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Sunday, November 24, 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 Despite this, I've managed to complete three full-length novels (one as-yet unpublished), a short story anthology, and a novella.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 www.mikeduran.com, follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

7 comments:

Julie Garmon said...

This makes good sense. I can definitely relate to #2. :) Thank you!

Ane Mulligan said...

I love the Picasso quote. I've found it to be so true. If I persevere, inspiration will finally "strike."

Edie Melson said...

I found long ago that a daily word count goal was not for me. My goals are more project oriented, with a weekly word count goal. That gives me the flexibility I need while still keeping me on track. Thanks so much for sharing how you approach this crazy writing life!

Richard Mabry said...

Mike, Well, there are at least two of us who don't adhere to a daily word count. And, like you, I've never missed a deadline. I know about what I need to get done to stay on schedule, but I also know I have day-to-day responsibilities as well. Thanks for sharing this.

Ron Estrada said...

Make that three. For those of us with an hour to write each day, we have to get more done that just spill 1000 words onto the screen. I may spend 2 months plotting before I type the first word. Yes, we're paid for the words we create, but no one's going to pay us for nonsensicle rambling. If that were the case, I'd be rich. Great post

Teddi Deppner said...

Yes! I just spent the last 21 days pounding out an average of 2400 words a day. This was a very good exercise for me, because there have been years lately when I didn't write more actual words of fiction than that (yes, in the whole year).

However, the experience also reinforced the value of those times between when the idea "gestates" (great way to put it). There were some days I put in 5 hours and only got 1,500 words, because I still needed to think through so much of the scene. Other days, 6,500 words came spilling out, because I had the vision and my fingers were running to keep up.

Anyway, thanks for giving us some alternative measures. I think "completing a project" is my next focus.

Rick Copple said...

Balanced article. We all use different methods to reach the same goal. No one way works for everyone.

For me, the only time I even think about a daily word count is during nano or if I have a limited time to finish a project. Then only to make sure I'll finish in time. Not as a straight jacket. Otherwise I just write.