How to stop worrying about word count… while hitting your word count goals every time.
If you’re a newer writer, or even a not-so new writer, you have at some point worried about your word counts. The anxiety over how many words we’ve managed to produce per day reaches a fever pitch around the month of November, when NaNoWriMo has us agonizing if we don’t get 50,000 words down within the month, or feeling super guilty if we aren’t participating in NaNoWriMo and yet still not even managing to hit our own much less ambitious word count goals. However, word count anxiety can strike at any moment. As writers, we often tend to use the average number of words we manage to spit out per day as a barometer for whether we are keeping on track, whether we will make that deadline, and whether we are in fact real writers.
“Writers write,” we’re told. I feel like this glib truism does more harm than good. When we’re in a busy period and when life takes over and people need us and everything is happening at once, the one thing that we feel that we can and probably should give up when we’re trying to get things back under control is our creative outlet. I don’t know how this became the go-to solution, and I’m sorry that it has for so many of us, because creativity is crucial when it comes to maintaining some semblance of sanity. Also, if you really think about it, our writing is the one thing that we have actual control over. However, I am in every way a writer, and there are times when days will go by without my having written anything.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I would love to propose a correction to the “writers write” BS. “Writers work on their writing career” makes much more sense. I don’t spend days without writing anything, but I do spend days without adding to my novel. However, I’m always producing content, whether it’s a blog entry or a social media post or an email to a fellow writer, or to a coaching client or mentee. I tell my coaching clients to at a minimum do a single thing each day that moves their writing career forward. When I’m feeling particularly generous, I say that even research counts- you know, something like watching a documentary that touches on something in your book or listening to a motivational podcast that will give you an idea for your author platform. Those things add up, and you were eventually going to need to do them anyway, so isn’t it a kinder alternative to beating yourself up because you didn’t type out 1000 words or 5000 words or finish that chapter?
The pressure to finish a certain number of words makes no sense. Finishing a chapter may be better because it is a more logical entity. I like to encourage people to complete one scene. It doesn’t even matter if the scene is in the right order for your manuscript. Sometimes we need to pursue the path of least resistance. Sometimes we’re not in the headspace to write that really difficult emotional scene, and we instead want to write something easier. We should be allowed to do that- after all, we’re the boss of our book.
Writers write, sure, but nobody said that they had to write a certain amount- well, maybe some people have said that, and that’s why we feel guilty and negative about our work. While I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo and very much appreciate its ability to kick us in the butt and get us to at least get a good portion of a rough draft down, the overwhelming majority of participants, even of winners, never gets a finished book out. They get burnt out or lose motivation after the goal has been reached. Or, if they fell short of the 50,000 words, they decided that meant they weren’t cut out for this writing stuff. We all should put pressure on ourselves to move forward, but sometimes an outside entity putting more pressure on us than we’re currently able to handle is harmful.
That being said, I do have a few tips for hitting a word count or producing more written work than before. Some of them will feel like cheating, or like something a “real writer” wouldn’t resort to… but you ARE a real writer, one who’s smart enough to enlist these not-so-secret weapons… so here we go:
Yeah, yeah, outlines are stifling. They prevent your writing from flowing organically. They’re a pain to do. But you know what? They work. Too intimidated to write out a full outline before you start writing? So am I! I usually do a super rudimentary one, start free writing and brainstorming, and then fill in a more detailed outline later. This allows me to do the convenient little trick I mentioned above: writing the easier scenes when you don’t feel like writing more complicated ones.
If I could come up with the most powerful secret weapon ever, it’s this one: Not only can we speak oh so much faster than we can type, but this is a way to get dialogue down in a way that rings true, of recounting action in a way that is not bogged down by flowery writing, and of getting stuff down without self-editing. Is dictation perfect? Nope. I often end up with some garbled sections, but this gives me an opportunity to go back and edit without judging the quality of my writing- I’m editing because the dictation program is lame, not because my writing is- get it? Seriously- give dictation a try- if nothing else you’ll get down more words that ever before and you’ll be ahead of the game. I used this to win NaNoWriMo last year despite the fact that I was way too busy to make it a good idea to participate. Have I finished the book yet? Nope! It still needs a lot of help, but I am pleased to have 50,000 words to work with. It is so much better than nothing.
I use this in my writing group every single week, and you would not believe how many words my writers get down in a twenty-minute span. And often, they’re even good words! If you thought the pomodoro method had something to do with pasta sauce, I would say you’re almost right. It’s named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer of the method’s inventor, Francesco Cirillo. The original Pomodoro span is 25 minutes. My version could be called the Zoom method because it was devised as a result of my being too cheap for a professional Zoom account. Because of this time constraint, I devised two 40-minute sessions with a 20-minute writing exercise in the middle. I like my Zoom method because it is 5 minutes shorter. ANYONE can find 20 minutes to write. NOBODY expects what you write in 20 minutes to be perfect. You waste 20 minutes at a time throughout the day without even registering it. Forget telling yourself that you must write for several hours a day or forcing yourself into a writing schedule that involves getting up at 4 am and hating life. You can do a single 20-minute session a day. Many of my faster typists or those who are using dictation can get over 1000 words in this time. If you’re very, very slow I promise you will still get 500. At that rate it would only take you 180 days to write a 90,000-word manuscript. That is half of a year. Spend the other half of the year editing and building your author platform, and by this time next year you’ll have a novel.
Don’t necessarily play loud music, though some say that a low background sound can aid creativity. Even just muffling outside sounds and putting yourself in a different headspace will help to get you into the zone.
You don’t need to have a donut or a glass of wine every time you finish your word count. But you should definitely give yourself a pat on the back and congratulate yourself for this thing that you just achieved. Take time to consider how far you’ve come and how much closer you’re moving to your goals.
That’s it. It’s not rocket science, but it is some very solid tips and a few mindset tweaks that should have you feeling better about word counts. The final piece of advice is that if you don’t believe you can do it, you won’t do it. Be kind to yourself and give yourself every opportunity to succeed. You can absolutely be the writer and author you were meant to be. Now go out and start doing it!