Why Word Count Goals Can Be Destructive

Word count goals are the trusted aids of many a writer. With the ever-present call of duties, relationships, and even just sweet inertia, it’s often comforting to have set word count goals every day. Write 1,000 words, write two pages, write one scene, one chapter—and you’re finished. You can abandon your writing for the day and move onto other things, safe in the realization you fulfilled your obligation as a writer for one more day.

However, for some writers—myself among them—word count goals can prove more problematic than they’re worth.

Behold the Dawn by K.M. Weiland

Why Word Count Goals Might Be Getting In Your Way

For a very short time, when I started writing my medieval epic Behold the Dawn, I decided word count goals might be a helpful aid. My goal was to write 800 words every day—or approximately one page.

It was a count that fit well within my already established productivity level, so I knew I could handle it without a problem. No doubt it would be satisfying to jot my word-count total in my writing journal every day—and watch the total count compound over time.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead of watching my fingers flying over the keyboard, hammering word after hundreds of words into my manuscript, I ended up spending an inordinate amount of time watching my word count instead.

Am I there yet? Have I reached 800 words? Am I even halfway there? Between the ticking clock and the blinking cursor, my word count ended up severely squashed. Eight hundred words a day was no longer an easy accomplishment; it was an enemy to be conquered.

When to Avoid Word Count Goals

It took only about a week to figure out that word counts were causing me more grief than productivity. I work much more effectively under a time limit, instead of a word count. Instead of forcing words that don’t want to come, instead of blathering through 800 words, just for the sake of reaching my goal, only to have to throw half of them away the next day, I prefer to force myself to sit down at the computer for a set amount of time every day (two hours in my case) and let the scenes and characters dictate the word count.

Some days my word count barely scratches 400, but, with the necessity of reaching a set goal no longer threatening me, I’ve found that the words tend to flow and most days I clock in far beyond my original goal of 800 words.

If you find you’re focusing more on your word count than your words themselves, you might want to consider releasing yourself from what could end up being a habit destructive to your productivity.

Update

I wrote this post several years ago and actually have used word count goals to good effect on other projects. As always, deciding whether a tool is right for you has everything to do with what you’re trying to accomplish–and then begin aware of the effect that tool is having on your writing and creativity.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What has been your experience with word count goals? Do you find them helpful–or not? Tell me in the comments!

Why Word Count Goals Can Be Destructive

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. You are right. I used to do that while writing blog posts too, but have left it now.

    Currently I am writing a book that requires a lot of concentration. Word Count doesn’t work there.

  2. Hey, K.M!

    I don’t use word counts either. It’s time for me too. If I give myself 3-5 hours, I can usually write a chapter. So that’s my loose goal. I just want to fill the chunck of time the best that I can.

  3. I’m so with you. Word counts crush me. I have at times written down my count AFTER a writing session, just to see how the numbers fell, but I much prefer a two-hour sit to a work-count task master.

    By the way, I loved SURPRISED BY JOY and am really looking forward to your E-book. Thanks for the generosity.

  4. Word count goals don’t work for me either. I now set the finish line at writing to a certain point in the plot. It gives me the same feeling of accomplishment without the constant anxious glances at the word count box.

    Elspeth

  5. I don’t like word counts either. I don’t think people read by the word. Why should we write by the word? I find it works better if I’m able to follow ideas, events, characters… that’s when the words come naturally.

  6. I have never used word counts! And I can’t stand when writers advice that they be used. If things are flowing, then they are flowing and I don’t want to stop when I hit a certain word count! And I don’t need the guilt on the days that I can’t get two sentences out–some days are just not writing days for me.

    Besides, that kind of advice can only really work for pantsters–those who just sit and start at the beginning and let the story go where it goes–writing by “the seat of their pants.” I’m a plotter–a LOT of my writing is in the form of scribbled notes in spiral notebooks, and taking walks while I ponder plot lines. In other words, a lot of my writing is not even writing–it’s thinking! There is no way to quantify that with a number or time limit.

    I believe writers need to work the way that keeps them inspired. Maybe for some that is word count, and maybe it’s setting a timer, and maybe it’s just working when the lightning strikes and not stopping until all the energy is spent.

    Another awesome post, KM!

  7. @Jaky: I’ve never even tried wirdcounys for blog posts. I tend to have a more difficult time psyching myself up for my blog than my fiction.

    @Kristen: A chapter a day is awesome! You go.

    @Caroline: I’m a fan of C.S. Lewis, so I’m excited to start this book.

    @Elspeth: I usually have a mental goal of working toward a plot point, but I hold the goal loosely, since the story often evolves.

    @Lee: I like what you say about reading by the word. Good point!

    @Kat: Excellent points! Especially what you say about each writer needing to work in whatever way inspires him.

  8. Exactly my problem. Try doing NaNoWriMo! For others, it’s easy. For me, it’s a problem– an enemy, like you said, to be conquered. I have given up trying to reach a goal of 50,000 words in a set amount of time, and just write with the goal of bringing the characters to life and to the glory of God. He doesn’t care how many words there are in a book!!
    Thanks for your post.

  9. You’ve hit exactly the reason I’ve never entered NaNo. I prefer to let he story dictate the pace.

  10. Good point. I don’t write a set amount of words a day because I know I would be so frustrated if I didn’t keep the count. I write when it comes and keep on going!

  11. Another reason I didn’t mention in the article is that if you don’t set a word count, you won’t be tempted to just stop once you’ve reached your goal, even if you’re on a roll.

  12. While I have done NaNo, when I’m not doing NaNo I don’t have number goals. When I have time and energy to write (which hasn’t happened in quite a while) my goal is just to write something that gets me from where I left off to somewhere I need to be. It may be a couple paragraphs, a couple pages, or a couple chapters (I tend to write notoriously short chapters 9 times out of 10). But when I get done, I’m a little further along in my story. That’s the important thing, not the word count.

  13. I voted “no never use them” – because yes, sometimes I can write 3000 words and sometimes 1000 and sometimes 500… it’s the same approach I used while talking to clients as a personal trainer–don’t get too bound down by daily calorie counts (if you are the type who must cal count), but instead think of it over two days, three, or the week – make it individual, accumulative, if that works best for that person.

    how many words did I just write? *laugh*

  14. PS – just watched the trailer – very nice! Love the music and images ….compelling!

  15. @Liberty: Although I’ve never participated, I’m actually a big fan of NaNo. It’s jumpstarted a lot of writers who might never have written 50,000 words otherwise. My dislike of word counts isn’t a reflection on NaNo.

    @Kathryn: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed Behold‘s trailer.

  16. I tend to use the word count at the end of the day just to see if I actually made forward progress but while I’m writing I try not to think about it. I just write.

  17. I keep track of my counts after the fact as well – when I remember to check. :p

  18. What you’ve written hear certainly makes sense to me. Every day is a different writing experience. Every day we are a somewhat different person from every other day.

    Thus, I think that discipline is most important but the time and word count should be somewhat flexible.

  19. I agree. And when you get some who *likes* regimented schedules as much as I do telling you to avoid them, there’s gotta be some truth to it!

  20. A long time ago, I tried James Scott Bell’s advice of “The nifty three-fifty rule.” Mr. Bell said 350 words was his goal each day. If he was inspired and went beyond that, great. But he HAD to get to 350.

    After reading that, I thought that was an achievable goal, so I set out to copy it, only to find out most of the words I wrote were garbage. I discovered that I’d written something, ANYTHING to get the words down and meet the goal. Those words didn’t always advance the story and would have to be thrown out later.

    Now, I just write. Because of my tight schedule, I don’t have time limits and the word count is long gone. If I end up with only a paragraph or three pages, at least I have more than when I started.

    And I also keep a total word count on where I am on the entire story.

  21. Stories are written one word at a time. Just one word. One word. One sentence. One paragraph. It’s all relative. What’s important is that we’re [i]writing[/i].

  22. I don’t use wordcounts as a goal so much as I use it to keep track of how much I’m actually writing. I tend to be wordy but don’t remember that until I look back and think ‘whoa. That was 20,00 words!

    I don’t have a daily or weekly goal. I don’t sit down to write 1000 words. I set my goal for the year and try to achieve that.

    The idea behind a WC goal (at least the challenge I set for myself) is that only a certain percentage of my words will be usable (as in not deleted) so if I write MORE, a larger percentage of words will be put to use. Whether I delete them or edit them or leave them be, I wrote them. That’s what matters.

    I have set a goal for the last two years. It is lofty, but it keeps me writing. I need motivation and structure and something to hit. Even when I have a goal such as ‘Finish X project by X date’, I don’t really feel compelled by it until I think about how many words I *haven’t* written.

  23. You make a good point, in that different writers write in different ways and end up with different word counts as a result. Because I edit as I go, I sometimes cut as much as I write during a writing session. Since I don’t count the words I delete, it definitely cuts my word count down.

  24. I’m going to be experimenting with a word goal for a new WIP. I’ve never used word count goals before but am looking for a way to divide my time between the new WIP and a novel I am rewriting. A time goal maybe another way to go. I’m not a person that has a hard time putting hours in at the key board. Thanks for this idea!

  25. I’d be interested to hear how your experiments turn out. Time limits are the only effective means I’ve personally found for splitting my attention between more than one project.

  26. I say, leave word counting to NaNo! I have tried it twice; winning the first time because I had someone competing with me, giving me motivation; losing the second time because they were not motivating me. 🙂 When the only goal is word count, you have two choices, One: write anything just to reach that goal, even if you are dissatisfied with it, or Two: forget about the goal.

    I prefer, the time limit. Sitting down for a set period of time is more productive because that time can be spent in research, writing, revising, thinking, outlining, or even doodling for inspiration. 🙂

  27. I say, leave word counting to NaNo! I have tried it twice; winning the first time because I had someone competing with me, giving me motivation; losing the second time because they were not motivating me. 🙂 When the only goal is word count, you have two choices, One: write anything just to reach that goal, even if you are dissatisfied with it, or Two: forget about the goal.

    I prefer, the time limit. Sitting down for a set period of time is more productive because that time can be spent in research, writing, revising, thinking, outlining, or even doodling for inspiration. 🙂

  28. I say, leave word counting to NaNo! I have tried it twice; winning the first time because I had someone competing with me, giving me motivation; losing the second time because they were not motivating me. 🙂 When the only goal is word count, you have two choices, One: write anything just to reach that goal, even if you are dissatisfied with it, or Two: forget about the goal.

    I prefer, the time limit. Sitting down for a set period of time is more productive because that time can be spent in research, writing, revising, thinking, outlining, or even doodling for inspiration. 🙂

  29. The big problem with word goals is that they tend to become the end goal in themselves – instead of the goal being to write something great.

  30. Thank you for writing this!! I have successfully used word counts in the past – just to try and motivate myself to sit down and write – but now that it’s actually a career rather than a hobby, it makes me freeze up, or write stuff I hate.

    It’s the reason I didn’t even consider NaNo.

    i find my best motivation is knowing the school bus is showing up in an hour and that’s all the day I have left to write. 🙂

  31. It’s amazing how fast you can rack up the words when you have the proper motivation, isn’t it? 😉

  32. Guess I’m in the minority here then. 🙂 When I’m writing a draft, I love word count goals. I’m a *very* goal-driven person…and I don’t edit as I’m drafting (unless you count spelling and minor grammatical issues). With a draft, my major goal is to *get it done*…with the understanding that whatever goes wrong will be fixed later.

    I use scene-by-scene outlines, and generally have an 800 word per day goal (which is what I can comfortably do in the 1 1/2 hrs I have to write each night). Going over my word count is cause for celebration, but I can’t stop until I hit 800. That keeps me moving forward. It forces me to think less, and just *write*. “Writer’s block” doesn’t exist in my world. I tend to over think things, so that’s what works best for me.

    Obviously there’s no “one size” solution – we just have to do what works best with our personality…

  33. Nothing wrong with word counts. If they work for you, that’s great!

  34. That’s a really good point. I’m not really a goal person. I didn’t make any New Year’s Resolutions or anything.

    I think I would benefit from a word count goal, but maybe a monthly one, or a weekly. It worked during NaNo though, and it was the first first draft that I completed… so who knows? LOL

    Great post as always! Have a great week :o)

  35. Although I’ve never pursued a monthly or yearly word goal, I think I’d probably do much better with them as well. It’s the daily pressure than ties me in knots.

  36. So true, you should never fence your creativity into a certain amount. 🙂

  37. I see no problem with goals in general (just the opposite in fact), but personal experience has taught me that certain goals are counter-intuitive.

  38. It’s so refreshing to hear your take on word count because I feel the same way. There are times when I feel guilty for not measuring myself by the word-count yardstick because it’s preached as a “must have” by so many successful writers. I’m so glad I stopped by your blog today. Thank you!

  39. There is no “right” way to write. We each have to find the paths that work the best for us. Studying how other successful authors do it is a great help, but I don’t believe we should feel guilted into following any method but our own.

  40. Thanks K.M.! Wow, your site is so busy these days!

  41. Keeping busy, having fun! 😉 Thanks for stopping by, BJ.

  42. Yeah, word counts do that to me too. i sit down to write each day, but that can include editing, rewriting and other writing (not for my book). I am way more productive when I am not clocking in and clocking off. I need my routine of writing daily, but what I do in that time depends on where I am at that day. Most days I happily write over 1000 words without even realizing it. Great post. 🙂

  43. The very threat of every having to return to word counts to force myself into productivity is enough to keep me productive on a daily basis!

  44. While word count goals ARE helpful to me at times, I still enjoyed reading this post. And it gave me another perspective, because you’re right; most writers encourage word counts! 🙂

    Love your blog!

  45. Thanks for reading! I always love it when folks who disagree with my main point are still able to get something out of the article.

  46. I’m a great believer in doing whatever works. I’ve mostly tried to write for two hours like you. When I was writing fanfiction books, I generally had a deadline of a chapter a week and would have to meet that or hear about it from readers. I found that for me ten pages a week is easy. And forty is a killer.

  47. The jump between ten pages and forty is huge! In my opinion, ten pages a week is pretty darn awesome.

  48. I was thinking of NaNoWriMo the entire time I was reading your article. I think I’m more like you. I write in 2-hour blocks and feel great just that I’ve written straight through. Sometimes I get a lot done, sometimes I just work through a hairy problem, but I know I DID accomplish something. I’m wondering if NaNoWriMo, which I thought I was going to participate in next November, is not for me. ?????

  49. I’m an avowed fan of NaNo – for other people. I know without even trying it that it probably wouldn’t work well for me with my writing habits. Each to their own. I’m super glad it’s proven so beneficial for others though!

  50. very true, and well said – need to make way for inspiration and it doesn’t take stock of how many words are done, but counting does interfere

  51. Inspiration can be a slippery thing. No need to discourage it any more than necessary!

  52. I’m the opposite. If I have a time limit, I’m constantly checking the clock, worrying that I’ve only got 45 minutes left and I’ve only written a very short paragraph! I have a daily word count goal that’s really small, but I usually go above and beyond it, which boosts my attitude in the process. I don’t have to worry about writing blither just to reach my word count, because I’m so focused on trying to get as close to perfect on the first draft as I can. Luckily, the fact that I might change plot points on the second draft has no bearing on how I treat the first.

  53. Never ceases to amaze me how different the process is for different writers. It only goes to prove that writing only has one rule: There are no rules.

  54. I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo and hit the 50k word mark. But let me tell you, I am now spending my time disassembling pretty much everything I wrote and trying to build something that might work.

    Doing NaNo was a great exercise, because without it, I don’t think I’d ever have completed a novel at all. But I agree, in writing purely to build a word count, I have ended up with a REALLY ugly building.

  55. Some authors feel too restricted if they have to polish as they go; they prefer to just throw words onto the page as fast as possible and polish later. But it works better for me to polish as I go. It means I write slower than I might otherwise, but it sure makes the revisions easier!

  56. Great post, thanks for this. I set myself a schedule of 2.5 hours a day to write 1000 words but it’s paralyzing and when I don’t get to 1000 words and only manage a few hundred, I feel like a failure.
    I figure quality over quantity should be more important and the fact that you’re making that effort and commitment to writing regularly.

  57. It depends greatly on the writer. Some work best when they aim for quantity and refine later. But, personally, I do much better when I forget about quantity and focus on quality.

  58. Glad to have found this. I teach creative writing and often my students, especially beginner students (but not only), ask for a “word count” for their writing assignments. I explain it’s not the number of words but the quality of the words that counts. I quote Hemingway’s famous explanation of why he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times (Interviewer: “What was it that had stumped you?” Hemingway: “Getting the words right”). But at the same time, I can appreciate the need for some sort of goal and or plan but for me “time” is the important thing. It doesn’t matter if I produce a sentence or chapter at the end of that time. In fact it’s not unusual for me to end up with less words than when I started, which could be very disheartening if I were were judging myself by word output! Great post!

  59. My daily minimum is 1,000 words, but I usually write 2-3,000 per day. I keep an eye on word counts to make sure my chapters are roughly the same length and that my plot points and action beats fall at regular intervals.

  60. @Marianne: Love that quote from Hemingway! Time is the big factor for me too. Time + daily consistency = decent word counts.

    @Joseph: Three thousand a day – you go! I’m usually very happy with an average somewhere between 800-1,500.

  61. I focus on scenes. If it’s a small scene I’ll write two or three and if it’s a long or intense scene I may split it into two days.

    If I say two hours or 1000 words, what happens when I hit my mark and my character is right in the middle of her epic battle scene. For this reason, I wait for breaks in the action to cue me that my writing for the day is done.

    My writing software also allows me to hide the word count so I don’t look at it until I am done my session. I hide tool bars and don’t allow time keeping devices of any kind in my writing space. If I must stop writing at a certain time I set the alarm on my cell phone and leave it in another room. These things all help me keep my head in my story and my fingers constantly typing.

  62. I actually used to stick a piece of masking tape over the clock on my computer to keep myself form looking at it. One thing I find helpful is to always stop a scene at an interesting point, just because it makes it so much easier to pick things up again when I sit down the next day.

  63. The only time where I got a big word count was with a short story a long time ago. (4,000 Words)Interestingly enough I was not worried so much by word count when I wrote that horror story. (As in horror genre.)

    That’s not generally a normal thing for me, as I was particularly inspired to “Lets see where I go next!” And already decided I was going to write a short story.

    These its a challenge just to do 615 in an hour. So yea no more worrying about words.

  64. You go! Ultimately, the quality of the words on the page are much more important than the quantity.

  65. I never used to bother with word counts when writing my first book, but with my second it was all I could think about. I could have written your post on this subject!

  66. Sometimes I’m tempted to put a piece of masking tape over automatic the word counter at the bottom of my screen. :p

  67. Your comment of 13 Sept beat me to the punch. Anyway, those pesky word count guidelines …. The description, in your post ‘5 Fun and Easy Ways to Lengthen Word Count’ of 60,000 words as featherweight length concerns me. My latest novel came in at a very novella-esque 40,000 words and even at that length I had to add a bit of quasi-filler. But I was relatively pleased with the final result. What made it easier was that the genre is a cozy mystery and I think readers expect this genre to be shorter. I was actually far less happy with my first novel, which was a more respectable 60,000 words or so, thus the moral may be that word count doesn’t necessarily translate into quality.

  68. No, word count definitely doesn’t translate to quality. The story always has to dictate its optimum length. Sometimes that will be shorter than expected, sometimes longer. 60k isn’t short for all genres. You may find this word count guideline helpful.

  69. I can relate to this topic since I am currently involved in Camp NaNoWriMo this month. At the beginning of the month, I was on fire with my word count goals. I would normally end the day 100 to 200 words above the suggested amount, and felt like I could write more. After fourteen days of making my goals, I realized that the words I was typing really had no substance to them – I was typing for quantity not quality – and I lost heart. So since last weekend I have not made my daily goals, but the words and thoughts I commit to have feeling and weight behind them. I may not make my word goal for Camp, but I would rather do a smaller rewrite later than sift through a bunch of fluff I typed.

  70. Good for you! All those words we type in the first draft don’t have to be perfect, but we’re definitely aiming for quality over sheer quantity.

  71. It looks like my own writing method is rather extreme. 🙂
    5250 words in 4 hours. This is my daily norm. Sometimes it’s doubled.
    This means about 3-6 chapters per day.
    Yes, it’s perfectly possible, with no loss of quality.

  72. Jack Orchison says

    I hand-write my original, so no pesky word counters to worry about. I do tot everything up at the end of each session but where I stop is dictated by whether or not I have reached the end of a scene or chapter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I do my outlines longhand before moving to the computer for the first draft. The lack of a word count is one of the reasons I like longhand for that first step.

  73. My personal goal is to write 100 words a day and I force myself not to count my words until I am dome writing. Mostly I’m just trying to get the habit of writing every day no matter what, so the word count is my little steps to the bigger goal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Smart. Consistency is the key. If you can learn to be consistent with even a small word count, that will pay huge dividends in the long run.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland on her blog Wordplay, expressed her thoughts of using a word count goal in her […]

  2. […] you like to have a clear goal to aim for? A lot of writers thrive on specific challenges like “500 words a day,” or National Novel Writing Month. They get their deepest sense of accomplishment from knowing […]

  3. […] when I can trust myself not to be a lollygagging, space-gazing daydreamer. As I hinted above and wrote about more thoroughly here, productivity-specific goals can sometimes end up compromising both the quality and the overall […]

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