to reading taking you places and having you dive head-first into the otherness . If not, in my most humble opinion, it may as well be scholarly writing, science, news, exercise.
    Of course you are hereby kindly welcome to my humble blog.

  28. One million words… well there is some comfort in quantifying it and making a start. Thanks for the inspiration!

  29. Your last sentence nails it perfectly. Unlike many other writers I think you understand perfectly what this profession is really about. Good luck! 🙂

  30. Judy Lesko says:

    Reblogged this on judylesko and commented:
    Another great reason to blog . . .

  31. avuharvey says:

    Reblogged this on Is it cause I'm Black.

  32. Very inspiring. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  33. djellis23 says:

    Great perspective and a wonderful motivation for me to keep plugging away. I absolutely loved your line, “all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.” I may have to put that saying above my writing desk!

  34. Sam McManus says:

    I love this! I know I’ve written well over a million words so far in my life, but that’s as much a testimony to my age as it is to my prolific writing skills. Anyway, I truly enjoyed reading this post! Keep it up!

  35. It’s true. One million words. Or maybe 10,000 hours. This is typical of what it takes to learn any skill – and writing IS a skill, like any other. The rider to it is that learning never stops – and writers MUST always keep pushing the edges. There are no short cuts I am aware of. I wrote, by my estimate, about 1 million words during my learning phase – when I was doing writing courses, writing material which amounted to exercises. I continued to learn after being published. Today, the total of my published articles, papers, books and so forth amounts to over two million words (on top of what I wrote to learn the skill) and yet not a day goes by when I don’t wonder where I can push the edges – what else I can discover. The journey of being a writer, in short, is as much about learning as it is about writing. And that’s a good thing.

  36. Keep writing, yes, DEFINITELY, and keep reading too. A lot of would-be writers I’ve come across get trapped in their own little bubbles of self-indulgent mediocrity, a bit like the ambitious singers on TV talent shows: it’s all about them and their ‘talent’… We all need to invest serious time and hard work to create something worthwhile. Reading the works of great writers and studying our craft is vital.

  37. queeness says:

    Inspirational post, thanks for setting a goal that can be achieved by beginners as well as seasoned writers. I may find you once I’ve hit my million 🙂

  38. Mike says:

    I have always thought that style is something to be learnt – as in ‘The Elements of Style’ (Strunk/ White) whereas ‘voice’ was what you allude to as in, “a personal writing voice’. Whichever, you are correct that the act itself is what allows the writers individualism to become pronounced and I congratulate you on reaching that summit.

    As for the million words, I cannot agree that it is a milestone in itself. Weren’t we all taught that quality trumps quantity?

  39. I’ve read those same books by Natalie Goldberg, and with all due respect to her, I’m convinced, of course, the more a person writes the better he or she will become at the writing craft. And, I also believe, if a person has a passion for writing, I think the minute she or he starts “writing” they start the search for their “voice” and continue looking for it the rest of their writing career or life. As they change through life, so will their writing voice. They’re looking for something that’s always changing. The changing can’t be stopped. It’s inevitable. Passion wrapped with perseverance is what’s needed for the writing craft, along with some empathic friends.

  40. I punched the “Following” button and I really look forward to more of your articles ! Keep’em coming…

  41. Thank you. Encouraging and buoyantly enlightening for those of us way behind you.

  42. As a novice blogger, i am encouraged and challenged by your post. Writing has been a passion for years, but to write with purpose and style has been only a dream; a dream played with and meditated on. With this post, I realize that every word I write takes me closer to finding the fulfillment of the dream. All of the spirals, the notebooks, the journals and reams of paper will serve to remind me of the dream and give me momentum for writing my first million words – and beyond. Thank you for the post.

  43. emperort says:

    Hi everyone,

    I wanted to stop by quickly and thank you for taking the time to read my blog, comment, and perhaps follow for future posts. I am touched by your observations and kindnesses. I hope you all are writing and keeping faith that your work is growing within you as you continue to take chances with the craft. It all adds up.


  44. A friend of mine once referred to anything before the one-million-word milestone as “finger exercises.” Now, I think an argument could be made about quantity vs. quality, but I do have to agree with your basic premise: you can’t find your voice (i.e., style) until you see what works and what doesn’t.

    As a matter of fact, I named my own blog after this theory: One Million Words. Here’s an anecdote of my own “ah-ha” moment: http://david-michael-williams.com/2012/03/28/is-finger-exercises-metaphor-a-stretch/

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