Why Word Count is One of the Best Tools in Your Writing Toolbox

Why Word Count is One of the Best Tools in Your Writing Toolbox

woman in exercise clothing doing a pushup

Word count–the workout your book needs. CC image “62” courtesy of Fit Approach on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing is a lot like exercise. Most of us like the end result more than the process of getting there.

We like being strong, healthy, feeling good about our weight. We don’t like going for a run, or taking the time to go to the gym, or changing how we eat.

Likewise, we like holding the book we wrote in our hands, the feeling of accomplishment, the glow of success and recognition. We dislike editing, revision, and sitting down to write when we absolutely, 100%, do not feel inspired to do so. In fact, more writers clean their bathrooms as a way to avoid writing than you could ever imagine.

The fact is, though, that we need to write, in order to have written. The best way to do this is through regular writing practice, and one of the best ways to adopt a regular writing practice is to set word count goals.

Not everyone loves word count. I’ve worked with clients who resist the idea. And I can understand their reluctance. Let’s take a look at the pluses and minuses of using word count as a writing tool. We’ll also look at an alternative if, after my arguments, you still decide the word count truly is not for you.

Why word count is a great idea for your writing

Books are long, impressive creations with lots and lots of words. The thought, “I will never finish this book!” bogs us down all the time. However, all of us can write 500 words today. All of us can write three sentences. Word count is concrete and non-fussy, where books are ethereal. Word count keeps us on track with our work.

Word count is easy to measure. Every word processing program can do it for you automatically (if you write by hand, you can soon eyeball when you’ve reached your goal, as well: I promise you only need to manually count your words a couple of times before you realize how many written pages you need). You don’t need any fancy gimmicks, and you don’t need any fancy writing. You need only a certain number of words. If it’s not high literature, who cares?

Word count is easy to maintain as a routine. Five hundred words does not take that much time. We’re more likely to maintain the practice over the long haul. Much like going for a short walk in the evening after work is less intimidating and easier to maintain than training for a marathon.

Arguments against using word count to write

You might be stuck looking for the “perfect” word count. You might spend a lot of time trying to fit your book into some rule of thumb: how many words long it should be, how long each chapter should be, et cetera, instead of writing what needs to be written.

Reality check: There is no “one size fits all” answer to the question, “How long should my book be?” Yes, books in certain genres fall into varying lengths. No, you should not write your book that way—you should write what needs to be written. Word count is a goal (minimum acceptable), not the finish line.

Word count limits what we write. Some writers view the word count process as a kind of “manufacturing” job, industrial rather than creative, output-oriented rather than content-oriented. I have news for you: writing is both. Content drags output along behind it, and output generates content.

We set ourselves up to fail. So much of writing means ignoring the voice of our own inner critic. Now we’re stuck and having a hard time meeting our word count goal, and that voice that tells us we are an abject failure gets louder than ever.

You know how to combat this? Start writing. Turn off the word count meter until you’re done.

Time commitment: an alternative to word count

Word count is a way to sit down to write your book. If you still resist the idea, and/or you feel particularly blocked in your writing practice, here is an alternative: choose a time window.

Instead of sitting down to write X number of words, you will sit down every day, Monday through Friday, at the same time each day, for one or two hours, to write. Whether or not you write—in the beginning, you might find yourself staring furiously at your screen or your notebook—you are not allowed to go anywhere else or do any other task. After the time is up, you may go about your day.

Trust me, you’ll start writing.

The bottom line

As I’m always reminding my clients, everyone has an idea. Books are about ideas plus focus over a longer period of time. The main barrier to completing a book is making the habit of sitting down to write it.

Word count is a great tool to create a daily writing practice. It has the benefit of being completely quantitative, no value judgment required. As we write and edit, we constantly evaluate ourselves: is this good enough? Could it be better? But a word count is a word count is a word count.

I’m not saying you have to love the word count tool. We don’t always love exercise while we’re in the middle of it. But you’ll love the results you get. If you haven’t yet, try word count on for size.

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