As you may already know, for the past eight or so months I’ve been quietly working on my second novel manuscript. And after months of plotting and thinking and researching, when I arrived in NYC at the end of the winter, I got serious about putting words on the page.
First, I dedicated my Thursdays to the novel. Then Sundays. I wrote chapters in the laundromat and brainstormed solutions to tricky plot situations on the subway. I started a weekly writing critique group and made sure I had something to hand in almost every week.
And then I decided to start tracking my word counts.
If you’re not familiar with the process, many writers keep track of their daily output of words. They set word-count goals and measure their progress based on said word counts.
So, I should too, right?
In my non-fiction, I’d never really done word counts. My outputs were always by chapter or section, article or project.
But word counts are the norm in fiction, so I started tracking mine.
And, guys, it made me feel awful.
I’d work a whole day and end up with barely more words than I started with. Sometimes less words than I started with if I did any cutting. And I found very quickly that if I wanted to hit word count goals, I was going to have to change how I worked…and not for the better.
Currently, I cut as I go. If something’s boring, I take it out. If I write a scene and realize it needs to be done totally differently, I re-write it. I’m not trying to make my first draft perfect, but if I notice a problem, I stop and fix it.
For me, judging myself on word counts during the drafting process negated the hard and important work of cutting and editing. It made me feel like I wasn’t moving forward, even though I very much was.
And so I took a long hard look at what works for other writers and I decided that it doesn’t work for me.
So, I tried something else. Something much more like my non-fiction work.
I started asking myself to write a chapter each day.
My chapters are short and the task felt doable. And a chapter a day also left room for my Thursdays and Sundays to be devoted to editing, cutting, or adding more chapters. It gave me a goal, but also left room for me to work within a process that works for me.
And this is my point.
If you realize the way other people do it doesn’t work for you, it’s okay to try something else. It’s okay to be the only one who has no friggin clue what her word count was this week. It’s okay to edit as you go. It’s okay to draft something wild that needs to be massively edited later.
This doesn’t just apply to writing and word counts, of course, but to life as well. And it’s something I’m constantly having to remind myself of.
Plenty of people work full-time and do it well. I find my productivity, mental health, and quality of life suffer if I try to keep up with other people’s work schedules.
Lots of people work 9 – 5. I tend to start at 6 or 7 a.m. and stop when my productivity hits its wall in the early afternoons (or sooner if I’ve got a light day).
Most writers count their words and make goals based on them. For me, the practice made me feel lost, frustrated, and unproductive.
So, a reminder, in case you need one like I did: It’s okay to find what works for you, even if it isn’t at all what works for others.
It’s okay to count chapters or words or nothing at all. It’s okay to draft like a maniac or edit as you go. It’s okay to work unusual hours or structure your work in an unusual way. It’s okay to live an unusual life. And it’s definitely okay to figure out what works best for you and do it.