Writing advice

Word Counts As Writing Goals

At a reading last summer, while I was introducing the world to Deception Island, one of the people attending asked me whether I give myself a quota, a writing goal for each day. I answered him honestly: not in the traditional way most people think of it.

When most people think of writing goals, they are thinking of a word count: 500, 1000, 2000 written, unedited words per day are probably the most common goals. There are many very good reason to set writing goals such as these. They provide a (relatively) achievable goal to shoot for. Having a set word count every can force the reluctant writer to do the most important exercise of all: write something every day. Having a set word count coal can also help the writer deactivate that nasty self-editor that ruins so much of our writing before it ever really gets going. It is also a great method for brainstorming new ideas, (if your method of generating your writing goal involves some form of free writing).

I will never, ever, discourage anyone from setting writing goals for themselves, as long as they are realistic. (A woman who can only find real time to write in the hour between when the kids go to bed and when she needs to, cannot realistically expect to generate 5000 words a day consistently. While certainly ambitious, it is more likely just a recipe for failure. There is enough failure coming our way in the writing life without doing it to ourselves.)

Realistic writing goals are a legitimate tool to get us into the habit of writing. The habit of writing gets us to think like writers and observe the world around us like writers. It makes us better writers.

But everybody is not motivated by the same things, just as one writer feels inspired by a gorgeous sunset and another just shrugs his shoulders. Every writer—and figuring out what works for you in part of the process—needs to discover what motivates her and what will make her sit down and actually write.

I tried working toward writing goals. I did four years of college and earned a degree in English Literature, after all, so I have a lot of experience writing within length goals and temporal deadlines.

I always found the deadline—as in your term paper is due at 10:00am tomorrow morning—was a fantastic motivator. It kept me up writing all night on more than one occasion. But even then, I was more concerned with content than an arbitrary length. To my recollection, I was never graded down because my four page composition on the use of pathetic fallacy in Shakespeare’s The Tempest was supposed to be five pages.

Which is one of my major problems with a numerical writing goal: writing to the word count, not the content. As writers, we are constantly told to be as brief as possible, succinct. Avoid using five words to state an idea if it can be stated in three. The goal of writing a thousand words a day seems to fight that idea. Instead it encourages us to be as wordy as possible.

Granted, the goal is only really applicable to rough drafts, primal writing if you will. The concise, polished prose (or poetry) we are trying to create is the product of primal writing, filtered by re-writing, revision, and editing. Still, our goal as writers is to create, even in our first drafts, work that is as close to a polished, final product as possible.

Working toward a word count feels counterproductive.

Back to me.

I do write almost every day, especially when I’m working on large project, such as the novel I’m working on now. If I am working on a project, my goals tend to be more concrete, such as finishing a particular scene, or solving a particular problem. Sometimes this involves writing just a few hundred words. Sometimes it involves thousands of words spread over several days. As long as I continue to make progress, I am satisfied.

It’s different when I’m between projects, or trying to begin a new one. Then I’m not so much building on top of a foundation I’ve laid in the previous days. It is much more like free writing. But I’m still more concerned with dramatic segments than word count. I want to write a scene, not a thousand words.

In short, do whatever works for you. Either set a realistic word count and try to write that many every day. Every single day. Or do like I do and concentrate, instead, on writing scenes, descriptions, etc. and let the word count take care of itself.

As long as it helps you toward your goals, it’s all good.

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