There’s a part of writing culture that’s grown with the rise of social media (particularly Twitter) that focuses on word count. Not the “word count” of your book that’s so important to knowing how you should revise your first draft, or “final word count” that’s crucial to include in a query. Your daily word count refers to how many words you wrote for your WIP today, and usually involves posting about said word count.
I was first introduced to the concept of daily word counts through craft-focused books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. These books, along with the hundreds of writing-related essays I read on the Internet as a teen, emphasized the importance of writing regularly, even if that didn’t mean writing every single day. They urged the aspiring writer to set a word count goal for these days and meet it. This was encouraged even on the days where writing felt like dragging a piano across a highway–full of delights like devoting hours to a grueling task, constant fear of having to stop short, and the same thought crossing your mind throughout: “Why the fuck am I doing this?”
So, like any good writer-in-training, I followed the advice of the experts. I started off by setting a time requirement and seeing how many words I produced during that session. Two hours felt natural, and going for any longer than that made my brain feel like a few cogs had broken. Eventually, I noticed two hours of consistent writing tended to result in at least 1,200 words, usually more. I made that my bare-minimum goal. To keep myself accountable, I started posting daily word counts on Facebook, the only social media account I had at the time. It was purely for myself–I didn’t really care if others acknowledged it. Besides, I didn’t provide an explanation for what the hell I meant by “1,200 words” or whatever, so nobody would even know what I was talking about.
I settled into this routine over the course of several years and manuscripts. I got a Twitter and started posting my word counts there as well as on Facebook. I noticed other writers did it as well, and that…wow, some people can write a lot in one day, huh? Check out that person’s 4,000 words today. And they’re writing more later this afternoon! That one managed 6,000 words, and they have two kids to take care of. I see a lot more people floating between the 4,000-6,000 range, and yikes, that writer’s racked up 13,000 today!
Meanwhile, when it comes to my fiction, I’ve never reached 3,000 words in a 24-hour period. I’ve felt insecure about this for a while, but it never affected me too much. That is, until this week. This week, it’s hit me hard.
It’s not a strange week for me to struggle with this. I’m having mental health issues. I’m having a host of other personal problems that are contributing to said mental health issues. I’m experiencing plenty of writing-related emotional mood swings during the querying process, as every querying writer does. A few days ago, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed–which was full of triumphant word count posts with more words than mine, publishing advice, writing tips, publishing trends–and I snapped. The tweets that were normally helpful to me became overwhelming and discouraging. It didn’t help that all I’d written during the entire week so far was a measly 700 words that I was too embarrassed to post on Twitter.
It’s not just this week, either. I’ve been struggling with getting words down for months, due in part to the fact that I work two jobs. I can’t remember the last time I wrote for two hours straight–usually it’s more like an hour and a half, or just an hour. I’ve bumped my desired word count down from 1,200 words to 1,000 words, and sometimes I can’t even manage that. It reminds me of (I’m about to quote Paramore, so brace yourselves) a lyric that used to resonate with me when I was a teenager and went a night without writing: “Just don’t let me fall asleep/feeling empty again,” from “Pressure.” Most nights nowadays, this lyric rings true more often than it rings false.
I’m writing this blog post to remind myself, and others who might be struggling with the same thing, that small word counts are okay.
First, let’s tackle the idea of a word count goal: they’re helpful in the long-term, when you want to produce a full manuscript and don’t want it to take seven years. But they can also hurt you, both mental-health-wise and writing-wise. I’ve skipped hundreds of writing nights simply because I’ve looked at the clock, thought “I can’t stay awake for two more hours to write,” and given up. Only recently did I realize I could get around that problem by shortening my writing sessions, even if that meant writing fewer words. It was the “fewer words” part that made me hesitate. Why should I bother, I thought, if I’m not gonna meet the 1,200 minimum?
As my mom says every time I complain about this, writing 700 words means you have 700 words more than you did yesterday. It’s better than having written nothing at all. You still inched the story forward, even if it was by a toe’s length. Sometimes, life circumstances require that you suck up your pride and do it. What if you only write one sentence? Awesome, you wrote something, and you should be proud. And you’re not obligated to post about it. If you’re frustrated because you didn’t write more, don’t put it out there. You’re allowed that sort of privacy, and it isn’t dishonest if you post some word counts and not others. In fact, none of your followers or friends probably care.
The other issue is my habit of comparing my word count to the word counts other writers post. Listen, Morgan: you have no idea what their process is. I only know mine. I know that I spend a lot of time on every sentence, and that I sometimes re-write a sentence four times before I settle on something I’m at the very least okay with. I know that some of my writing time is spent pulling up pre-writing documents in search of a note I wrote down that’s relevant to this scene. I know sometimes I spend five minutes of the precious writing session Googling something pertinent to a small detail in the book. I know that, for me, heavy emotional scenes require a lot of emotional precision the first time around. Emotionality is something I try to nail in the first draft, because revising it in later feels unnatural to my process. This last one can be very draining. It sometimes requires staring at the blinking cursor for ten minutes because I’m trying to think of the word that hurts the most, or hurts in the right way.
Everyone else’s process is a mystery to me. Maybe they type faster, or they plan their scenes meticulously ahead of time. Maybe while writing the first draft, they don’t concern themselves with precision and focus purely on getting the words down–something I’ve never been good at, and the reason I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo. Maybe some of those 6,000 words include sentences like “insert dialogue here that doesn’t sound like shit.” Hell, maybe their process is exactly the same as mine, but they’re honestly faster. It doesn’t matter. Their process has nothing to do with me. Failure and success isn’t measured by word count or by how often you write. I get to decide what it’s measured by.
I urge anyone else struggling with this not to punish themselves for whatever they’re insecure about, in terms of writing or otherwise. Move at your own pace, and don’t be afraid to adjust that pace if you need to. Don’t judge yourself for failing, and see if you can look at the situation from a different perspective–does it have to be a failure, or is there a way to view it as a success? Try not to compare yourself to others. I know that’s hard, especially if you’re in a creative industry and/or you’re ambitious, but everyone has their own methods that work best for them. Wow, this advice is starting to sound pretty generic and cheesy, so for my last piece of it I’ll say, uh, you should download the Miitomo app, because it’s really fun and I’m obsessed with it.
Happy writing, even if it’s only a sentence!
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