Don't Force the Suck: Why I Quit Word Count Goals

4 years ago

I have a confession to make: I quit on word count goals.

Every year, I'm happy for my NaNoWriMo-embracing friends. I've spent time next to them at the library. I've cheered for them when they reached their fifty thousand nouns and verbs. I can no longer do it myself.

I'm working on my third novel. I wrote the first (unpublished)(really a rough draft) when I was twenty-four, in hotel rooms across the upper Midwest while on breaks from my public-relations-media-tours job. Emphasis: wordcount. Quality: suck. I wrote the second in a linear, chronological manner from a very thin outline while sitting in front of a computer. Emphasis: wordcount. Quality: first two years, suck. Third year, better -- but how it got better is so painful. I started writing THE OBVIOUS GAME with word count goals. I ended up so off-base from the story I wanted to tell -- while worrying about getting to twenty thousand, then forty thousand, then seventy-five thousand words -- that on one horrible afternoon I read through my agent's comments and cut ten thousand words in fifteen minutes. Ten thousand words, if I had been operating with a better plan, I never would have written in the first place. Do you know how bad it hurts to slash and burn ten thousand words in one day? It is like leaving pumped breast milk sitting in a hot car for three hours, except worse, because it took three months to pump those words.

I'm writing now in wildly sporadic chunks of time, sometimes in front of a computer, sometimes on a swing in my yard, sometimes at a table in the parent waiting area of my daughter's ballet school and -- way, way more often than I'd prefer -- in the passenger seat of our car, headphones clamped to my head, while we drive to visit one of our families in Iowa. This time it's different, though. There are no word count goals. Lesson learned: When I use word count goals, I focus on the math rather than whether or not the words suck. I don't want to circle the drain for two years this time. If it takes two years to write this novel, fine -- but I want to be chipping away at good words, not deleting utter crap.

There are two kinds of sucky words. There are words that suck but that is totally fine because you know they are off-brand stand-ins for the far better words that will be there later, and there are words that suck because you're just writing them to hit word count goals. You're padding your sentences worse than your bra. Your adjectives have adverbs. You've put a camper on your Civic. We all know this second brand of suck. We wrote papers in high school that had to be at least five pages long, yes?

Those are the sucky words that will be cut and that you know will be cut even as you write them. Don't go there, my friends! No word count goal is worth it!

Credit Image: KishR on Flickr

I started to have this conversation a few weeks ago on Twitter, and it became obvious to me some folks thought I thought my writerly shit didn't stink. Oh, honey. It stinks. I write way more drafts (I think) than most writers because it takes me so many rewrites to get it right. I'm fine with rewrites, as long as they are rewrites hinging off necessary-to-the-novel words.

Rather than focus on word count, I now focus on incremental progress. I love incremental progress. What you have sucks a little less than it did yesterday, a little more than it will the next time you write -- which may or may not be tomorrow! Tomorrow you may be called away on an important errand that will find its way into your fifth novel. We are writers, but we are also livers, and the two are not mutually exclusive. There is no need to write ten thousand word-count-goal words that don't further or enhance your story, unless you enjoy having your butt in a chair instead of out frolicking among humanity getting ideas for more writing.

What's the alternative to word count goals? Spending a lot of time planning. Outlining. Writing a short synopsis and a long synopsis that won't ever be published anywhere but will help you write your novel with fewer false starts. Writing the query before you write the novel. Pitching the idea to people who like to read to see if they'd pick up your novel based on that blurb on the back of the book. Figuring out the story arcs before you start writing. Asking yourself if that secondary character is too static, whether you have any plans for his or her personal growth. Deciding who your characters look like so you can describe their movements without forcing cliches. Doing this work is hard if you like to measure yourself with words, because this part of it involves a lot of staring into space listening to music that makes you feel like your main character instead of, you know, you. I never get many words when I'm doing this. Every once in a while, I'll think of something totally cool, and I write that down. It might be twenty words, but they are twenty words that will grow into three thousand once I know enough about my novel to write that scene.

If you don't use word count goals, you need a different way to keep yourself on track. I use time minimums in the beginning and incremental revision progress later in the process. Writing the rough draft is harder for me than working on revisions. That blank page is just horrifying. Not knowing how the story will end is just horrifying. When I'm in the rough draft stage, I have to set a timer like I'm twelve and writing a book report and force myself to at least think about my novel for an hour. Sometimes 46 minutes, because psychologically that's easier. I might keep going after that timer dings, or I might rejoice and run off to read someone else's way better novel.

If I force myself to just think about what's going to happen for an hour, I understand my book better than if I'd written five thousand words that drift slightly the left of my intended plot.

Once the revisions begin, I go for incremental progress on my scenes. Some scenes are more screwed-up than others. Some need slight tweaks, and some might as well be tweaking. If, when I'm finished, the revision is one draft of one scene better than it was the day before, goal accomplished. Even if I only changed three words.

Doing anything other than staring at the television takes motivation. We humans naturally gravitate toward activities with clear rewards. If you want to make time to write, stop beating yourself over the head with goals and focus on how awesome it'll feel to create something totally original and all by you. It's important for both you and the people who live with you to understand that you really like writing. Writing makes you a nicer, better, more actualized and interesting person, not because you've decided you have to spit out 1,667 words every day in November but because it gives meaning to your life.

To quote the great Chuck Wendig, giver of excellent writerly advice (and prolific writer who actually does use word count goals, whatever), here's how to get the time you need to create.

You will not get the time you need to write unless you ask for it.

It’s that simple.

Nobody’s psychic. You want to write, you need to tell your wife, husband, children, pets, live-in love-slave, robot butler — “Hey, I really need an hour today to do this because it’s important to me.” Part of it’s because everyone assumes it’s a hobby. They assume you’ll fill your copious free time (HA HA HA FREE TIME GOOD ONE, ME *self-five*) with writing as you would if you were building model airplanes or doing Nude Sunbathing Full-Contact Sudoku.

Writing isn't a hobby for you, is it? Isn't it more ... your art? Own your art. Then, once you've explained to those people who love you why you're writing that novel, look deep inside yourself and ask yourself which story only you can tell. Think about why only you can tell it, and write that down in a sentence. Even if you've only got seven words on the page, if you can determine why only you can write your novel, you're halfway done.

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the deputy editor of Find more at

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