Recently, I’ve enjoyed magical days during which I’ve clocked ten thousand or more words. This blessed outpouring came during my recently released Decisive Moment and has taken place again during my ongoing work on episodes 1 and 2 of my Tracking Jane series.
Trouble is, this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I barely squeeze out five hundred words in one day. Sometimes, nothing comes on the page that deserves to stay there. Should I feel guilty that I didn’t write anything on a particular day?
Some would have you think so. The word counters. Now, they have the best intentions. By setting a goal for their daily word output, they ensure the discipline to write every day. This is admirable, and indeed writing discipline that avoids creative slacking is something we should all aspire to.
When we word-count, however, we run into problems illustrated in the following questions.
- Is one word count more valid than another, or are they arbitrary numbers thrown out for the sake of a goal? This is a personal thing, up to each individual writer, you say? If so, why isn’t zero a valid word count as well?
- What happens on days spent editing a previously completed draft? How many words do you record on the tally then? Heck, do you go negative when you decide you need to cut a full 2,000 word chapter?
- What if, in order to reach your daily limit, you write meandering, convoluted and ponderous prose that in the end you need to excise? Should those words count?
That last question troubles me most. Yes, maybe I’m exercising my writing muscles even when I write thousands of words that come to nothing. But I could be teaching myself bad habits, too. I could get into a mindset that leads to a first draft so flawed and so full of fatty bloat, I might as well tear it all down and start from scratch. I could also be wasting valuable time better spent on conceptualizing story ideas, proof-reading a prior draft, or even marketing my currently released titles.
We may look at it this way: use caution with what you incentivize. It is often the case in life that when we incentivize quantity, we neglect more critical things. Or consider this: as an artist, you will seldom find painting by the numbers a great approach to achieve innovative, creative output.
In the end, the main question for me comes down to: do the words I write matter? Do they drive my story forward? Will my reader care that I wrote them? Will she find these words winsome or a chore to get through? To meet the challenge these questions pose I don’t count words — OK, I do, but not to judge daily goals or writing success. I make my words count. And I pray they will count for my reader, too.