The Dreaded Daily Word Count

By Chris Stewart

Open any book on “how to write,” and somewhere you will find a discussion of how many words you should write every day. Forget the struggle to get ourselves to the paper or the computer every day, now we have to produce a certain number of words?

Me? I don’t write every day (Quick! Call the Writer Police!), I don’t do 2,000 words, and you don’t have to either. So what’s the pace you should aim for and how do you figure that out? I’ll show you.

Rather than order yourself to write a certain number of words a day, here’s your free entry into the Design Your Own Word Count program.

find your daily word count in three easy steps:

  1. Give yourself an easy word count limit, say ten words. Ready? Go. And… stop. Hurray! Congratulations, you’ve met your goal. You’re free to go do the laundry or have some ice cream. Your choice.Seriously, note how you’d feel fairly ridiculous if you stopped there. Remember that feeling and keep writing. Check in whenever you find yourself pausing and see if you still feel that way (i.e., lame, lazy, if you’re laughing— picture yourself telling a writer friend, “I wrote 27 words today, isn’t that awesome?” Picture the look on their face). Now, keep writing.
  2. As long as you feel interested and excited in what you’re doing each time you check in, keep going. Even if you’re nervous and a little scared, keep going. Those feelings will propel you past superficial writing about how much you’re looking forward to that bowl of Ben & Jerry’s.
  3. When do you stop? When you first notice you’re controlling word and image choice. When you notice your thoughts turning negative. When you feel yourself sliding downhill into the Tar Pit of Despair. Dig in your heels and turn your eyes back to the sun (your page or computer screen). Look what you’ve accomplished! It’s important that you end the session still feeling positive and excited about what you’re writing.

Hemingway always stopped at a place where he could leave himself something to start with the next day, something to look forward to. Do the same. Jot down where you want to pick up the next time and stop. Work your way up to the count that feels right, through practicing the above exercise. The amount of time you spend lost in your enthusiasm (sometimes even the nervousness) for what you’re writing will get longer and longer the more you stick with it.

We all really love writing. It’s not the act itself, it’s the fear that everything we produce will stink and everyone will find out. Pssst, let me tell you a secret: everybody writes garbage. I’m including the greats too.  Some publisher should dig up some of this bad writing from the best writers of our time and publish it. It would make us all feel better.

Here’s another tip—Stop trying to impress the people in your head. Whoever they are. Who cares what they think? This is about discovering what interesting things you have to say, what visions are in your mind’s eye. Maybe they don’t come out as polished as you’d like, but they are still important. You’re not going to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel right out of the gate. Give yourself a break. Just get it on paper. You can fix it later in the editing process. If you’ve got a blank page, you’ve got nothing. Can’t give a haircut or new hairstyle to a person who is completely bald, right?

I’m giving you a free pass to write garbage. In fact, that’s your first assignment. See what truly awful stuff you can write. I dare you.

As for writing every day: Promise yourself you’ll write three or four days a week and stick to it. If you end up not writing for a week or even two months, and the next time you do you really enjoy it—and end up writing for two weeks straight before taking a break—I’d consider that a successful writing practice.

I believe what keeps you writing is that electric loss of self—when you’re inside the experience, flowing with your thoughts and vision—even if that feeling only lasts for ten minutes.

It’s the process, not the product. Stop when you’re still feeling good. Leave yourself wanting more.

By the way, the word count for this article is 793. Not 2,000 but who cares? What matters is: I wrote today. Did you? More importantly: did you have fun? Good for you. Write it on a Post-it note and slap it on your computer screen. Make sure you use lots of exclamation points. You deserve it.

Christine Stewart is an artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore. She has an M.F.A. and M.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, and other literary magazines. She mentors and leads private workshops for adults and teens, and has taught writing in the extension programs at Los Angeles Valley College and Pasadena City College in California. Christine Stewart has a Website.

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