I do this. I know people who do this. I know people who recommend setting a daily word count goal and I recommend it as well. Contradictory to the title, I know, but hear me out. The first thing you need to know about writing advice is that not all of it will work for everyone. Not all of it will work for you. Writers, in general, tend to be experts at procrastination. But we also strive to grow and evolve. So we set goals, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. For many, a daily word count goal is part of a long-term plan. But for some, it’s simply a bad idea.
After your first chapter is done, knowing your word count and how far into the actual story you are (not how many words, I mean story progression) can help you guess how much further you have to go. For some, that’s motivation. For others, intimidation. If you’re one of those people who realize you have 20,000 words left to write and become discouraged, then maybe you shouldn’t be keeping track. If, on the other hand, you see that finish line inching closer and become invigorated, then, by all means, keep it in sight. The most important thing to do is what works for you. I mean, it sounds obvious when presented like that. But really, are you doing what works for you? Are your “words left to write” killing your motivation? Then stop focusing on the word count, daily and total. Just write the story.
Many authors find reaching and exceeding that daily word count goal exhilarating. It’s almost like winning NaNoWriMo. For those authors, a daily word count goal is a good idea. I’ve noticed that many authors who fit this description tend to be outliners or planners. I’ve also noticed (having tried both planning and pantsing, repeatedly) that if I don’t have an outline, sometimes winging it leaves me feeling uncertain because I don’t know what’s going to happen next. That feeling can manifest as writer’s block because of self-doubt. Pantsing works for plenty of people. It has even worked for me. But if a word count goal feels like adversity instead of assistance, if aiming for a novel is too much pressure, take a step back and look at what’s happening in the story. Don’t even think about the word count if you’re viewing it as an obstacle. It’s not. It’s a harmless number and a flexible number at that. Counting your words only helps if it’s motivating you. I can not stress this enough.
Just like feelings of uncertainty can lead to self-doubt, so too can over- or underestimating your word count total. I’ve done this. I’ve misjudged a word count goal, aiming for a novel and ending up with something just outside short story territory. That can feel like a failure, and it most certainly is not. It’s the same with a daily word count goal. If you begin the day writing a scene with a 1,000-word count goal, and that scene falls, say, 200 words shy of that goal, you’ll start looking for ways to hit that word count. That’s a mistake for most writers for two reasons.
First, you may be adding words for no real reason at all, words that don’t help the story. Some of us (guilty) end up adding layers to the work because the story needs it. (Note: I know, I know. Two links back to back. But it’s worth it.) But of all the authors I know, few do this. Most end up cutting. So adding those words in just to make your daily word count goal is, more often than not, giving yourself more work to do in the long run when it’s time to edit.
Second, and remember this doesn’t apply to everyone, stopping to edit your work can kill your motivation. Doing so consistently can leave you with the impression that a first draft is incredibly difficult to get down. And, make no mistake, it is. But only because we haven’t yet figured out what’s stopping us. Most of the time, we’re in our own way. So if that daily word count goal consistently makes you feel like you’re failing, reconsider having one in the first place. It simply does not work for every author every time.
I always thought it was odd that so many authors felt pressured to have consistent lengths for chapters. This idea is an unnecessary stressor. I’ve only been an author for three years, but I’ve been reading almost all my life. I honestly can’t tell you how many books I’ve read. I can tell you that a short chapter in the midst of a few long ones can give me a nearly irresistible urge to read just one more chapter. And that usually leads to 2 a.m. bedtimes. A short chapter has, more often than not, kept me reading a book I would have otherwise put down for the night. If every single chapter contains exactly three thousand words, I won’t be counting them, but I will subconsciously pick up the pattern. And if I know one more chapter will take another twenty minutes to read and it’s already late, I’ll close the book for the night. But if I look at the clock mid-chapter and it’s late, I think, “Okay, last chapter.” And if it ends sooner than I expected, well then I’ve got time to read one more! I don’t know why that is, but it’s true for me. So if part of your daily word count goal includes “rounding out” your chapters, reconsider. You’re giving yourself a constraint that simply isn’t necessary. Unless you’re submitting a work to a market that requires such a format, give yourself a bit of flexibility and just tell the story. Worry about the substance you can add later. Don’t just add words for the sake of adding words. I can’t speak for every reader, but I seriously doubt anyone’s counting the words in each chapter and checking for consistency anyway.
Why do authors set daily word count goals in the first place? It’s to motivate them. Seriously, there is absolutely no other purpose to set a daily word count goal other than motivation. The whole point of those little goals is to help you reach the big one at the end. It works for some people, but no one thing will work for every person every time. And if it isn’t working for you, don’t do it.
Bob Mueller says
Interesting thoughts, and they make sense. I don’t know that I’ve ever written to a particular word count. I’ve used the “industry standards” as a guide – no one wants to read a mystery that’s 115k, I think. (Had to do a LOT of editing!)
I DO pay attention to my total word count for the year though. Gives me some idea of where/how I’m spending my writing time.
Definitely! I find looking back with a total number helps tremendously. But looking at how many I have left to write? Not so much. Felt really good to look back and know I’d written 70k words on one project. I prefer to wait and count at the end. 🙂