Why You Shouldn’t Care About Writing a Set Number of Words Per Day


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As a writer, I try hard to stay connected with other writers, especially on social media. And one thing that’s always puzzled me is how writers will tell others how many words they want to write that day, or how many they’ve written.

To be clear, having a goal for yourself in your writing isn’t a bad thing. And having a concept of a daily word count can help you with pacing your writing if you have to complete a project by a set date.

But I can’t help but feel like, more often than not, those word counts are merely an extension of a bigger social problem–that is, the idea that the more we do, the more value our work has, and by extension, the more value we have ourselves. After all, when writers post about meeting huge word counts, they usually get tons of “kudos” posts in response.

Alternately, people will lament that they can’t or didn’t reach that level for the day, too. Which reveals another issue–the tendency for writers to compare themselves to one another. If we aren’t matching what “the other guy/gal” puts on the page, we think, then somehow we aren’t “real” writers who are serious about the craft, or we haven’t made it in the industry. We’re somehow missing talent or ability or real voice, or perhaps our message is meaningless.

This is perhaps the most troublesome part of it for me, to see writers berate themselves at the end of the day, remark how they feel like somehow they’ve blown it or aren’t up to snuff if they didn’t make their quota, or act as if the day was “off” because word count was low. When you see yourself as having failed or missed the mark, it can create real anxiety and stress. And neuroscience tells us that stress isn’t a friend to your brain–it makes it harder to think and remember, which influences your decisions about your writing as well as your ability to do simple things like rationally decide whether a paragraph is suitable or not. Creativity also flows better when you are relaxed and can let your mind wander. So if you’re not hitting an arbitrary word count, it very well could be that you’re just putting too much pressure on yourself.

The way I see it, books, articles, blogs–no matter what you are writing, your message takes the space it takes. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is no less influential, for instance, than Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. And getting it right on the page takes the time it takes, too–books like Gone with the Wind and Lord of the Ring took well over a decade to put together, while works like A Study in Scarlet and Casino Royale took just a month or two. And while I won’t knock wildly prolific writers like Danielle Steele (she’s reportedly written 179 books to date), quantity is not at all what makes a work profound or meaningful. So why use word count as a metric for your success at all?

Then there’s the fact that overall, productivity tends to even out over time anyway, like a diet. Some days are feasts and words pour onto the pages. Others, you only nibble and maybe do a few paragraphs at best. But in the long run, you’re still taking in what you need, and the project eventually gets done. So the idea that you’re losing productivity on low-word days is a myth.

As a final point against writing word quotas, in my experience, the best writing happens when the narration seems so natural that the storyteller disappears, when you cannot sense them trying too hard and get distracted for it. And that only happens if you focus on the message instead of its length. If you work on a quota, if you try to force it, you’ll probably never have something that feels as natural and transparent as if you simply let the thoughts out as they come.

So just write. Maybe that’s one word. Maybe it’s a few thousand. It doesn’t matter. The story is what counts.

 

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