Unrealistic Word Count Goals Are Like Yo-Yo Diets

I’ve discovered a writing secret: word count goals can be unhealthy. 

At least for me. There’s this idea I used to find myself tied to. I must write X number of words every single day. It was like a yo-yo diet. I’d think: I didn’t make my word count goal yesterday, so today I’ve got to catch up. Too many calories the other day means too few today. It’s a cycle of artistic binging and starvation.

Would you write more if you didn’t have the guilt? The answer for me is yes. I do.

This may be a controversial take among writers, but it’s something I’ve learned from writing three books and helping other writers at my online writing retreats. Overly focusing on word count metrics can be counterproductive. For me and my writing. Maybe for you too, depending on your writing personality.

I recently saw a tweet where the writer was asking about a normal word count, noting that some writers write 10,000 words a day, even 50,000 with dictation. Is that healthy? Is that publishable? Is that anything any editor would ever want to see in terms of quality? Probably not.

Have I ever written 10,000 words in a day? The answer is unfortunately yes. Will that writing ever come out of the drawer? Absolutely not. It wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t good. I wasn’t sleeping much at the time, and I was not in a good head space. It was nothing to aspire to.

Do you set unrealistic writing goals and then beat yourself, feeling bad that you didn’t achieve them? Do you work a full-time job? Do you have a family? Are you going through something in your personal life? Come on, let’s be realistic in our goals. Start small and actually achieve more.

Excessive word count thinking also glorifies long-winded novels and devalues tight writing, short stories, flash and poetry. Because sometimes my best writing isn’t adding words at all. It’s cutting them down. 

As I wrote my new short story collection, Love and Other Monsters in the Dark, I found myself ditching word count goals all together. Instead, I scheduled slots of time. Sometimes with other writers on Zoom. Sometimes on my own. I didn’t write every day, but it felt liberating and free. I lived my life. I got out of my office. I stopped staring at the wall trying to drum up words. Instead, I told a story. Then another. Sometimes it was a paragraph. Sometimes it was several pages. In between, I wrote poetry.

Now, there are times when you can learn from word count goals. National Novel Writing Month in November can be a great learning tool for writers, where they write 50,000 words in a month. I’ve seen writers let go of perfectionism and writer’s block. I’ve seen them streamline their lives, give up social media and train their families to respect their writing time. These are all good things, but crafting a book is a marathon, not a sprint. If you try to write too fast for your lifestyle, in the long run, every month of the year, it can lead to burnout.

I do take pride in writing a lot of words after the fact, but I’ve found my best quality writing is centered around short blocks of time. I often set timers. When my kid was little and I was still a stay at home mom, I wrote a crime novel during her nap time. I wrote so fast because I never knew when she’d wake up. It was great.

Setting short attainable goals makes me more likely to open my documents. Mentally agreeing to a half hour instead of an hour. I write as many days as I can carve out the time—that’s not every day. I write for my half hour, and then usually I write more, which is guilt-free icing on the cake.

Forcing myself to write. When I’m hungry. When I’m thirsty. When my body craves movement. Or my mind seeks inspiration outside of my office. It’s not something I enjoy. Neither is feeling frustrated about my word count. And it doesn’t actually work for me.

But slotting out two hours to write and giving myself permission to write while my family watches a movie is wonderful. Setting aside even shorter blocks of time to open the document is wonderful. 

So next time you write, consider thinking about the number of minutes rather than the number of words. See if it changes anything for you. It certainly did for me.

Get Love and Other Monsters in the Dark at Amazon 

K.B. Jensen

Column by K.B. Jensen

K.B. Jensen is an award-winning author, with two novels, Painting With Fire, an artistic murder mystery, and A Storm of Stories, which veers literary and handles love, craziness and impossibility. K.B. lives in Littleton with her family and rescue mutt. She enjoys skiing and writing poetry. A former crime reporter and journalist, K.B. shifted to the publishing world in 2014, and is a senior publishing consultant and youth writing camp director for My Word Publishing. Her new collection of short stories, Love and Other Monsters in the Dark, is out now. 

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