On Not Measuring Progress with Word Count

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I’m flying in the face of the writing community today, but…

… I have recently discovered that a thing that works for seemingly everyone does not work for me.

So I wanted to share in case you, too, are one of the rare writers for whom this thing does not work.

Specifically I’m talking about measuring progress with word count.

If you’ve been a writer online for five minutes or more, you will see writers all over Twitter and Tumblr and blogs and what-have-you talking about their word counts. “Target: 5K today,” or “I just hit my 40K goal!” or “I just banged out 2K words in under an hour!”

And don’t get me wrong: this is all AWESOME. Setting goals and reaching them is one of the most important things you can do as a writer. But one thing I recently learned about myself is this:

I don’t do well with word count goals.

When first drafting, it does make sense that word count is the thing a writer would work towards. For that draft you’re just looking to get the story down, and what better way to do that than to write it as fast as you can? Also, it is a good thing to keep your inner editor quiet when drafting. You should finish a thing before doing any major revisions.

But not all writers are created equal. I have struggled with word count goals for as long as I can remember, but the first time I really tried to hold myself accountable for them was last year when I attempted NaNoWriMo for the first time. 1,700 words a day is the goal there, to ideally have a finished draft by the end of the month. I went in determined to actually do it.

And do it I did–for the first two weeks. I started one story, hit my word count goal every day for almost a week–before realizing that story was garbage. I scrapped it and started over with something else. I hit my goals with that manuscript, too–until I realized I was taking it in the complete wrong direction. But I didn’t want to go back. Then I would lose words.

So I plowed ahead. Until I could not go any further. Because I had lost the thread of the story.

In not giving myself the time to breathe, to go back and think about the outline, to think about the why of what I was doing, I had lost it. I ended up with a lot of words, sure! But a large chunk of them had to be scrapped. At which point, I abandoned the whole idea of netting 50K words in one month and just started working on my story the regular way.

The regular way (for me) = measuring progress by hours put in, not word count.

This is the way I’ve always measured progress when revising (which I spend FAR MORE time doing than drafting) because there is no other way I can think of. You can work for hours and still have the same word count by the end of it, or you could even have fewer words (which in most cases is a good thing.)

But it had never occurred to me I could measure my progress that way when drafting– because that’s not how I’ve seen anybody else do it.

I have been doing this writing thing for over five years now and no matter how many times I have learned the lesson to do what works for me, it clearly still has some sinking in to do. Because everyone seems to use word count as a benchmark.

But I am not everyone. I am me. And measuring word count doesn’t work for me.

So now, when drafting, instead of giving myself word count goals, I give myself hour goals (that are weekly, not daily). And I like this so much better.

Of course, this comes with some caveats: I still need to struggle to silence my inner editor when drafting and not revise scenes over and over before the book is finished. But it does give me the space to take a step back, look over at my loose outline, make sure I’m on the right path. It makes me not constantly stare at the rising word count at the bottom of the doc and wish it were higher. It lets me just work.

And the weird thing is, ever since I started doing it this way with my latest draft? I am actually hitting what would have been my word count goals anyway. (I am still keeping track of net word count every day in the column next to my “hours worked”; I’m just not using it as a benchmark.) Not every day; some days I am just going back and cutting stuff and moving it around and looking at the outline and thinking. But overall, week over week, I am actually writing more.

So, if word count goals work for you: awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing.

But if they don’t: don’t use them.

You do you, writer.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

 

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