Wordcount, Or, Exactly How Arbitrary IS That Goal?

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
A writer’s life is made up of largely arbitrary goals. As in, I will submit ___ stories, to ___ presses, and I will give myself ___ months to finish that novel. The goals that come from outside–the publisher’s deadline, or the revisions deadline, and so on so forth, might as well be arbitrary, but you the writer ARE consulted about them and expected to speak up about your needs so you can turn in a quality product.

Setting goals, revising them, and living with them is what every successful professional writer does. Setting your own schedule may sound like an awesomely sweet deal…until you actually start doing it. All of a sudden the responsibility for it rests nowhere but with you. Some people can ignore that and procrastinate all day. Others can’t, and it becomes something to flog oneself with in the absence of productive work. Most of us fall somewhere in between on that continuum, or alternate.

Small confession time: I used to swear by just the timer, and thought it was a bit silly to use wordcount as a goal. That was back before I had actual deadlines; it was in the phase of my writing life where I was just looking to produce, nothing more. (You may or may not be amused to know I refer to it as “my throat-clearing phase”.)

A kitchen timer is great for the throat-clearing phase and beyond. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but here are the things that a cheap kitchen timer can do for your writing. (I bought four of this kind, for various uses around the house. I also love these little timers from Ikea, but they don’t seem to sell them online. Quelle disastre!)

*A timer focuses your attention. In our time-conscious culture, a ticking timer cuts away a lot of distraction and engages a reflexive focusing of attention.
*A timer sends a signal to others. In other words, I am serious about this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “When that timer rings I’m all yours for a little while. Until then, leave me be. (This works for husbands, children, friends–unless someone is throwing up, bleeding, or dying, the timer rules.)
*A timer makes it easier to be consistent. Ten or fifteen minutes a day, consistently, will do more for your writing than long stretches of neglect and weekend-warrior spells of however many hours. The name of this game is consistency.
*A timer forces you to prioritize. Your day is not so busy you cannot spend fifteen minutes writing. That fifteen can turn into twenty or thirty once you’re in the groove and have actually sat down and taken the trouble to put your hands on the keyboard. Having the actual, physical timer sitting there has guilt-tripped me into writing many a time.

Professional (or would-be professional) writers are working against a vast cultural current that says writing is “easy” and “less important, a luxury” because it is creative work. And somehow a lot of Speshul Snowflakes hear the “creative” and completely disregard the “work” part of the equation. How many times has someone said to me, “I always thought someday when got time I’d write a novel…”

I am always tempted to reply, “Yeah, what do you do? You’re a dentist/brain surgeon/IT whiz? I’ve always thought that someday when I had time, I’d come into your office and do fillings/neurosurgery/IT. Because, you know, it’s the same fucking thing, right? Can’t be too hard if you’re doing it.”

I haven’t said it yet, but by God, am I ever tempted. This is work, people. Getting paid for it is work too.

And now that I have by-Goshen professional deadlines and a fair handle on my creative process, I find I’ve shifted away from the timer and toward wordcount as my arbitrary goal of choice.

Wordcount is tricky. My usual goal is no less than a thousand words a day, but typically I run between two and four K. That, to me, is a good day’s work. I have the regular six to eight K days during the end of a novel phase when things are coming together, and once in a blue moon a memorable 10K day will come along and run through me like bad moonshine[1]. Those days are nice because I’m so completely sunk in the story it never feels like work while I’m doing it, but they’re not so nice because it destroys my brain until I fall into bed and think, gee, I really should have eaten today…and I should have gone to the loo, too. And taken a shower.

I’ve had the 200 word days, and the 500 word days. Those suck like gigantic sucking things, but they usually occur because of crisis in other parts of my life–ill children, hospital visits, things like that. On those days the timer comes out and it’s usually all I can do to sit still long enough to get SOME wordage out.

There are people who have issues with the wordcount goal. A lot of them will ask, How do you know the words are any good?

My reply to that is, that’s not my job. That’s the Muse’s job. My job is to show up and write. Worrying about whether or not it’s good enough in the just-write-zero-draft stage is like shooting yourself in the kneecap to prepare for a marathon. The point is to get the words OUT so you can have something to trim and tweak. Books can be fixed. A blank page, however, is still a blank page at the end of the day. After the throat-clearing phase, you have to just put your head down and work through stuff. Getting better will come with consistent practice, just like playing a musical instrument.

Consistent practice will not turn you into a Perlman or a Gaiman. But it will make you a better writer and astronomically up your chances of getting published, which in turn ups your chances of making a living at this thing.

Another objection I hear to wordcount is that whatever count you set yourself (perhaps in response to a published author giving advice?) may be unreachable and hence, will actually stop people from writing. This is heard a lot from Speshul Snowflakes who desperately want to avoid the act of consistent writing and practical advice leading from or to such an act.

Look, if 1K doesn’t work for you, 500 might. 250 might. Setting the goal high for the day and not getting there is okay. Not writing at all is not. Life happens, and nobody understands that better than the self-employed professional. Setting goals is an art–breaking a big goal (getting published) into smaller, manageable goals (developing a writing schedule, sticking to it, producing chapters, producing a manuscript, learning grammar and usage and applying it to said manuscript, submitting over and over again, working on new manuscript…get the picture?) and setting daily goals is part of that art. You want a goal big enough to spur you on to make some progress, but small enough that you don’t throw up your hands in despair after beating your head on a brick wall. Like any skill (and goal-setting is a life skill), practice is key, and consistent practice makes you better.

I have to be honest here. (Big surprise, I know.) All the well-adjusted professional writers who have good careers that I personally know set themselves goals, and I don’t know of a single one who doesn’t use wordcount as a metric. They may use other metrics, but wordcount is a professional’s goal. It’s easily measurable, gives you an idea of where you are in a short story/longer work, and functions as a great measurement during the zero draft stage. (Revisions are something else. Heh. Aren’t they, though. Snort.)

The last objection I hear frequently to wordcount is that if you have to rip up a couple scenes by the roots and lose wordcount, you might get so discouraged you don’t go back to the story. This relates to the “what if the words are the wrong ones” above, and it relates more closely to the “what if I’m just blocked and I’m trying too hard and I damage something by sticking to my wordcount?”

And I have to say, oh, please. If you’re going to get “discouraged” enough to stop when you have to rip a couple scenes out and you lose a few thousand words, writing is so not the career for you. If you’re going to use “blocked” as an excuse, writing is probably not the career for you. I do not believe in writer’s block.

There are times when I get turned around, and false starts, and having to rip out parts of stories and jam other parts in and ARGH is just something that happens. Every career has bad patches and tasks one would rather not do. That is why this is work, and if you are willing to put up with those tasks and do them in a reasonable fashion your chances of getting paid to do this work increases exponentially.

I would much rather the words pour out smoothly, in a stream of genius that doesn’t need editing or revision and that editors will beat a path to my door to make me huge offers on. And while I’m dreaming, I’d really like a pony and a rich lover who lives only to buy me presents, too.

But it’s here on the ground with rent to pay and deadlines to meet that a writer lives. Wordcount and timers are tools that can help you meet those deadlines, whether they’re self-set or set by an outside force. Like any tools, they have their uses and they can cut if used improperly. But with elementary precautions and reasonable goals set, they can also make your work easier.

And making a job a little easier is sometimes the difference between making a living…and not.

Over and out.

[1] As in, runs through you quick and leaves you with a pain. Thank you, Dorothy Allison.