Is Your Word Count Hurting Your Writing?

Are you a word counter? How can you tell whether it’s really making your writing better?

For a long time, I considered it a good day if I got any writing done whatsoever. But lately I’ve started to adhere to an actual, semi-strict word count. I’m not so sure it’s working for me. My goal word count is 500 words a day, six days a week. Sometimes I hit it. Sometimes I don’t. Here’s what I’ve learned.

flickr.com; Credit: Lili Vieira de Carvalho
flickr.com; Credit: Lili Vieira de Carvalho

A Word Count Works for You If…

You need to know when you’re done. Sometimes, this is me. I like having a definitive end to things. If you also have an odd, Type-A need for task closure, or simply like the immediate satisfaction of finishing something, let your word count be your guide to self-satisfied success.

You need a check and balance against laziness. I know some writers who say they will slack off and write less and less without a word count to keep them on track. If this is you, and you stick to a word count, congratulations! You’re like the Tennessee Walking Horse of the writing world, always going and going, no matter what.

You’re on a deadline. That 450-word weekly guest blog post isn’t going to write itself. You’re pragmatic. You don’t make a fuss; you just park your butt in the chair and get to work without asking why or getting distracted. You and your word count have a great work ethic.

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You Should Consider Dumping Your Word Count If…

You routinely edit away a third or more of what you struggled to write the day before. If you’re noticing that you’re producing an awfully high percentage of drivel, that’s a waste of your time as a writer, and hitting a word count isn’t part of your writing success formula. Once you’ve realized this, you’ve got two options. If you’re task-oriented and want to stay focused, consider setting aside a daily time for meditation, or simply call making progress (however you define that) your goal. If you’re a more contemplative, less goal-oriented type, consider simply writing when you need to. You may end up wasting less time, and increasing the quality, if not the quantity, of your output. To keep moving forward, contemplative types should make a long-term goal list (for example, “Start querying agents by April,” “Finish Chapter 1 this winter”) to do the occasional sanity check.

Not hitting your word count makes you feel guilty, unworthy, lazy or frustrated. Writing is supposed to be an intense, personal experience. It’s supposed to be honest, uncomfortable, even joyful. It’s not supposed to be a source of shame, anxiety or guilt in your life. If your work style just does not get along with hitting a word count, don’t do it just because a lot of famous writers reportedly use them. You have no idea how often they fall short of their goals, and you don’t need to use writing as a blunt instrument against your self esteem.

 

Ultimately, you can get more done by finally writing the one pivotal sentence you didn’t know you needed to pull an entire piece together. (I’m currently hoping for one of those for my latest WIP.) The mental lifting and effort and emotion that gets loaded into pushing out that one line can often feel like a full day’s (or 500 words’) worth of work.

What about you? Do you have a word count? How do you make sure you hit it, and keep yourself from becoming obsessed by it? Share your experience in the comments.