Falling off the wagon: On setting and keeping your daily word count

Setting and Keeping Your Word Count -- Contra Spem ScriboOn Friday, I fell off the wagon—

That’s what I was going to write, but then a thought struck me: What is my wagon? And what falling off it really means?

The answer to the first question is kind of simple: to write the WIP. But then I’ve made it complicated for myself: To write 1000 w/day; to do most of it before noon; to write outside the home, in the nearby library.

No wonder that when all these restrictions are piled up atop of a simple task, I feel overwhelmed and my creative child protests and tried to break free. It wants to test limits. It says it feels more like being pressed by a deadline on a college essay rather than writing a story you love.

And it’s completely right.

Of course, those restrictions didn’t fall on me out of the sky.

1000 words are a reasonable goal that I can keep.

Writing in the morning means that if the evening goes wrong, at least part of the goal is reached anyway.

Going to the library (or in any other place) helps with two things: a) establishing writing mood, because at home there is always some chore to do; b) walking, which keeps me healthy; c) changing scenery, which is great for coming up with new ideas.

Still, restrictions are restrictions, and I am not very good with them. Also, there are deeper issues with word counts.

Word count goals are self-imposed and artificial

Don’t get me wrong: If setting a word count for a day helps, one should totally do it. But one must understand that any such quota, big or small, is not really a goal by itself: it’s just a tool that can help—or it can become a block on a road and distraction from the real thing.

There is no correct daily word count

Thanks to the Internet,  there is always a kind soul out there who will do all the hard work, in this case collecting and sharing The Daily Word Counts Of 39 Famous Writers. Not surprisingly, their daily writing ranges widely, from 500 to 10 000, and I think the fact that Ernest Hemingway is on the lowest border should convince anyone that the point is not in simple numbers. More than that, he would intentionally stop himself from writing more, even in the middle of the sentence—so that the well of writing would not get drained.

Daily word count depends on one’s writing style

People are different. Writers are different.

Some write quickly and sloppily and then do a heavy revision.

Some spend most of the time forming nice sentences in their heads before writing a clean draft.

Most do something in-between.

Of course, all these different writers CAN’T write the same number of words every day—they chose what suits them.

You don’t even need it

I wrote my first novel and half a dozen of short stories without setting daily writing goals or placing any restrictions on how or where or when I write. I stuck on them because I hate editing, but I did it! Mind you, that was after years of being afraid of a blank page, so the writing wasn’t easy at all. I didn’t write every day. I even took an intentional week off as a way to fight a writer’s block (an advice from On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity by Victoria Nelson, which I highly recommend). And, to tell the truth, I liked the process of writing much better.

The truth about word counts

The truth is that the only writing goal a writer needs is: to make progress.

So it might be useful to make a commitment to myself to spend some time with a project every day, keep myself immersed in the story, don’t let it go stale.

But I begin to believe that to preserve my love for writing I have to allow wider boundaries, so that it feels like fun, not like an obligation. For example:

Maybe, thinking about a story and jolting notes should count as work and be appreciated.

What if minimum word count can be very low, like 200-300 words, and anything above it is ‘allowed’ to be written? I will celebrate if done and won’t call it failure if not.

And if I go for a walk longer than planned, I can see it as taking care of myself and value it regardless of writing.


But perhaps I’m starting to make rules again, which I hoped to avoid!

Anyway, what I want to do is to regain the sense of fun when I’m writing. After all, why would we write if not for fun, right?

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