Word Count Isn't Everything

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One of the things I learned in college is that I can hit my word count goals without ever moving my story forward. My novel class required us to write 50,000 words over the course of the semester which meant we had 4,000 words due every week. For a chronic procrastinator, this was a drastic departure from my long held philosophy of writing whenever I was “inspired”.

Suddenly, I had to write even if I would rather be playing Assassin’s Creed or if I had no idea where the story was going because this was my first attempt at writing from an outline and the outline was garbage. Somehow though I managed to hit my word count targets every week. Believe me, no one was more surprised than myself. I may be a procrastinator but I’m a pretty self aware procrastinator.

In order to hit my word counts, I had to turn off my brain every time I sat at the keyboard and force myself to not let my fingers stop typing. What I ended up with was 50,000 vomitous words barely resembling a story. But I was still proud. Proud that I had written so many words—this was by far the most I’d ever written—and proud that I hadn’t let myself quit when it got hard. My big takeaways at the time were:

1) Hey, maybe I can write novels after all.

2) Word count goals are the way to get things done.

Point number two was reinforced by reading countless interviews with authors about their process. Almost every single author talked about establishing a writing routine and word count goals. So that’s what I did off and on for the next several years with only marginal success and a lot of heartache.

See, the authors from these interviews were all established authors who wrote full time. I was trying to balance writing, a demanding job, and starting a family. The pressure of those word count goals was crushing. I would kick myself every time I skipped a day or two of writing (which later turned into months) and it caused me a lot of emotional stress. Whenever I did write, I was so focused on hitting my word count goals that I went back to my old college trick—turning my brain off at the keyboard. That trick worked great for my class but it did not help me finish any of the projects I started.

My post-college portfolio is a lot of half finished novels and short stories that are bloated beyond reason. I would park myself in a scene and add superfluous words in a spiral of digression just to check off my word count that day. I could spend weeks on a single chapter, dragging it out because I didn’t want to spend the energy figuring out what comes next.

This year, I decided to go all in on writing. I said enough is enough and I am going to figure out a way to be a productive writer. I began by listening to more writing lectures and author interviews. This time my takeaway was something far different. I learned that every writer has to come up with a system that works for them. No two writers work the exact same way. I stopped looking for the mythical “correct” way to write. Instead, I started looking for tools that I could try until I found something that worked for me.

Ultimately, my answer came from the Writing Excuses podcast (like most of my writing answers do). Mary Robinette Kowal talked about how she got back into writing after going through a serious bout of depression. She couldn’t just jump back in at her old productivity levels. Instead, she had to start with more realistic goals. Rather than word count goals, she set time goals. She had to write for a certain amount of time even if that time resulted in two pages or two paragraphs. That tactic made a lot of sense to me so I gave it a try.

It worked wonders.

I suddenly found myself able to write much more often and the process didn’t seem so daunting. I made a ton of progress outlining a second draft of one of my earlier mentioned bloated messes and even finished a short story. However, I soon ran into a new problem.

I was writing almost every day but only for a short time—thirty minutes. At that rate it was going to take me a year and a half to finish my novel. Then I came up with a new trick. I kept my time target the same but told myself I can only work on one chapter for maximum of a week. If I was super productive and finished the chapter in that week then great! But if I got to the end of the week and the chapter wasn’t done, I had to quickly summarize what happens in the rest of the chapter and move on.

This has been a complete game changer. What I’m ending up with is a mix between a first draft and a glorified outline but above all I am experiencing progress. It is so satisfying to see the story move forward even if at times it is in clumsily summarized chunks. At this rate I will be able to finish my first draft/super outline in a couple months and get to move into revisions.

Right now, that prospect is inspiring a ton of motivation to write. In the next week, I’ll get to bump up my time target to forty-five minutes. Once I am able to sustain that, I will move up to an hour and so on. We’ll see where this takes me. I think eventually I will move to a mixture of time targets and word count goals but that’s too far in the future for me to care about.

All I know is that have found a method that works for me by helping me stay productive and doesn’t put a strain on my mental health. That’s all I can ask for.