The Word-Count Blues

Last fall I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. It was a fascinating and hectic experiment. I came out of the experience with a 50,000-word first draft of a new fantasy novel, and a lot of thoughts about how the emphasis on speed changes the writing process.

Soon after that, I noticed some other writers using daily word-count as a measure of progress in their normal writing lives. It seemed to work well for them — they were always meeting or exceeding their goals.

So I thought I would try it, too. At first, it helped. In the first rush of getting a story down on paper, I checked my daily word count and was filled with a sense of accomplishment.

Then, a change in plot happened — one of my characters decided the story I had planned for him wouldn’t work. I needed to re-write. Then the middle of the story seemed sluggish, and needed re-worked.

I noticed myself becoming kind of frantic when I didn’t meet my goal.

The more frantic I became, the less I produced.

Clearly, measuring progress by word count isn’t for me!

The real sense of accomplishment should come from the work itself. There is an intrinsic satisfaction in the work of writing — worldbuilding, character development, even making revisions. The actual day’s writing might consist of a first draft of a chapter, or just a scene. I always knew when I had a good writing day — I didn’t need a number to tell me.

I might participate in NaNoWriMo again; the experience taught me a lot. But NaNoWriMo is a sprint, where the objective is to “silence the inner editor” and go–go–go. The rest of the writing process is a marathon, or even a steeplechase, with complexity and obstacles. It’s hard work — but I enjoyed it more before I started rewarding myself with numbers.

I plan to forget the word count tool exists, at least until it matters. Perhaps then I’ll be able to put the analytical part of me away, and just write.

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