The Downside of Word Counts

I have been keeping a daily practice of writing at least 200 words a day towards a writing project (blog post, newsletter, speech, game dialogue, etc.) for over 900 days now.

Over that time I have developed a few vague rules—word counts are allowed to roll over but only for a maximum of two days (e.g. if I write 1,000 words, then I can have the next two days off); I can retroactively complete a day but it has to be the day following the one I missed—but the core spirit of it has remained the same and I have maintained it come what may.

Sometimes, of course, those words just won’t come.

This post is the result of one of those days. I have been writing a lot about game development. We’ve been doing a lot of travelling lately, so my game development is currently on hold which means these posts have dried up.

I do have a few drafts waiting but they are so big and involved that they require some serious editing.

The Problem with Word Counts

Editing means deleting and this is a problem when using a word count as a target. It becomes a lower priority even though that’s where a lot of the craft actually lies.

Writing 200 words a day is generally easy—I can bash them out on a phone while waiting for a bus—but setting aside a couple of hours to whittle those words into some shape is much harder. It becomes more about concentration and quiet and thoughtful reflection and less about the actual bashing of keys.

I participated in NaNoWriMo a few years ago and it was actually pretty fun and easy. I racked up 31,000 words that month.

However, the Scrivener document with all of those words in it has sat unopened for years. What’s in there is hot garbage that would require many more months of dedicated effort to turn into anything even closely resembling a novel (I was going to suggest that we need a National Novel Editing Month. Turns out there already is one—perhaps I should give it a go).

I think I get hung up on word counts because they are easy to track and measure.

Editing is harder to quantify. Sometimes it really does involve sitting and staring into space for an hour or two as I work things over in my head. Or it requires deleting and replacing the same word or sentence or paragraph over the course of a month as I decide whether or not it really does fit.

This kind of activity is, in a lot of ways, the essence of creative work. Unfortunately, as our devices encourage us to be more like them, it becomes more difficult to justify spending the time on these than it does on something with a number that will give me a badge and an excuse to crack open a beer.

(This is not to pile on NaNoWriMo, by the way—having a global community to encourage you to start or continue writing if it’s not something you do regularly is a great thing and I certainly don’t regret doing it.)

I do believe I have published more than I would have without these daily word counts. At the very least it keeps me opening the documents I’m working on every single day and prevents them from being relegated to the dusty corners of my hard drive.

Then, on the magic days, I’ll reluctantly open one of them expecting to have to force out another 200 words and suddenly it will be 3 hours later and I’ll have a post that I’m ready to publish.

But the longer I use word counts as a motivator, the more aware I become of their shortcomings and how little of actual writing they represent.

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