Of Goals and Word Counts

September 15th, 2009 by David Leave a reply »

We all need goals: make rent money, clean the kitchen, drag our butts out of bed. As a writer, I find myself in a quandary because the more quantifiable I make my goals vis-à-vis word count the more I find myself driven to gauge my writing by content rather than quality.

I have little interest in writing sprawling, 700-page novels. I really like shorter books. In fact, my first fear as a writer was that I could never write anything as long as a novel—I was a poet and short story writer in my college training and everything I’ve done in my professional life since has been shorter work. I have a love of story and language but not of the complicated plots required to sustain a really long novel.

That was one of the reasons (besides a true and abiding love for children and the literature that inspired me as a child) I wanted to write books for younger readers rather than just for adults. But I digress.

Writing to a daily word count encourages me to take my time with scenes, adding details that are not essential to the book’s main plot. It’s all stuff that I find interesting and helps flesh out the world and characters—and it endangers my 100,000 word count goal for the book.

To help this, I started giving myself goals such as finishing a scene or getting my characters to x place in the story by the end of the day rather than a strict word count target. I still try to hit a minimum of 1,000 words in a day, as novels do have word count parameters and one does not have the luxury of taking years to finish a book most of the time. But story goals help keep me focused on the heart of writing: the darn story.

I recently completed a #wordathon “contest” where I shared word (and page revision) counts with other writers. It was a wonderful exercise in motivation that helped me write 10,800 words in two and a half days, my largest output ever in that amount of time. In that case, it worked because I already had my scenes carefully plotted out and I just had to focus on the writing. The group project provided extra incentive to work hard.

But I’ve had other instances of days with good word counts where I’ll have to spend extra time in revisions tightening up scenes and dialog. The word count goals that seemed so impressive at the time ended up being ephemeral because I hadn’t set proper story goals.

The best words are the ones that stay on the page—and in the reader’s mind. Even a small number of them is better than a large number of forgettable words written to satisfy a daily word count.


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