Word counts aren't the enemy

But they shouldn't be your boss either

I obsess about word counts. I think a lot of writers do. If you’ve done NaNoWriMo, you’ve probably got 1667 words per day drilled into your head (the exact number of words you have to do to finish 50K in 30 days without breaks).

(Note: This post has a lot of adult language in it.)

Note: You can skip directly to the method I’m recommending if you want.

It looks like Twain aimed for 1800 WPD. I’ve heard from some freelancers in the past that they aim for 6K words a day. I guess that’s how you keep your own writing on track while writing for others to keep the bills paid. It sounds like Stephen King aims for 2K. I have an acquaintance who banged out over 100K words in ~2 weeks which has got to be the highest word count I’d ever heard of before today.1

I’m pretty good at recording my progress on a project these days2 and I’m only working on one project at the moment. Here’s what my wordcount looks like on my current, non-novel project.

Day Words Day Words
Sept. 12 940 Sept. 18 2,007
Sept. 13 1,140 Sept. 19 323
Sept. 14 390 Sept. 20 1,126
Sept. 15 186 Sept. 21 0
Sept. 16 2,501 Sept. 22 1,266
Sept. 17 798
Statistic Words
Total 10,677
Avg/day 971
Avg/day - 0s 1,068

Those are decent numbers. Nothing like the 6-10Ks but if I kept that pace on novels, I could write 3 novels and change in a year or 6 novellas.3 I’ve done more words more consistently. I hit 62K in 30 days during a NaNo previously (I finished that novella but no, you can’t read it). But this isn’t a post about how to hit heroic word counts. I definitely admire those who hit those high numbers but I have a day job, a long commute, chores around the house, and social obligations to deal with.

I’m not a full time writer. I’m not getting paid to do this (yet) and there’s a good chance I’ll never be paid enough on my mainstream work to afford to quit my day job. Even if I could put in 2K every day, I’d probably burn out and take a years-long hiatus.

A different way to track progress

A few months ago, I was working on a project where writing was a part of it but not necessarily the main part of the work. Tracking progress by words didn’t really make sense. It was a Twine project and tracking by Nodes didn’t really make sense either. Maybe today I focused on testing and cleaning up bugs. Important, necessary work. If I didn’t do it today, I’d be pulling out my hair trying to deal with some issue tomorrow caused by bugs I didn’t fix today.

Maybe yesterday, I designed a flow or tested a concept I would be using soon. If I didn’t design or test concepts in advance, putting them into practice turned into a major distraction.

The planning, testing, bug hunting, design work, and writing were all equally important. How could I get a feeling for how much progress I was making with such drastically different day-to-day goals?

I tracked it by time, activity, and by goals accomplished.

I used Task Coach (which has since broken on Mac and there isn’t a fix; I can’t suggest my workaround, sadly) to track the time by type of activity. I did the time tracking a bit more granularly than those categories I mentioned. I’ve since found it’s better to be as broad as possible in tracking time by category of work.

Instead of being very granular in the time tracker, I wrote myself little notes about what I did that day in a separate text file.

I found I was able to keep myself focused and on track for a long time before I put my project on hold for other reasons. Before the hiatus, I was able to keep myself going and I didn’t feel any stress about the word counts I wasn’t hitting on the project. I could even say I was able to keep moving forward because I wasn’t stressing about the word counts. I made a lot more progress than I would have if I’d latched onto something concrete and arbitrary like word count.

How this applies to writing

You don’t have design (in the graphic sense) in writing a novel until after the work is done. You don’t have play testing and “bug squashing” is something you might save to the end.

There’s this idea in fiction writing that you shouldn’t edit until you’ve finished. There’s truth in that to a point. But sometimes what you write today won’t make sense if you don’t go back and change something you wrote yesterday. It might be inaccurate to say you should save all the editing for the end, though.

Writing isn’t just writing. Even a pure pantser does some creative planning, they just don’t write it down in an outline.

For me, I outline in a loose way. When I hit plot points, I may find things change. Heavy plotters often hear pantsers say “my characters wanted to go in a different way.” They respond:

“Your characters aren’t real people. You decide where they go. You. The writer! Don’t blame it on your characters.”4

They have a point but even if you entirely remove the romantic idea of a writer interacting with their characters, the writer still hits a waypoint and realizes their character would want to go a different way. If they wrote it the way they originally envisoned, it would violate the their character’s development.

When I hit the next day, having let my better understanding of my characters lead me down a better path, my outline no longer makes sense and I have to find a new way to move forward.

The resulting re-plotting is writing. So is staring at a wall if it helps you move forward. Time spent figuring out how you’re going to write the next chapter is writing. Necessary, focused, and limited research is writing.

Why? Because the words don’t happen without time spent on those activities. And when the words happen anyway, they’re not as focused and not as good.

Track the time. Write down what you accomplished so when you see that low word count for a particular day, you don’t feel like a failure. Write in “took a break because of other obligations” when life gets in the way so you don’t feel like a failure.

Feeling like a failure doesn’t lead to word counts. It leads to quitting.

In the next section, I’m going to lay out my method without all the explainer above but with lots of encouraging swearing. I’ll add a single quote. My only takeaway from David Allen’s Getting Things Done after I gave up on GTD and other productivity schemas.

Use what works. Discard the rest. –David Allen (paraphrase)

The method

At this point, you’ve already started brainstorming however you brainstorm. Maybe it’s a detailed outline, world building in your head, character design, whatever. Whatever it is, if it works for you, I’m thrilled. With total unabashed sincerity: Good job being creative. Look at you, you badass. You’ve got this shit nailed down tight.

  1. Make a folder, name it something you’ll remember easily, and put it somewhere it’ll be backed up automatically (e.g. DropBox or whatever you’re using).
  2. Create two files (name one notes and name the other after the project … working names are the best ever, you flipping powerhouse).
  3. Inside your notes file, create the following sections: Word count Plan, To Do, Activity, and Notes.
  4. Put your plot (whatever that looks like) into Plan. When you finish a plot point, leave it in Plan. Trust me. It’s a mess otherwise. If you’re using a word processing software like Word or LibreOffice, strike through the text and insert a date.
  5. When you realize you need to do something and you can’t do it right now, put it in To Do. When you finish something from here, move it to your Activity section.
  6. In Activity, you’re going to summarize all of the non-word-count related activity you do for your project. You’re also going to write yourself a nice note if you didn’t get as much done as you wanted or planned. “Ran out of spoons from dealing with fuckers all day cuz fuckers hate badasses.” Put today’s work on top so it reads like a blog from you to you. Name the subsections for the dates you did the shit on.
  7. If you want to record time (and can’t/won’t use Task Coach or some other tool), use the stop watch function on your phone and record the time you spent in Activity too.
  8. When you add to your word count, record the date followed by a comma, follwed by your final word count for the project on that day, followed by the total number of words written that day. I use ISO 8601 so mine look like this (but you can and should use whatever works best for you): 2018-09-23, 10787, 584.
  9. If you like spreadsheets, you can do 8 and 9 in a spreadsheet instead. Left hand column is for today’s date. Second column is final word count for the day. Third column is the number of words you wrote today. Fourth columun is where you record your time. Fifth column is where you record notes about you not doing anything on that day because the gods are spiteful towards people with kickass projects. It’s also where you write little notes to yourself about how badass you are for writing more words in a day than you thought you could possibly ever do.
  10. If you hit a wall in your writing, go do something in your To Do section and move it to Activity like the badass you are.

Not a part of any one step but just as important. Be kind to yourself. Only you can write this story or essay or blog post or whatever it is you’re doing the way you will. You’ve got a ton obligations and stuff you’re dealing with and if the world has to wait, the world will just have to deal with it.

  1. Rachel Aaron writes 10K per day. That’s a 100K novel every ten days or 36 novels per year. I’m guessing she’s either the most prolific ghost writer in the history of the novel, she doesn’t write every day, she bins 90% of the novels she writes, or those are high days. [return]
  2. Even though I’m about to tell you not to obsess so much about word counts. I still record them. It helps me get a better feeling for how many words it will take to write scenes so I know whether I can manage a story in a particular number of words. Those 2,501 days don’t feel half bad either. [return]
  3. What I used to aim for. Now I’m hitting 16K on what was supposed to be a short story without seeing light from the other end of the tunnel. I think it’s going to be a struggle to write just a novella at this point. [return]
  4. I’ve said these precise words back when I thought I was a pure plotter. [return]
About Eve Ingoldsby
You can reach me at https://octodon.social/@EveHasWords