Word Counts and Little Goals

by limebirdster

I was at a poetry reading a while ago when one of the poets said that he didn’t like being friends with novelists because all they ever talk about down the pub is word counts. A few people laughed, a few people looked offended and he quickly moved on but I was thinking about it afterwards and he kind of had a point. I mean, I don’t necessarily talk about word counts, but I do constantly think about them.

For example, with NaNoWriMo fast approaching, I know that when I’m doing that my head is full of numbers – words left until 50,000, words left until daily target, number of words that I’m behind by, number of words I can realistically catch up by. At other times Stephen King’s rule of 1,000 words a day is lurking at the back of my mind letting me know that my novel is definitely not going to be written in three months. And I’ve always got a target, everything I start I want to hit at least 80,000 words. I’ve managed that just once.

I’m counting down to 80,000 because that’s round about the average size of general fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words. It probably isn’t actually that accurate, books are much longer and books are way shorter, but it was kind the rule of thumb when I was at uni and now it’s stuck in my head. Must reach 80,000. I made a chart at the beginning of summer, if I wrote 1,000 words on all of my days off I should have finished my current project by the end of the month. I’m 1,822 words behind.

Whenever I’m at my computer and procrastinating I don’t think I should really be writing right now, I think Still 978 words to write today. Just because it is possible to write 1,000 words a day, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

A friend of mine sticks post-it notes to the wall behind her computer screen with all of the plot points that she has left to write. Whenever she finishes one the post-it comes down and she knows that she’s that much closer to the end. She doesn’t measure in words, she measures in events, but she still measures. She still counts.

So maybe that poet was right. Maybe it’s because word counts and little goals along the way are the things that make the project seem manageable. You don’t have to run a marathon, you just have to run the first mile. And then the second. And then the third. I don’t have to write a book, I just need to finish this paragraph and then I can have a biscuit, or finish the chapter and I can have lunch. (Yes I do make a lot of food related goals).

Do you have any other goals that you constantly strive towards when you’re writing? Any little targets that you set yourself as you write? Does anyone else obsess over word counts or is it just me?


26 Responses to “Word Counts and Little Goals”

  1. You’re definitely not the only one Ster! I definitely obsess over word counts, but like you I like to try and make it easier, by dividing it into chunks which I can manage! I like the idea of the post it notes. It would probably feel really cathartic taking each one down! Maybe I’ll try that for NaNo this year! 🙂

    • Good to know it’s not just me! I’ve tried the post it thing but they didn’t stick very well to my wall! And I think I was either setting targets that were too large or working too slowly because I never seemed to take any down!

  2. Don’t take too much notice – poets count in syllables 🙂

  3. Word count is certainly important when it comes to the submissions process. Most journals and ezines I know of have specific guidelines that must be adhered to. But that’s a final draft — revised to the hilt, polished til it shines. I don’t think writers should be focused on word count before revisions, or risk killing the creativity. Stephen King’s 1,000 words a day is a good guideline, as long as it doesn’t become an obsession. Then it’s no longer fun.

  4. I am a novelist, but I write like a poet. I do try to finish a chapter every week or so, which for me is about 3000 words in 7 days–most novelist would laugh at a goal like that. On the other hand, I don’t rewrite at all. When I put down a word, 99 times out of 100, that word is in my final draft. I do my writing and rewriting and editing in my head, so that when I type something, I’m sure that it’s what I want to type.

    It’s just a different way of working,

    • That’s a really interesting way to work Misha, I don’t think I could ever commit to a draft like that – far too much pressure!

  5. The Post-It Note thing sounds similar to me. I use Scrivener and, during planning, I label chapters and scenes in red. As I complete them I change to the ‘done’ label (which is green) which gives me a great visual record of how I’m doing on the Manuscript corkboard.

    I also have a spreadsheet and graphs to show where I am against the planned word count.

  6. My only goal is: Don’t make it suck. 🙂

  7. I tried the 1,000 words/day thing for a while, but it felt too forced for me. There are days I feel inspired and days when doing the dishes sounds better than working on my novel, because I’m just not feeling it. Lately for me, it’s all about Sundays, a 4-5 hour session of focus and passion. The other days of the week are spent doing life (and blogging/social media, of course.)

    • I found the same thing when I tried to write 1000 words a day Britt, sometimes it was easy and I’d sail past the target and other days it would take me hours and when I read it back it was awful anyway!

  8. I never count words, and I would never do NaNoWriMo because I don’t work well under pressure and I don’t need some external, artificial goal to motivate me. If I’m inspired, I just write what I know I have to write and pay no attention to length. That’s probably not the best way to do it – I’m sure it’s why my books are always too long.

  9. I love flash fiction with word restrictions up to 50, 75, 100 or 150 words. I’m always counting words whether it’s a short story which must be under a certain word count of a goal of so many words today. 😉 See, you’re not alone.

  10. These thoughts are wonderful. You have brought new insight to me. 😀

  11. I like and sometimes miss the flash fiction prompts we did, the 100 words. As far as nanowrimo goes – I have yet to even touch the novel that I completed last year. The entire month I was consumed less by what I was writing than by how many words I had written, and the work definitely suffered for it.
    I’m going to go back to doing it the way I always have, just write the story until the story is done. Then go back and edit and shorten. 🙂

    • There’s no problem with that Neeks, it’s not going to run away and join the circus!

      I only really got working on the second draft of Talatu (my 2010 NaNoNovel) in January 2013. I am now working on my 2011 NaNoNovel (editing it severely to become a novella). So, as long as you don’t finish a first draft and then do nothing until NaNo comes around again, you are still moving forward (just on a different project).

      • To be very honest Dennis, I’m considering dumping the whole thing and starting over with my original idea this November. See if I can make it go where I had intended it to.

    • Don’t worry Neeks, I think NaNo just goes that way sometimes! I know that the first year I did it I got stuck on something or other and ended up adding in some terrible plot points to make up the words and now I can’t even bring myself to open up the document! One day I’ll go back to the original idea and start again but I don’t think there’s any point in editing what can’t be saved!

      Anyway there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t hash out the same idea year after year until you get it right, nothing wrong with giving it another go!

  12. The writer, Anne Lamott, has a great story about this. It’s in her book about writing called “Bird by Bird.” She tells the story of her brother who didn’t start a school project until the night before it was due. He broke down in tears, saying he would never finish in time. Well, I think he was supposed to describe the habitats or some such thing of several different birds, and I think there was some word count requirement. So his father sat him down, gave him the bird book he was supposed to use as his report guide, and said: “Here’s what you do. Start with one bird, and when you finish, move on to the next.” That’s from memory, so I’m sure my paraphrasing may be a bit off, but you get the idea. That’s what writing is, bird by bird—word by word.

  13. Haha – I know what you mean. When I did a bunch of 100 word shorts as a challenge, that number became way too important and sometimes I didn’t post if I didn’t have a enough words to meet the count even, but at the same time I had a goal and I was writing. I like that you’ve set your mark higher than the NaNoWriMo count to match more accurately what novel length is.

  14. With NaNo so close upon us, you shush with your word count goals, Ster! 😉

    Counts can be good motivators, but just because we *can* write 1000 words a day doesn’t mean that’s what a story *needs*. I’ve always been a proponent of “write first, cut later,” but I think some of us can get blindsided by the numbers. Really, though, whatever gets our brains and fingers moving can’t be bad. We just need to know when to let the words grow…and when we need to take out the shears.

    • Haha, just making sure you’re prepared Mayumi! 😛

      You make a good point there, just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. I mean I’m pretty sure that I could make a single sentance last about 3 pages with the amount of commas I like to use but I don’t think it would read very well!

  15. NaNo got me thinking about word count. Before I did NaNo, I paid no attention to how many words I had to go and only cared about the story. This year I paid more attention to plot points, kind of like your friend with the events. Those are the goals I try to meet, but I don’t worry about it on a daily basis. When I get there, I get there. I’ve taken a lot of pressure off myself by not worrying so much about how much I’m writing in one given instance.

    However, some people need the word count to push them through blocks. Even if we’re writing garbage, we’re still getting words down, still making that 1,000 word/day count. But again, that’s only necessary when we’re having trouble with our books. If we’re flying through our stories, we better not be writing too many words. Otherwise we’re going to be in bad shape come revision time!


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