The Tyranny of Word Count

Every morning on my calendar I note how many words I’ve written (my main fiction writing time is early in the morning).  My goal is 1500-2000 words a day, which is a nice pace for me. If I’m on, I can hit 2K easily, but on off days, 500 words is a stretch.  Counting words is a great way to remind yourself of how much you’ve accomplished, and of course you know that what you focus on, grows. (I imagine myself staring at a page of words, willing it to multiply like the dandelions on our front yard.)

And its not just the daily word count that we focus on, but we think about it in other ways as well.  We fret and stew about how many words a book should be.  How long is a novella? How long is a short story? If I go over those standard word counts wills something bad happen? And so on and so forth.

And so even though I love checking in on my daily word count notations, I sometimes think they can become a bit tyrannical. And result in bad habits. Tell me I’m not the only one who:

  1. Writes complicated sentences–because they entail more words.
  2. Use two words when one will do. Because, word count.
  3. Catch myself repeating something and then letting it stand. Because, you know why, word count.
  4. Endures excruciating moments when I’m straining for just 100 more words to meet my quota.

Okay, okay, I am writing raw as coal-before-it-becomes-a-diamond drafts.  And I know that the value of rewriting is inestimable.  But still, sometimes I wonder if there’s a better way to keep track of it all, or if I really do need to keep track? To answer that last question first, when I’m writing regularly, I think it’s important to have metrics.  The novelist J.T. Ellison says that we must “touch our story, think about it” on a regular basis, and I agree. (Regular basis=daily.)  Keeping a word count reminds you of the importance of this.  When I wring my hands and tell myself I’m not much of a writer, all I have to do is flip open my planner and there it is, ink black and white (well, okay, color from gel pens), proof that if nothing else I do get up and throw words at the page regularly. And if there are lots of blank days with no word counts listed, I am reminded that I’m slacking.

But is there a better way to keep track? I suppose I could write to the end of whatever scene I’m working on and list how many scenes or chapters I’ve completed.  But often when I end my writing session at the close of a scene, I close myself off as well. (Hemingway famously ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.)  And of course, there is rating yourself by time as well.  If you’ve sat at your computer for two hours, you’ve done your job.  Except one could easily sit at said computer for two hours and not write a word.  I know, I’ve done it I had a friend who did it.

I dunno. Maybe you can tell me a better way?

The truth is I’m the worst goal setter in the world.  The standard advice to block out time for writing on my calendar doesn’t work for me, because I rebel against myself.  As in, look at my calendar and say, meh, don’t feel like doing that today. This is clearly a variation of the childhood refrain, “I’m doing it because I want to and not because you tell me to.” Yep, childish as all get-out, not to mention counter productive.  I actually love to set elaborate goals, goals that even the most vigorous Type A personality could never meet.

And for some unknown reason, writing to word count, tyrannical as the process is, works for me. It is the only thing I’ve found that keeps me productive on a regular basis.  And so on bad days I groan and strain and complain until I reach at least 1,000 words and on good days I pat myself on the back when I easily sail past 2K.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. (And if it was, we’d be bored.)

What metrics do you use to keep track of your progress?

And by the way, for the truly nutty among you, my friend Milli Thornton runs 10K Days for writers every month, twice a month. There’s one coming up tomorrow (July 20) that I’m participating in, and one this Saturday as well.

Happy writing!

 

10 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Word Count”

  1. Charlotte, this was hilarious to read. And very honest. I could relate on many levels. I think what you’re doing is fantastic. I could never get up at 5 or 6 a.m. to write (or do anything at all at that hour) so you’re already my hero.

    The rest of it (bad days/good days) shows that word counts do what they’re designed to do. They get you to write. The rest of it works out over time, even if in the moment it feels painful, lol.

    I wrote three novellas in a row using daily word counts and a big burning goal. That got it done a lot sooner than relying on the mood to take me. I felt burned out afterwards so I’m off my daily word counts, but I believe in them wholeheartedly (as long as it doesn’t extinguish enjoyment of my writing) and I want to get back to them. Reading your post was a humorous reminder of how much I love it.

    Thank you for mentioning and linking to the 10K Day. It will be so fun to have you there tomorrow!

    1. Having just written over 4,000 words thanks to your 10K day, I heartily agree with you, Milli–the word counts really do get you in gear. I just need to quit checking them quite so often…thanks for running a great service to writers!

  2. Quit looking over my shoulder. I just finished my 3rd M. Palmer book and I’m 10 grand short. If this is a life-changing story why am I able to write it on the back of a greeting card. I write in first person. I need more words from my character’s head. A lot of running around and yapping; should be more thoughts about why I did this or said that–I think.

  3. Hi Charlotte. This is a great post and made me chuckle (as usual with your posts). I love using word count goals to stay motivated and to track progress on my first draft.

    I have a question though. How do you track your progress while doing a re-write? I’m having difficulty setting and keeping goals on my current re-write, and the process feels overwhelming. This could have something to do with the fact my kids are out of school, but that’s probably more of an excuse than reality.

    Any advice you have would be appreciated.

    Thanks,
    Julia Blake

    1. Oh man, that is a great question, Julia. The tracking of goals on a rewrite is a whole different beast and one I’ve struggled with as well. You can’t do word count, so I think what you need to look at is either using time (an hour a day before the kids get up–I know, ha) or what I most often do is by chapter. But then, some chapters need only a touch of work and others a lot more. But still, that is what has worked for me, to set chapter goals.

      And also what really jumps out at me is that you say you are overwhelmed. That doesn’t just come from not having a decent way to track your goals–I feel like the lack of tracking is more a symptom of being overwhelmed. I know you can’t do anything with the kids (nor would you want to) but can you look at other ways to simplify your life to get rid of the overwhelm and make sure you have time to write? Can your partner, if you have one, cook? Can you order those meal kits like Plated a couple nights a week? If I knew your situation I could make more specific suggestions, but do take a look at your day and see what you can do.

      And–if there’s nothing to be done, maybe the better part of valor is to relax and enjoy. Sometimes letting it all go is the only answer.

      Please let me know how it works out!

  4. What's-His-Face, from You-Know-Where?, regarding You-Know-What? (Don Williams, from SJ, NB, regarding this wonderful post)

    Wow, you and I must be a lot alike because I do the same thing…. constantly keep on checking my word count. This post hit home like the old proverbial ‘Mac truck’. I love checking my word count but then again, I like counting just about anything.

    Two-thousand words per day is closer to what I can do, on a daily basis, too. However, I can really slog down a lot more words reading… like 80,000 to 100,000 plus per day. That’s one why I ended up reading the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, some 509 times over since I’ve started counting from January 01, 1993 to the present.

    I also love counting how many feet, yards, miles, kilometers and what have you as well. Apparently, I must be related to the Count from Sesame Street or something? Counting, or checking things out, such as word counts, puts a little more fun into doing things, at least that’s what I feel anyway.

    I always find that it’s psychologically helpful to always pick a very easy and obtainable goal, such as deciding that you’re only going to write a ridiculous 50 words per day. Heh, that’s so easy to do that before you know it you’ve written 100 words per day (also very easy) and then the next thing I know I’m all psyched out and raring to write a million more. Picking a hard goal can easily get you down if, for any reason, if you fall a little behind.

    Another thing I like to count is my blessings, like having a great person like yourself write blogs like Wordtrumpet. So, on behave of us grateful writers and writers to be, I like to formally thank you for your time and effort for these terrific and well-written posts a million times over! Oh, by the way, I usually have trouble counting past ten of anything, but I try.

    1. You are just the best, Don. I love your story of reading the Bible 509 times. That is so amazing! And I love how you count so many things, like your blessings. (By the way–I’m grateful for YOU and your loyal readership.)

      I heartily agree with you that setting a ridiculously low goal is a great idea. This works especially well if you are trying to coax yourself back into a good writing habit.

      Thanks for dropping by, as always!

  5. No word counts for me! That’s a creative nightmare and block-inducing path that stops the process cold. My metric is to do one of the following–write, plan, edit something–everyday.

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