Writing, much to my dismay, is an ongoing process of figuring out what works, doing that for a while until everything breaks and then figuring it out all over again. I am always poking around writing advice blogs to read about other peoples’ processes, and whenever my current battle plan goes sideways I’ll try out some of what works for others. Recently I’ve been ruminating a lot on the idea of daily word counts. Having a daily word count is one of the methods that works more or less often for me, especially when I have a longer project, but I’m starting to realize that my approach to daily word counts is a little bit, shall we say, unconventional.
Most of the advice I’ve found makes your daily word count into a goal. You have a daily goal, that’s what you hit come hell or high water, and forcing yourself to meet your goal is the only reason the words come out some days.
Hilariously, this does not work as intended for me, because setting even a reasonable goal has the unfortunate side effect of making my brain fluctuate between three states: the ‘I have not hit the goal today, I have failed, I am a failure’ state, the ‘I’m going to not hit the goal out of spite, because I don’t take orders from arbitrary self-expectations’ state, and the ‘I will hit this goal if it kills me and it might’ state.
I do not do well with high daily word goals.
When I use a daily word count, it’s actually a minimum word count. As far as I can tell, the reason for a daily word goal is really motivation. It functions as the butt-in-chair mechanism, and it will keep you at your work until you’ve hit your goal. That’s not a problem I have – once I start writing I’ll usually continue until I can’t, regardless of goal.
To that end, my minimum daily word count is actually only 100 words. It’s just high enough to sink me into writing mode after I’ve sat down, but it’s low enough that my brain decides that we are very certainly not done with writing. Something that low also lowers the inertia I need to overcome to start writing. It’s only a hundred words. I can do that in ten minutes. Ten minutes is easy and I have no reason not to.
Once I’m writing, however, and I’ve breezed past my hundred words, how do I ever get anything done? I’m glad you asked, my friend, because the ‘goal’ part of my daily writing is an abstract goal. The thing that motivates me the most is having an event or task or endpoint within my writing piece. Sometimes I’ll simply shoot for the end of the piece, for one thing, but I also use the end of the chapter, or the end of the scene, or – if none of those are within how much I can reasonably write in a day, then my goal is to get to the next natural break-point in the narrative.
To be perfectly honest, I consider a daily world goal to be unsatisfyingly arbitrary and a little too vague. I’ve done Nation Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) for the last six or eight years and while I can do the 1667 words a day for a month, it’s hard to sustain that pace when the larger, more abstract goal of ‘finish the 50k in one month’ is removed. If I don’t have an abstract goal like’ finish the book before August’, or ‘post the story before May’, then I don’t have the sense of investment and urgency that leads me to get stubborn about reaching my goal. Even if the abstract goal is very short term, such as ‘finish this scene before Monday’, I find that a far more effective motivator than ‘write 2k on Saturday and 2k on Sunday’, even if they are functionally identical.
An important thing to reiterate, however, is that the combined ‘daily minimum word count and abstract goal’ package is all about motivation, so when I talk about how many words I write a day, it’s actually based on the metrics I’ve kept for the last two years and anecdata from the last ten or so. How many words I write in a day really doesn’t have anything to do with any daily goal I’ve set myself, it’s merely a description of my past performance with respect to writing.
Until 2014, my metrics mostly consisted of a handful of disparate sources: My Nanowrimo tracker, the Ares Accord that I and a couple my writer friends set up to help do consistent word wars, a few other scattered challenges and projects, and a general sense of how many words I can accomplish on a lunch break. I liked to try and keep metrics of when I’d write and how much, and the tracking got more complicated and more comprehensive over time.
At the beginning of last year, however, I joined ‘Get Your Words Out‘ in an attempt to find a community of like-interested writers to help keep me connected. Billed as a writing decathlon, GWYO allows you to set a yearlong goal and then calculates out how much you need to write per day to reach it. I didn’t reach my goal last year (and I’m not sure I will this year), but that really doesn’t matter. The most useful thing about the challenge for me was their very slick spreadsheet a level above what I have previously been able to produce for myself. Barring any other benefit, I ended up with a year’s worth of cold hard data and that is more than worth participating.
In 2014, I wrote 561 words per day, averaged across the entire year, including days I didn’t write. Counting only days I did write, my average is 1102, which I suppose implies that I wrote only about half of the days last year. I write between 700 words a day and 1400 words a day normally, and it varies wildly between those two points. My ‘very good days’ are about 2000 words, and those usually happen when I near the end of projects. My ‘bare minimum’ days are 300 words, and that’s when I’m squeezing writing in between ridiculous amounts of busy.
As for my writing pace, I am surprisingly consistent. I write about 300-400 words in half an hour, and 600-800 words in an hour. If I’m loose and limber and have enough momentum, I can bump up to 1000 words in an hour, but that’s about as fast as my brain goes to produce something that isn’t going to be rewritten in full. I’ve written this fast for as long as I can remember, since my very first ‘win’ at Nanowrimo when I was in college, to the five years at my first job, to every single word war I’ve done for Nanowrimo or any other challenge.
I have yet to reach a solid daily upper limit. Previously, my upper limits have been nearing 4000 words in a day before my brain fizzled, but I blew past that this last November and managed a couple of 6000 word days. Those days were awful and caused immediate burnout, however, so clearly large word count days are not sustainable for in the long term for me.
That’s the important part, actually. Writing a book is a marathon, even if you’re trying to go as fast as you can, and a sustainable word count is vastly more important than slamming out ten thousand word days if you’re utterly useless for the next week.
This brings me back around to daily word goals. A post over on Jennifer Ellis’s blog, entitled Minimum Daily Word Counts, gives a short rundown of the various word counts of famous authors. It’s full of excellent advice on how to increase your word counts and reach new heights of productivity. However, the post is very much rooted in the idea of pushing yourself to find your upper limit and – perhaps – lingering there.
If you don’t know what your limits are yet, then hell yes go get some great ideas on how to push yourself higher and faster.
However – riding along your upper limit is an awful idea, because one misstep and you fling yourself into either burnout or unsustainable territory. If you’re going to use a daily word goal (instead of a ludicrously low minimum and an abstract goal like me), then in my humble, humble opinion the optimal word count lies in a ‘sweet spot’. It’s a word count that you can blow past if you feel inspired while still being doable if your life throws shit at you, because your daily target goal is just that. Daily. It happens if you’ve got to mow the lawn and do chores and go grocery shopping. It happens if your day job was a royal pain in the ass and you just want a nightcap and an early bedtime. It happens if the sun is shining and the snow is gone and spring is dragging you out to the park for ultimate Frisbee. It happens around feeding and transporting children, taking the cat to the vet, and lunches with friends. Barring emergencies, this is a daily word goal that somehow fits into your life.
If I were to set an actual word count goal, in comparison to some of these famous writers over here, mine would be 800 words a day. That’s what I can hit consistently even when life happens, barring the depressive doldrums. (Last year was a bit awful in that for me.) It’s on the bottom edge of what I know I write on an average day plus a bit more, and it will only take me a couple of hours if I’m writing fiction. It’s doable, but it is an actual goal that requires me to stretch myself on off days and it’s not so high I can’t look at it as just the start to my writing for the day on the good ones.
The secret is that the goal you set for yourself should not be so intimidating as to scare you away with the threat of failure. You want the barrier to putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or butt in chair to be vanishingly low. The idea is that you’ll get there when you get there, and the point is to set a pace manageable for the long term so that when you do inevitably (and I do mean inevitably) miss days, you don’t lose your momentum. Even if you do have a deadline, the only way to ‘make up’ words on missed days is to take a page from Nanowrimo’s notebook and redistribute your needed words across all your remaining days, otherwise your target word count will snowball to something you can’t hit without burning out and starting will be that much harder.
I’m not sure I’ve read this very often in writing advice blogs (and I’d love links that do, if you have them!), but sitting your ass down and starting needs to be made as easy as humanly possible for you. Nothing else about writing is easy and if your brain is anything like mine, it will take any excuse not to do something that’s hard no matter how rewarding it may be.
So make sitting down easy. Trick your brain. Figure out what motivates you and how and why. Become a scientist and experiment with yourself, changing variables like location and medium until you find something that makes the act of sitting down something you can do without thinking too hard about it. Don’t let your writing become something that needs a superstitious ritual to start, where you’re afraid to change elements for fear you’ll never write again.
Find your preferences. Find your inspirations. Find your limits. Figure out your highest word count and your lowest and your average, and when you’re done figuring all of that out? Find your sweet spot.