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The Myth of Daily Word Count

#wordcount — That’s the Twitter hashtag for writers wishing to chronicle their cumulative daily word count. It’s not surprising such a hashtag exists. After all, setting a daily word count has become one of those near non-negotiable writing rules. Usually, that number is 1,000 words, give or take, with an appropriate “off day” here or there. Thanks to “professionals,” seminars, and how-to books, the Daily Word Count has become etched in stone, so to speak, as a necessary writerly discipline.

It’s led to all kinds of “helpful” tools, like free apps to track your daily word count, tips for achieving your daily word count, and even ways to DOUBLE your word count. Hooray!

Confession: I’ve never adhered to a daily word count for myself. Despite this, I’ve managed to complete three full-length novels (one as-yet unpublished), a short story anthology, and a novella. Not to mention publish well-over 1,100 blog articles. All while working outside the home 40 hours a week.

Of course, this may be evidence that I’m OCD. However, I’d like to think it just exposes the squishiness of the daily word count advice.

This is not to suggest that setting yourself a goal and working to achieve it is wrong. At its essence, this is what the Daily Word Count is supposed to do — prod you toward completion. Which is good. But like any “rule,” it can become a shadow of the original intent and shackle writers to the “letter of the law” rather than the “spirit of the law.” Not to mention, it doesn’t always respect or incorporate the uniqueness of our individual personalities and stations in life.

Here’s three things I’ve used to replace the Daily Word Count mantra in my reperatoire, which have made my writing more fluid and fun.

#1 — Focus on the number of projects you complete rather than daily word count. Perhaps it’s just me. Heck, it might just be hair-splitting. But looking at the big picture helps me better navigate the day-to-day. This probably doesn’t work for everybody. In my case, it allows for flexibility (which is key to my own creativity), rather than the “tyranny” of having to adhere to a regiment. Obviously, if you’re not “completing” ANYTHING, a daily word count might be good for you. I’ve personally found it’s better to focus on completing projects rather than choking out a predetermined number of words.

#2 — Respect your station in life. Let’s face it, much of the professional advice out there is aimed at someone who’s pursuing a full-time writing career. In that case, having a daily word count makes sense. However, for those of us who work outside the home, raise children, care for a sick family member, etc., the Daily Word Count can seem a ball and chain. Sometime in 2011, while struggling to meet the deadline for my second novel, I experienced some weird health issues, one landing me in Urgent Care. This is embarrassing to admit, but it was diagnosed as stress related. It scared me, and led me to reevaluate my approach to writing. Bottom line: I had to give myself permission to NOT write. Not only was this refreshing, it improved the time that I DID write. Likewise, respecting your station in life, whether calling, career, or short-term circumstance, can be important to a realistic writing schedule.

#3 — Distinguish between cranking out words and honing ideas. No amount of words will make a bad idea better. I’m one of those oddball Plotters who needs to know where I’m going before I start up the car. As a result, I often write in fits and starts. When I reach a place in a manuscript with a plot hiccup or hole, I CANNOT just keep plowing forward. Sometimes, I must give myself a break from word count production to let an idea gestate or to do some research. Perhaps this is simply the difference between writing and editing. I tend to blur those lines either way. Point is, sometimes it’s not about getting words on a page, but honing ideas, characters, and plot elements.

As Pablo Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” The bottom line issue is that writers write. You MUST get words on a page, inspiration must find you working, whether it’s by following a daily word count or ad-libbing. If adhering to a daily word count is not working for you, you might consider stepping back from your writing. Maybe it’s time to look at the bigger picture, readjust to your station in life, or simply give yourself the freedom to hone the story as opposed to bulking it up.

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • C.L. Dyck February 7, 2013, 12:08 PM

    If it makes you feel any better, Mike, I’m the same about #3. I need certain things in order and I’m willing to wait for them if need be. I think it’s easier than ploughing onward in spite of a weakness and then having to do more revision later.

    And yes…permission to not write, and even to not be a writer. It definitely helps the stress. But also, if I don’t maintain responsibility for choosing, I’m a slave to something other than Christ, and that just ain’t right.

  • R. L. Copple February 7, 2013, 12:39 PM

    I’m in the same boat, Mike. The only time I even remotely worry about daily word counts is during NaNo, since it is oriented to reaching 50K in one month. Most of the time I write when I can. And when I write, I write until I need to stop. Usually to go to bed before the sun rises. lol.

    I remember reading a autobiography/short story collection of Lester Del Ray’s. He mentioned the push to be on a “schedule.” He avoided it for a while because that wasn’t how he worked. But decided one time to give it a go. He said the resulting short story was flat and bland. He needed to not schedule it to write well.

    Everyone will be different. It is when people want to cookie cutter everyone into “if you aren’t doing it this way, then you’re not doing it right” methods.

    In the last 7 years, I’ve written 9 novels (5 of them published), an anthology of my short stories, published, two non-fiction books (1 published), along with blog posts and other short stories/flash fictions. And that’s considering I had a 2 year break in there when I didn’t write any new novels and little other creative writing, due to some personal issues. So like you, it seems to be working for me.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) February 7, 2013, 1:06 PM

    I hate even the idea of daily word count. Likely means I need that discipline.

  • Iola February 7, 2013, 1:57 PM

    Quality, not quantity. Almost anyone can crank out 1000 words. Making them readable, and something people will want to read? That’s talent.

    But if you have a deadline to meet or a big project target, a daily word count target might help get the first draft out, then you can go back and revise. Slowly and properly. And that’s when you count ‘projects completed’.

  • Leanna February 7, 2013, 2:58 PM

    A daily word count goal has been a valuable tool for me but it’s taken me a couple years to modify it to what works best for me (and will probably undergo continued change).

    Currently, I aim to write 10k/month or approx. 500words/day approx. 20 days/month. Outlining counts towards word count. Editing/revising counts towards word count (deleted words/phrases/scenes go into a dump document that remains within the project).
    And all that is easy to keep track of because Scrivener (www.literatureandlatte.com – I am seriously fangirly about this writing software) keeps track of it for me.

    Big picture goals don’t work very well to get my fingers on the keyboard (at least not right now). They’re too big, too intimidating. A word count goal is simple and easy to measure and link to monthly rewards/consequences. For me, the first 100 words or so of a writing session is the hardest. Knowing that I only *have* to get to 500 (=1-2 hours for me) makes it easier to persevere through until I hit that sweet spot where I don’t want to stop. I’m immersed back into the story and enjoying the writing process.
    I also let myself start as far back as I want and revise and nit pick details and sentence structure until I’m ready to plunge into new stuff.

    Love the Picasso quote. 🙂

    • C.L. Dyck February 7, 2013, 3:09 PM

      I don’t use outlining till the revision stage, but I count those words too. I find I jot down so many little vignettes and adjustments for development along the way.

      And yeah, I’d rather revise as I go. The first scene sketches I lay out are usually pretty bare-bones.

    • Jon Mast February 7, 2013, 4:27 PM

      I’ve got that same hill to slog over — once I get that first 100 words, words just fly. Nice to see someone else has the same struggle!

  • Kat Heckenbach February 7, 2013, 3:32 PM

    Daily word count. Pfffft.

    I write in bursts. I can crank out thousands of words in a day if I’m inspired. Or I can go days or weeks without writing at all.

    Writers need to do what works for them. Some are outliners, some are pantsters, some are like me and are a combo of the two. Some need the discipline of word count, some need the messiness of inspiration.

    Also, on a similar note, I have to point out what Anne Lamott says, which is the opposite of what most “experts” say. Most experts tell you to put your butt in the chair every day and write. The only way to get over writer’s block is to write. But Anne Lamott says that when you have writer’s block, it’s because you’re empty, and you need to go live your life for a while to fill back up. I happen to agree with her. I took the entire month of January off from writing to focus on my family and projects around my house. Now, writing isn’t that thing I keep trying to avoid anymore. (I was talking to a friend today about my current WIP and she said, “You’re so excited!” Yes, I was, finally!)

    • Julie February 8, 2013, 10:31 AM

      Love this comment! I agree completely. Yesterday I wrote 20 pages and before reading this post, I thought “that’s not very much,” then I read about the DWC and checked to see how many words I wrote yesterday. Just under 6000. I’m a mom with kids at home, so this daily-goal mindset doesn’t really work for me because I have to be flexible and crank out as much as I can in the few quiet moments I have carved out for myself. I took a week off last week b/c we had something going on in our family and I just couldn’t bring myself to focus on my characters. I’d sit down and feel frustrated and shove them aside. It was just what I needed to do, and then suddenly we made up and became friends again and now they’re 45 pages ahead of where they were last Wednesday. I’m sure the DWC is a really good method for some, but I like being free to write when I have the capacity for it, and to put it away when I don’t.

  • Jon Mast February 7, 2013, 4:30 PM

    Thanks for writing this, Mike — it’s very freeing for me. I try to crank out words — I believe to have quality, you gotta have quantity to edit! It’s liberating to have a writer of your caliber saying that it’s ok to let go of that metric.

    Words getting cranked out? Still gotta happen. Have to happen on a schedule? Nah. Thanks for the kick in the butt to convince me to let that go.

  • R.J. Anderson February 7, 2013, 7:12 PM

    I find every book I write demands a different method than the last. And while I hate word count in general, and dearly wish I could just pour out the words without knowing or caring how many I’ve written, the particular book I’m writing right now seems to require the discipline of a daily target.

    The key to using word count effectively, for me, is to set my target low enough that I can plausibly meet it without feeling like writing is taking over my life and leaving me no time to get my housework done or spend time with my family — but high enough that it forces me to severely limit the time I spend footling around on the Internet for my own entertainment.

    Right now, my sweet spot seems to be around 1K per day, with a monthly target of 25K — but this is for a book under contract, with an agreed-upon deadline. And the story seems to be unfolding reasonably well so far, even if I’m not quite sure where it’s headed or how it’ll get there.

    I know I could easily get stuck on a plot problem and need a few days (or, heaven forfend, weeks) to mull it over; it’s happened before. But right now I’m finding that meeting my daily wordcount helps lift my spirits and give me hope that I can get this book turned in on time without killing myself to do it.

  • Jenni Noordhoek February 7, 2013, 7:55 PM

    I like wordcounts. I use them for freewriting and journalling or for just getting my thoughts out on paper about a problem in a story I’m working on. They give me a reason to sit still that long when I might get distracted with something else.

    Flip side – I’ve never been able to do NaNoWriMo. Life always happens and cranking out 1500 words in a day on a draft is difficult.

    • R.J. Anderson February 8, 2013, 10:27 AM

      I tried to do NaNo once and it nearly killed me. I’m with you on that one.

  • D.M. Dutcher February 7, 2013, 9:22 PM

    For me, I need to discipline myself to get so many words on paper each day. I find that if I don’t, I’m prone to writer’s block when I do write. I don’t always do a large wordcount, but writing at least 1k words each day keeps me focused.

    I do think it’s very much a personal thing though. In life, I lack discipline, and wordcount for me is what I need to function. Some people are better at being flexible in day-to-day practice and yet still meet deadlines. For me if I even try to do this, I fail because I will eagerly put things off. Even things I like to do.

  • Mark Carver February 8, 2013, 1:41 AM

    I remember reading Stephen King’s On Writing and I think he said something along the lines of a dedicated writer will write ten pages a day. I remember thinking “whoa,” but of course I realized later that every writer has their own rhythm. What’s important is maintaining a relatively stable pace. For me, I write a scene until it’s finished, then wait until I get inspired to write the next part. Sometimes I write the next day, sometimes I wait a day, but I try to not go more than three days without writing. I set general goals for completion for myself (a book a year) and so far I’ve finished my projects well ahead of schedule. Not-too-slow but always steady works for me, but I would never advise anyone on a time frame for writing . I like to check the word count after I finish my writing for the day but I’ve never set a goal for myself before I start. If someone gets too caught up with the numbers, it will cause unnecessary anxiety, and that’s something writers don’t need 🙂

  • Lara Van Hulzen February 8, 2013, 5:09 PM

    I’m so thrilled you wrote this! I’ve been feeling lately like the one main way authors validate their work is via word count. There are days when I can’t read Facebook or Twitter because it seems a contest is always going on as to who can write the most words in a day and I get frustrated and discouraged. If I’ve spent the day caring for my kid who’s home sick or my day just threw me a curve ball and I didn’t get all I wanted done on my book, so be it. I don’t want it rubbed in my face that someone just wrote 8,000 words three days in a row. Bleh.

    I just blogged about this myself. I’m not a numbers person. I work in chapters. I know what I can do in a day and I do it. And writing also involves reading, journaling, character sketching, people watching, movies – whatever spurs my creativity. Not just word count.

  • Natalie Sharpston February 9, 2013, 12:42 PM

    Love this:
    But like any “rule,” it can become a shadow of the original intent and shackle writers to the “letter of the law” rather than the “spirit of the law.” Not to mention, it doesn’t always respect or incorporate the uniqueness of our individual personalities and stations in life.

    Guidelines are great but not when they become a straitjacket. Thanks for the reminder to be balanced.

  • Andy Decker February 10, 2013, 3:40 PM

    I hear what you’re saying on the words vs. ideas thing. But it doesn’t have to be an either or. Once a project starts (assuming an outline), a daily word count can be a boon. But you know how some runners / joggers look haunted (hunted??) because they constantly look at their watch to check their time and pace? That’s what a daily word count can become and then it’s less helpful and tends to take the fun out of writing. Especially when my head isn’t in the project, the word count ticker is a greater irritation. Yet even then, it keeps me honest and helps me appreciate I’mmaking progress.

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