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The Tyranny of Word Count: Is There a Better Way?

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When I have momentum in my writing and I am on it, I like to track my progress with word counts. Every morning in my to-do book 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. (On bad days, I imagine myself staring at a page of words, willing it to multiply like the dandelions on our front yard.)

And it’s 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.)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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. I recently took a class in which the instructor encouraged us to track our writing in this manner. It is especially helpful for people like me, who tend to get nervous with too much structure imposed on them. So I’m experimenting with this option as well — though I’m not sure how it will work for me. One could easily sit at said computer for two hours and not write a word, for one thing. I know, I had a “friend” who did it. And also, I stray easily. There’s that. So tracking myself by time feels a bit squishy to me, like it might just easily wander away.

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.

I guess I’ll stick with it for now. 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?

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