Aiming Low

The theory behind my pitiful target of 250 words at a stretch (and they don't have to be wonderful words, they can be, and often are, utter drivel) goes back to a book that became my Bible in my depressive mid-twenties. Feeling Good by David D. Burns (otherwise known in my circle as "The Yellow Book") was one of the early texts on cognitive behavioural therapy. Essentially, it argued that your thoughts can influence your feelings, and therefore can be to some extent consciously managed; this was a bit of a revelation to me and my depressively-inclined mates.

Anyway, one of the many useful pieces of advice that I gleaned from its pages concerned the paralysing effects of perfectionism. Better to aim very, very low, and achieve, than to aim high and fail. As anyone who has been depressed knows, there are times when any activity at all seems impossibly hard, even getting out of bed. Therefore, better to write one sentence and feel good about doing it than to tell yourself, I must write 10,000 words today - a target you will inevitably fail to meet, and then beat yourself up about.

The magic trick of this technique is that almost always, you find yourself exceeding your very low aim. You say, okay, I'll write one sentence -- but before you know it, one sentence has become two, a hundred words becomes 250, and then a page, and the shot of amazed pride you feel in your achievement surfs you onward almost without you noticing it. Once you get started, it is so much easier to keep going.

Doing anything, however small, is better than doing nothing.


  1. I agree entirely, kate. This obsession with word count can be just another thing to beat ourselves up with. And I suspect it's worse now we have computers and one doesn't have to physically count! Some WEEKS i write about 5o clumsy words. Some days I write 3000... And then more in the evening. Who cares so long as I feel vaguely happy with what I've written? Also, we shouldn't forget that THINKING is a hugely important part of writing, too, and if you start writing too soon and focussing on word counts, well, it all gets a bit 'left brain' and perfunctory. Ideas need time to grow, Characters need a chance to stretch and flounce about. Bonni Goldberg talks about the importance of 'percolation'. it's the same thing.jx PS I like the sound of the 'yellow book'.

  2. I agree too. Apart from the fact that with a full-time day job that involves teaching, I just CAN'T do so many thousand a day, I find that I'm more likely to write something if I don't make such a commitment. I also don't fiddle with my manuscript until I've written the lot. Have you ever read Albert Camus's "The Plague"? There's a character in it who has been working on his novel for twenty years and never gotten past the frst sentence because he's such a damned perfectionist he won't continue till he's satisfied with it - which he never will be. :-) I might freeze after 50,000 words, but not after one sentence.