Stop Checking Your Word Count

word count photoDon’t Check Your Word Count

Yes, you read that right.

Don’t check it.

Of course, now that I’ve said something, you’ll probably want to check it. But try to resist.

A few weeks ago I talked about using the improv rule “yes… and?” when you write as a means to push yourself into new places by letting your imagination go wild. Improv lets you experiment, lets you break boundaries that you might have consciously or unconsciously set for yourself.

Something else that I think you should try is not checking your word count on your first draft. Like, at all. Ever. Just don’t do it.

It’s become standard to use word counts as goals for writing. Many writers I know use their word count as their primary goal. They set out to write X amount of words per day or in total for their book. They work and work until they hit that goal. They tweet and Facebook about how many words they’ve written for the day or post pictures of their Scrivener stats showing a green progress bar for the writing session.

I do this, too. My first two books I had word counts in mind. I set myself daily goals for how much to write. I knew – or thought I did – how many words I wanted total. And I was proud of hitting those goals. But I struggled a lot with my first drafts. And now I’m realizing that it might have been in part because I had such specific word count goals in mind. Word counts that ended up having nothing to do with my final product. My latest book, The Wrong Woman, started out at a little over 80,000 words and ended up at a little over 50,000.

So lately, as I’ve started to write another book, I’ve thought very consciously about how heavily I rely on word count to see me through, especially to see me through my first draft. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to cut it out. I need to stop checking my word count.

I’m all for goals in writing. I think it’s sometimes easier to focus knowing that I am going to sit down and write X amount of words. But on the other hand, I feel too badly when I miss that goal. I feel like a failure when I can’t get to that 1000 words I promised myself or that 80,000 word total I thought I needed to have. Even when I’ve maybe written 500 words or even 100 words. Or when I haven’t written anything at all but “only” spent time outlining.

I don’t need to set myself up to be disappointed. I need to be joyful about putting any words on the page or outlining or “merely” dreaming up the next bit. When I am composing the first draft of my books, I need to support myself. This is the most creative time in the writing process. I am looking at a blank page waiting to be filled with the products of my imagination. As soon as I write that first draft, I begin working with something that already exists. Other drafts can still be a creative time to change things, but the first rush has passed. Never again will I face the promise of the blank page waiting for that particular story.

So, for the first draft of my new book, I’m trying an experiment: I am not going to check my word count. Not even once. I am going to try to free myself from thinking of how many words I might or might not have put on the page today. I am not going to think about how many words I want to end up with.

This may be the most difficult thing I’m going to do on this draft. Forget coming up with a story. Forget finding the right words. The hardest thing to do is NOT to check that word count after every page, paragraph, or even sentence. In the past, I’ve learned to measure my progress and my worth by how many words I put on the page and not what I’ve actually produced.

Don’t get me wrong here. Word count can be an important thing for future drafts and for submitting to publishers. Oftentimes there are certain expectations in genres to hit a particular number of words. (This is certainly true of romance.) But the beauty of self-publishing is the freedom to buck “convention” and do something new if you want to. And you can always work a draft into line with genre expectations by adding or cutting later. What I’m saying is: let yourself go on your first draft. Write what you will and how you will in just the right amount of words to express it.

My first draft is a thing that I know will morph into something new by the time it is ready for other eyeballs. There is time and space to expand it or contract it to fit a genre or to fit better with my idea of what it should be.

But I have to make sure that I leave that for the next draft. For now, as hard as it may be, I want to turn off the word count and be satisfied with the words I see on the page, no matter how many or how few they are.

How you do as a writer use word count in your drafting process?


6 thoughts on “Stop Checking Your Word Count

  1. I think the trick is to not do anything that hinders your writing. The only time I had word count goals was during Nano when I had to get my 50,000 done in 2 weeks as my family was descending on me. Tweeted.

    • Agreed. I’ve been trying to pinpoint just what I get hung up on when writing firstt drafts and discovered that trying to hit a certain word count, rather than being proud of whatever I’d done was really holding me back from being truly creative. Glad you usually work without a word count!

  2. I really obsessed about my word count and still do. Mostly that was because of habits picked up during NaNoWriMo. I really shouldn’t. I completely agree with you and the detrimental focus it causes on less important things than writing a good, if not great, story. BUT…when I really sit down and think about it, how is counting the words any different than, say, counting pages or writing for a set period of time (#1k1hr)? I don’t think it really. Is it attitude? Willpower? Concentration? Discipline? Maybe the word count is the way we *start* learning all these things and eventually we can just get rid of it as we hone our craft.

  3. I try not to worry about word count (outside of NaNoWriMo) and instead make a 15-minute commitment to writing every day. Some days, it’s a lot more than that, of course, but my only creative writing goal is to write for at least a quarter hour. Now, I’ll admit I do check the word count most days, but I don’t get discouraged when it’s only a few hundred because that wasn’t the point.

  4. I set goals for myself based on scenes — I need to write these two scenes today, for example. It helps me to KNOW what I’m going into to reduce some of the time I spend staring at a blank screen (I have a full-time job and two small children, so maximizing time is really really important to me), but sometimes those scenes end up being 2k words, sometimes 3k, it doesn’t really matter.

    On Word for Microsoft, though, it automatically shows the word count in the bottom right corner. Anyone know a way to turn that off?

    • Hi Alicia. On my version of MS Word, I can turn off the word count in the status bar by changing it in the preferences for the software. I’m working on a Macintosh though.

      On my version, I select Word menu, then I select Preferences, which causes the Preferences window to show up. When the Preferences window appears, I click on View in the Authoring and Proofing tools. Then I look for the “Live Word Count” checkbox in the Window area of what appears. I then deselect that checkbox and then click OK. I’m sorry I can’t help you with the Windows OS version of MS Word.

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