Word Targets – Do They Fire You up, or Should You Set Them on Fire?

silver pen on white paper
Credit: Steve Johnson on Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/@steve_j

What makes a writer a writer? How many words should I be writing per day to merit the title of author?

Is that every day, or can I take weekends off?

Are word/chapter/story targets helpful, or are they arbitrary numbers, sometimes anxiety-inducing and unattainable, other times constraining your creativity? Should we let go and trust the process?

Most creative folks have probably struggled with this question at some point or other. Or maybe struggle with it all the time. Stephen King’s recommendation of 2,500 words per day has crushed the spirits of many a journeyman scribbler. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the apocryphal anecdote about James Joyce despairing over his seven-word daily output. Another writer named Patrick Leigh Fermor allegedly took 78 years to write his magnum opus, a chronicle of his travels across Europe. He died before finishing The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, leaving the manuscript for his literary executors to finalize. I haven’t read it, but it’s going on my TBR list out of sheer curiosity.

My own approach has varied over the years. At first the goal was to write every day, regardless of duration or word count. Once my stories started finding their way into magazines and anthologies, I settled on 500-700 per day as a reasonable goal. Work and travel tended to toss the occasional wrench into this, so I revised the target to 3,000 per week, figuring I’d catch up over the weekend. It rarely worked out, but at least I had something to shoot for, to provide structure to my efforts. Pre-pandemic I was hitting this target most weeks. These days I’m exceeding it pretty easily.

Revisions and/or edits should count toward your word tally. My current goal is 1,000 words of revisions and 250-500 words on a new project per day. Weekends are reserved for new stuff only. It’s the best I can do while working full-time, and it still adds up to a decent amount of writing.

This post on speculative fiction author Chuck Wendig’s blog got me thinking about targets again. I no longer feel like I need a daily, or weekly, or yearly number. The habit has been created, the groove has been greased; now it’s just a question of how many minutes I want to spend doing it. However, that daily writing habit/target was very useful early on in my writing endeavors. I believe setting them builds discipline and skill, and Mr. Wendig agrees:

To some degree, it was like one does with exercise: as a runner, and with the weather getting warmer, I will run three times a week, even if I don’t want to. As long as I’m not injured, I’ll run. Even if it sucks and I hate it. I run.

Generally, Chuck dishes out some excellent writing advice, acquired over years of writing professionally in several different genres. His fiction is also top-notch. You could do a lot worse than follow his blog or the instructions in his how-to book, Damn Fine Story.

For me, it’s all about hitting a balance. Writing is a hobby that will never replace my job, so the last thing I want to do is treat it like a job. I know some writers find the word “hobby” offensive and somehow demeaning to their craft, but I don’t use it with that intent. It’s just where writing fits into my day-to-day, with regard to my commitment level and ability. I imagine it’s the same with most people who don’t depend on writing to pay the bills.

Word targets and deadlines – are they useful, or simply a source of stress?

13 thoughts on “Word Targets – Do They Fire You up, or Should You Set Them on Fire?

  1. I do believe in word counts, but I don’t freak out if I miss a day. I think if I’m too hard on myself then I get all stressed out, and it’s harder to write, a vicious circle.

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  2. I’m sticking to my page a day, started in mid-December. That’s about 400-500 words. Of course it’s first draft stuff, and I hear the crap meter going off regularly, but at least I’m sticking with the work and pushing it forward.

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    1. First drafts are crucial, even when they’re little more than a bunch of random sentences. Sometimes it takes progressing a chapter or two to realize what you wanted/needed to say two chapters ago.

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      1. I’m hoping when I return to the beginning of the manuscript (I write first drafts by hand) to type it into Word, I’ll have enough material to squish and shape into something worthwhile.

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      2. It keeps me moving on instead of reading the beginning and getting sucked into editing that. I just hope the beginning makes sense when I return to it for the typing round.

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      1. Thank you for your reply, Damir and for sharing your thoughts about delusions. The delusion that you mention also has its converse in this poem, namely: “The delusion that you perceive fundamental truths everyone else is blind to.”

        Actually, this poem comes from a prose piece that I wrote, titled “Homage to L.A.: A Slaughterhouse of Dreams”, about my experience of Los Angeles. This poem appears as one of the paragraphs in this piece. I then decided to extract it from the prose piece and to turn it into a stand-alone poem.

        So, what do you like writing about the most yourself?

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  3. Thankfully – or not – I never suffered from the converse delusion. The older I get, the more convinced I become that we’re all just making it up as we go along.

    Most of my writing is in the horror genre, but I have also dabbled in science fiction. Tried my hand at the surreal and ‘weird”, but was never quite able to pull it off. For me, writing is the act of exploring uncertainties and fears from a safe distance, through a window into an alternate reality. E.g. everyday terrors magnified through the lens of the supernatural. I’ve written about some of my interests in this blog piece: https://darkerrealities.wordpress.com/2020/05/19/fault-lines-and-multiverses.

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  4. Thank you for your further response, Damir and for telling me about your writing.

    Horror genre is one genre that I have never really written in. But science-fiction, surreal and weird genres are some of my favourite genres to write in. Would be happy to share some of these writings with you.

    It might be easier to communicate by email. You can find my email address here: https://bozlich.wordpress.com/about/

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