5 Ways Your Word Count Goal is Holding You Back
Every year at about this time, people start prepping for NaNoWriMo. This novel-in-a-month challenge attracts pros and new writers alike as everyone tries to complete a fifty-thousand-word book in the thirty days of November.
That leads to a lot of number crunching. Writers need to aim for about 1,667 words per day to keep up, celebrating milestones at various word count points. It’s all about that word count in the end, and how you get there.
The word count tracking works fine for NaNo novels, but how does it rank as a writing discipline overall? What better alternatives are there?
5 Problems with Word count Goals
1. Word count Anxiety
When you start keeping tabs on your word count, you’ll keep it up for the first week or two of drafting. During this time, you might feel as if your word count daily goal is too low, and it won’t give you any problems.
Unfortunately, every seasoned NaNo-er knows that on either week two or week three, the sludge hits—the honeymoon period of drafting is over and now you have to force your words. It’s also likely that something came up in the first few weeks and threw you off. Just like a diet, it’s hard to get back into that ideal writing rhythm after even a single cheat day.
It isn’t long before you dread going back to that novel, because even if you’re only a little behind, you know in your heart that you’ll never catch up, and by then there’s a good chance you won’t even finish unless you’re already an experienced writer.
2. Settling for Less
Different writers have different ideal daily word counts, often much higher than NaNoWriMo’s 1,667 per day. Whatever your target goal is, it feels good to hit it. Then it feels good to walk away and not worry about it again until tomorrow.
Word count goals have a problem with encouraging writers to hit a minimum—and leave it at that. It’s harder to get inspired and see a scene through when you’re settling for a basic word count, and you could be losing many of your most productive days.
On the other side of the spectrum is the risk of burnout. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to take a break from your book for a day or two and re-focus before jumping back in. Rigid word count goals, especially when paired with a time restraint, don’t allow for that.
If you obsess over having to reach a certain word count every day for long enough, your enthusiasm for your project will wither and you could run into burnout. Burnout kills more writers than almost anything else, so take the necessary measures to protect yourself.
4. Fluffing Text
Writers are lazy. We look for easy ways to reach our goals, and many of us would rather “have written” a book than actually roll our sleeves up and get the work done.
When you’re focused on a word count, you’ll want to reach it with as little effort as necessary. That means fluffing up your text and using more words when fewer words are better. (If you have any doubt, check out the dozens of NaNoWriMo forums dedicated to exactly that!)
You shouldn’t cheat on your writing. For most writers, a sloppy rough draft is a good way to get it done, but there is something to be said for not making it sloppier than it needs to be for comfort. It will all come down to editing more later on.
Writing lends itself to procrastination. You’re going to have to fight it whatever your method is, but only word count has the potential to turn itself into its own form of procrastination.
There are many word count games out there—dice crawls, write-so-many-words-if threads, you name it. These games are fun and sometimes worth it for the once-a-year NaNoWriMo endeavor. But the fact remains that it’s easy to double or triple your writing time because you’re busy tracking and playing the game instead of writing. Suddenly, 1,667 words per day becomes a much bigger commitment than it needs to be.
Word Count Alternatives
If we’re talking about NaNo, it’s impossible to get too far away from word count because that is what the entire challenge is predicated upon. It’s not as big of a deal for a once-a-year fandango, either. But if you’re looking to write multiple books a year or boost your productivity without throwing your laptop out the nearest window, there are alternatives.
Alternative 1: Dedicated Time/Pomodoro
I’ve written a lot about the Pomodoro technique on this blog because it’s how I get most of my work done. I don’t worry about how many words I write—I worry about how much time I spend writing my books.
With this approach, you don’t worry about word count, but instead about minutes. You dedicate a certain chunk of time to your writing every day, and stick to that time until a project is done. On inspired days, you might write thousands of words, and on other days, it might be much less; but you’re never going to force yourself to write more than you can stomach.
Alternative 2: Section by Section
Some writers find it easier to write one scene or chapter at a time. This works best if your chapters are on the shorter end and if you don’t have a problem getting blocked at the end of chapters.
If you write according to section, you’ll rely on a strong outline and begin with an expectation of how big your book will be in the end and how long it will take to get there. It’s not as helpful if you’re a fan of spontaneous and unplanned writing, though it could still be done.
Alternative 3: Sprinting
This popular approach focuses on quick, focused bursts of trying to write as much as possible. While it is a close cousin of the Pomodoro method above, its competitive and chaotic feel casts a new attitude on your writing time.
Sprints can be fun and are popular in writing groups, so if you want extra pressure to stay focused, you can easily find a partner willing to write with you. The pressure of writing as much as possible in a shorter time frame also leads to an emphasis on writing as much as possible without fluffing the story out with needless words.
Word count goals aren’t the worst way to write, but if you want to maximize your productivity, there are other options that might give you better results. Please sign in to share your favorite way to crank words out below or click the blue button to join my Facebook group for self-publishing fiction writers to chime in the discussion.