Sunday, July 21, 2013

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 Despite this, I’ve managed to complete three full-length novels (one as-yet unpublished), a short story anthology, and a novella.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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Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at


Geoff Wright said...

Sometimes 500 words, sometimes 2000. It all depends on where I think the story has headed, or if I'm wanting to think it out for a day or two. (I don't plan everything in advance. In fact, I usually develop the story as I go. In any case, does it really matter if a novel takes a year or six months to write? Perhaps I'm more blessed than some, in that I sit down and the words just flow. Thanks. Geoff Wright. Australia.

Elaine Stock said...

Mike, thanks much for these liberating & affirming words! All we can do is the best we can, and leave the rest to God :)

Dakota Rae Smits said...

Beautiful advice - and timely. I had to rethink my own approach today after having a stress fest last weekend.

Ron Estrada said...

You are a revolutionary, sir. This drive toward the daily word count has always confounded me. With my one or two hours of writing time each day, I can only focus on the next step. I'm either plotting, writing, editing, or critiquing my partner's drafts. All that is "writing" as far as I'm concerned. Now, if one were to suggest uninterrupted "free writing" in my journal (the Natale Goldberg approach), I can buy into that. But even pansters have to stop and edit, re-write, etc. thanks for slaying that sacred cow. You've freed us!

Kris said...

Ahh, bless you. You've held the door for my to exit to freedom today. Many thanks ;) As a Mom of 4 I don't always have time for making word count goals by the days end. Not only that I scratch countless words on the backs of envelopes and workbooks, and whatever other shreds of paper I find within reach, when I'm in the middle of making lunch, and homeschooling. Lord knows I don't have time to count up all of my long-hand words. Thanks for this.

Jill said...

It depends on your personality, as well as your station. Some people need the motivation of a daily goal, or they will just not complete any projects. For me, I will go through phases of forcing myself into 1000 words a day just to push a project through to completion. Otherwise, I never force myself to write every day. It would just become another chore in an endless list of chores if I did that.

faerietaleforest said...

I am in the midst of my third novel, and have never once incorporated a "daily word count" into my agenda. I have wanted to, I'll admit, because I'm naturally the type of person who loves a schedule, but I have never had the opportunity to fit it in. I am a mother and wife, I run a business at home, and writing, while I would love to do it full-time, is not, however, my full-time job. I feel a bit of relief now after reading your post - as if I can give myself permission to relax a bit and not worry if I ever get that time scheduled or not. I love to write and, scheduled or not, I WILL write! Thanks for the insight. I look forward to all of your posts!!

Val said...

Particularly enjoyed the give yourself permission to NOT write daily. Life, job and childcare sometimes get in the way of daily writing.

This may be cheating, but sometimes I count my twitter, Facebook postings and book reviews as my "writing for the day"!

Vicki said...

Thank you for mentioning the writer's stage of life. I was a caretaker for a number of years. It was extremely frustrating to adhere to a daily word count. Guilt plagued plagued me. I have since found that keeping a daily writing journal holds me accountable.