6 Thoughts About Writers and Word Counts: Frenemies Forever

NaNoWriMo is a distant-yet-traumatizing memory for most of us as we move further into January, but the subject of word counts never gets stale. As we prepare to make well-meaning resolutions for the new year, here are some thoughts I’ve been having lately regarding our old writing frenemy: the word count.

1. It’s too easy to obsess about word counts and forget about quality content.

how-to-relieve-stress-in-daily-life-1Correction: Maybe it’s too easy for me to do this, but I have a sneaking feeling I’m not the only one. Except for my daily writing tasks, like at my business writer day job, on this blog, my writing is a bit turtlier than others. I’m on the lee side of the writing speed bell curve. And when I push that hard, I wind up disappointing myself.

But I’m not just talking the usual first-draft-is-shit content quality concerns. I’m talking about my narrative voice doing odd, utilitarian, nonsensical things, unrelated storylines creeping in because I’m simply trying to crap out enough words to earn an X on today’s calendar.

Then again… sometimes, the things that appear in your writing when you’re not focused on content direction and simply letting your brain dump whatever it wants can be exciting and sometimes even edifying. Hence the frenemy nature of word counts. You hate their guts, except when they’re actually kind of useful. Then you wonder about your own judgment. Until you hate their guts again.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: You can get away with word-piles during the drafting process, when it won’t kill your plot to flush the proverbial toilet every now and then. But later, when your plot is firm and you’re picking up speed and the end is in sight? Finishing your draft is bigger than your word count goals. Dump the word count. Temporarily.

2. Daily versus weekly word counts: the pros and cons

Weekly word count con: Nothing I can think of.

Weekly word count pro(s): Wiggle room for real life, enough accountability to keep you on track, encourages short writing bursts and long, meandering writing sessions (and variety is good).

Daily word count con(s): Hitting the number or not hitting the number becomes something your whole day hinges on (if you’re a Type A like I am). Has the power to ruin your day. No flexibility.

Daily word count pro: Nothing.

Okay, I think we’ve settled that one.

3. Counting freewriting in the tally

To me, freewriting (also known as composting) is a hugely valuable piece of the creative pie. Why not count it in your word count in the first stages of drafting? My most recent long work, which wound up being about 100 pages, was accompanied by reams and reams of freewriting. That extra work proved to be the grease that got the wheels on my main narrative turning smoothly. My thoughts were better organized. My sentences and arguments were clearer. Include freewriting in the word count for the same reason you give yourself a pass on counting the calories in vegetables: It’s good for you and you want more of it. Period.

4. Missing word counts affects my mood.

Monkey-typingAnother Type A babblegraph coming up: As you may’ve guessed, a daily word count makes me grumpy. Even when I hit my word count, I’m grumpy. Let me explain.

I’m addicted to the reality show The Biggest Loser. If you’ve never watched this show, super-obese contestants get put on a ranch with three super-fit, sadistic physical trainers, a heavily monitored diet and doctors’ orders. In this fat camp on steroids, the contestants usually experience unbelievable weight loss in the first week at the ranch. I’ve seen people drop 18, 20, sometimes even 30 pounds. In the FIRST WEEK.

But then comes Week Two.

Because these people aren’t used to working out (usually), their bodies are shocked in the first week, and drop lots of weight. By the second week, their numbers are (relatively) pitiful, because their bodies and brains have caught up, and wised up, and are trying desperately to store up energy to replenish what was lost.

It’s the same with word counts. 

If I do well hitting my word count one day, the next day, I come down with performance anxiety. Rarely do I hit counts two or three days in a row, because my mind is busy contracting like an overstretched rubber band, storing up energy for the next spring forward.

Maybe you’re not like this. Heck, judging by how popular the topic of word counts is today (and particularly in November), most of you aren’t. But—once again—I have a sneaking feeling I’m not the only one on the ranch in this instance.

5. Word counting might mix well with the poorly prioritizing

I prioritize poorly. Maybe you figured this out already, judging from the title of my blog. A major stumbling block on my writing journey (and the reason I started this site) is that I frequently put other things above my writing goals. I procrastinate. I get busy. I get tired. I don’t push through.

I’m not trying to whine, but being a writer by profession and then coming home and practicing (a different kind of) writing as my vocation can fatigue the willpower muscles. Word counts are like that 15-pound dumbbell you keep dragging around. It hurts, but you build up endurance and strength that way.

In this area, I’ll admit that prioritizing something as simple and brainless as generating an acceptable word count might help me. If you’re guilty of putting everything else ahead of your writing (like I do), this might help.

6. Is there a better yardstick than the word count?

I’ve already argued that a weekly word count is infinitely superior to a daily word count, and I’m sticking to that claim. But is there an even better yardstick than word count by which we can pragmatically measure the quotidian progress we’re making every day?

Whether you’re a pro that cranks out 6 novels a year, or a novice just getting started on that first, daunting project, I’m interested in your opinion: Is there a better way to measure your writing discipline, efficiency and production than a daily or weekly word count (or any word count at all)? What yardsticks or benchmarks do you use? Share them in the comments. 

  • Ana Duarte Zaun

    With my first novel, I was able to do the word count/daily sprint thing. However when I was writing my second novel, I couldn’t. Each word had to be perfectly selected. I’d pace the hallways, think out loud, and then sit at my lap top and pour out what came to me. The process was repeated for over 127K words. I admire those who can pump out words. Me…I don’t work that way. I do need to prioritize. I also need to stop procrastinating. I have a third novel to write, and I better get started on it. =)

  • http://www.livingwithwords.com/ Brian J

    I’ve been running on daily word count goals for years now,
    but since 2014 just started, I’m switching to weekly! I have a poor track
    record with daily so maybe weekly is what I need. My favorite writing benchmark
    is short story or scene or short whatever completion. If I get an entire first
    draft of something (excluding novel) done in one session I’m as happy as can
    be.

    Word count goals are for those times when I know my days are
    going to get so busy that all I really want to do is everything but writing.

    Another benchmark is writing uninterrupted for X amount of
    time. If I can keep from switching windows, texting, looking out the window, or
    staring at the paint on the wall for an entire session (when my brain stops
    making words) then I count that as a success.

  • Stanley Morris

    I never set a daily word count. When I’m ready to write, I’ll write. I’ve been averaging about 200,000 words a year. Some days 0, some days 5,000

  • Claudia Anderson

    I can see word counts if you have a deadline. But otherwise I think (or hope) that the desire to get your words down overrides number counts. My bigger concern is finding chunks of consecutive time to just sit down and write. I know you are supposed to schedule or make time, but it seems I’m more concerned about minute counts than word counts.

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      Claudia, I’m with you. Finding the time has been the biggest challenge. What I do once I’ve found the time is an issue, but it’s a secondary one, in my situation.

  • Janel Comeau

    My only goal is to write daily. Not a particular number of words per day – just to get something on the page. If it’s 5,000 words, great. If it’s 5, that’s fine too. So far, it’s working for me.

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