Daily Word Count, Part One

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

When I was actively writing one of the questions I always asked fellow writers was their daily output. Being a wee bit on the competitive side (understatement) I was always anxious to track my progress and improve my work habits. I wanted to make sure I was as productive as possible.

812Enaqf4dL._SL1500_One of my longtime writing friends is the New York Times bestseller, Debbie Macomber. I’ve always been blown away by Debbie’s work habits. When I first asked her she was writing four days a week– taking Wednesday off for other writerly pursuits like marketing, interviews, meetings, etc. I think she still does that. On each of her writing days her goal was twenty first draft pages. And she was serious about meeting that goal. Once, when I flew up on a Friday to spend a long weekend with her, she hadn’t finished her pages so, instead of just shifting the undone pages into the following week, she arranged for me to go antiquing with another friend while she hunkered down to complete her goal. Twenty manuscript pages equals 5000 words. Pretty impressive.

Courage_to_ RunSM

As I began tracking daily output I found it varied depending on where I was in the book and how much pre-writing (research, character development for fiction, anecdote gathering for nonfiction) I had accomplished. In the beginning of a book– before I really knew the characters well– I was hard-pressed to get 2000 words per day. That’s called ramp time– the uphill climb. But deeper into the book, when the story just flies onto the page I have no trouble with 5000 words a day. On a tight deadline I can even go considerably higher than that. So when someone asked my daily output I’d average it, saying 2500 words with gusts up to 7500.

I asked several of our Books & Such authors to share their writing goals. I got such great stuff from them I need to make this a two-parter to get it all in. We’ll start hearing from them today and  continue next Tuesday.

GabhartAnn Gabhart: When I first started writing many years ago, I kept a diary log of what I had accomplished each day to try to keep me accountable. I had young children then and sometimes those entries weren’t what I hoped to accomplish, but I kept setting goals. Now over 40 years later, I still think in pages instead of words since when I started writing everything was typewriter. So when I’m working on a first draft, I set the goal of 5 pages or approximately 1500 words. Doesn’t sound like much but I’ve written a lot of books that way. As the old saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.

RuchtiCynthia Ruchti: When my plan is working well, I divide the project’s word count (novel or nonfiction) by the number of weeks remaining until the due date. I set weekly goals rather than daily word count goals. At the beginning of each week of the calendar, I write the number of the chapter I should have completed by then. Second week of February–I should have completed through Chapter Ten. If I’m only on Chapter Seven, I know that week will need to be a heavier writing week to catch up to the overall word count goal. What that plan does for me is give me more flexibility within the variations of my family needs, my job requirements, and marketing responsibilities. No two days look alike for me. But a weekly word count goal helps keep me oriented to where I am but with enough flexibility to survive the days when no words get written.

NewportOlivia Newport: I have developed a pattern of 1,000 words four days a week, either in the morning or the evening. Then I aim for 6,000 on the weekend, for a total of 10,000 words for the week. All this is based on careful front end work plotting and planning before I start writing so that I know what that next 1,000 needs to do to move the story forward.

91FFUmCA0lL._SL1500_Jill Eileen Smith: my word count is determined by the date I set to finish a first draft. For the longest time, aimed for 1000 words a day, 5 days a week, but now with double deadlines and life interruptions, I have upped that count to 2-3K per day in order to finish by my self-appointed deadline. I’m exercising in the mornings now, which gives me more strength to sit longer at the computer, so it’s not an impossible goal. One thing I have learned through the advice of a friend is to try (when possible) to sketch out my scenes for the next day the night before. I do this in a notebook by hand, and it makes cranking out those 3K words a lot easier the next day. But I’m also looking forward to going back to 1K. Writing too fast has its drawbacks, especially when juggling multiple points of view. But that’s why I love rewrites. At least then I have something to work with, rather than having to pull it out of my imagination.Thomas

Sarah Loudin Thomas: When I’m writing that first draft I aim for 1,000 words a day on average. Which means sometimes I write more or less (or none), but aim to have around 7,000 at the end of each week.

 

So how about you? Do you set word count goals? Page count goals? Are you a fast writer? A painstakingly slow writer? Did any of these techniques for writing productivity help?

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72 Comments

  • Wendy, Thank you, these techniques do help!

    I’ve set goals during Nanowrimo, but without real pressure (say, of a contract) I didn’t reach the 50,000 word goal. Cynthia Ruchti’s ideas would be a good fit for me: to “divide the project’s word count by the number of weeks remaining until the due date,” and to “set weekly goals rather than daily word count goals.” Then to check my progress each week against the goal, giving me flexibility for family, job, and marketing of previous books.

    I feel inspired to set some writing goals!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      One of the reasons it is important to pay attention to word count pre-publication is that the second you get a contract everyone is going to want to know how long it takes you write the next book. You need to know your writing rhythm before you accept deadlines.

  • I like the advice for setting weekly goals. Daily goals can become work for work’s sake.

    I try not to think about word count; usually I will work through a scene or section in my head while doing other things, and then set writing what I’ve planned, as well as I can, as my goal. Then I do a continuity check, to make sure that it’s congruent with that which has come before.

    Typically it comes out to 5000-6000 words per day when I’ve checked. But I try to discipline myself against checking, these days.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s pretty impressive, Andrew. Most of us who are word-count conscious are working to get the first draft down. Once that raw material is there, the editing begins.

      • I think writing’s like exercise. It’s tempting to increase the number of pullups you can do by ‘kipping’, or swinging the body for momentum…but fitness is better served by maintaining a proper, vertical body position, and coming to a dead hang between pullups.

        Word count’s like that, for me. I’d rather keep the right ‘form’, which I think strengthens my writing overall, rather than go for speed and have to compensate for bad habits, acquired in haste, later.

  • Usually my goal is to just sit down and write for a couple of hours six days a week, but so much of my writing is revision. But when my sister-in-law dared me to write a novella with her in time for a conference we were both attending we did 1,000 words a day, plus the revision I was already working on. That got the job done for the novella ms. but I found that I worked better thinking in terms of writing either a chapter or a specific scene a day rather than a certain word count. If I could get that chunk of story that was in my head down on paper, I was much more motivated to continue that just by some word count in my head. Maybe we’ll try NANOWRIMO next year, because the dare made it really fun.

  • i love hearing about other peoples’ writing process! When I’m fast drafting, I tend to go with word count. That being said, I don’t leave a scene unfinished. So, Sometimes I might end up slightly under or over my actual goal. The first time I participated in NaNo, I set a weekly word count, and broke it down by how many days I knew I could write that week. I have kind of kept that practice.

    When I meet my word count goals, it’s so satisfying. When I’m working toward a self-imposed deadline, I look at how many days I have and how many scenes I think I’ll need to write, and I let the words flow.

    I’m looking forward to reading more next week, Wendy!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I like your term “fast drafting.” That’s the hardest thing for control people like me. I tend to want everything perfect before I move forward and it stifles that creative side.

      • I struggle with that, too. I’m tempted to take way too much time polishing in the early stages of writing. But in the editing and rewriting process so much of that work is wasted when cuts must be made. It’s also harder to cut polished words. I’m always more attached to them. I’m learning to fast-draft. It’s a daily discipline, but my last book I made it all the way through the fast draft with minimal perfecting. I was so proud of myself. That’s my goal for the new WIP I’m starting, too.

      • I take time to picture each scene before I begin writing—figure out the goal and obstacle possibilities to the goal, the five senses—and then I write. I’ve found I love writing my first draft this way. :)

      • Yay, Andrea! I may be bad, but I rarely go back and look at what I wrote the day before, because I know I’ll get caught up in “fixing” everything. I do a lot of my plotting before I begin to write, which makes it easier to leave those written pages unopened until I’m done fast drafting. :)

  • These are all great plans. I can write big word counts when I have the path. But with homeschooling, my time is limited right now. I try not to do work on the weekends … family time. But like Angela, having that novel contract would change everything.

    Right now, I’m working on editing a MS. And I’m waiting … waiting for that next project idea to come. In the meantime, I’m using these days to complete my contracted work on mission articles. And I’m praying.

    God’s time.

    • Wendy, I love your response to Angela … we need to know our writing rhythm. That gives me a goal. Without that agent contract, it’s easy to feel like our speed/rhythm doesn’t matter. You feel like you are continually writing that which no one will read. But it does matter. It may even be comparable to typing speed … the more you type, the faster and better you get. That is great encouragement. Thank you.

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        I’m always amazed at moms with young children at home who are able to write. Some worry that they are taking something away from their family. Debbie Macomber disagrees. She says that she believes having her kids along with her on the tough road to publication taught them to work hard and, in watching her, they learned how to fight to make their own dreams to come true.

        No better homeschooling lesson, right?

      • Yes, Wendy, it’s a hard balance … trying to build their lives, while building your own, knowing they won’t be home forever. Your words are encouraging, as are Debbie’s.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    For me word count is very important. Being a pastor, my time becomes one of the biggest challenges I face. Discipline is a must. I keep a daily log of my word count and note the days where I only edited. It helps me monitor if I need to step up the pace, or encourages me if I’m ahead.

    I love this post, Wendy, because I struggle with word count constantly. I don’t want to get too bogged down in my focus of how many words I have written on one specific day.

    I want to keep my focus on not how many words I have written; but on how many of those words have meaning.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      How true, Jim.

      Of course, it is different for novelists who need to just let the words flow onto the paper in the first draft. Writing nonfiction requires much more pre-building and careful crafting.

  • Great post. I actually don’t set a particular number, I just aim to work on my manuscript at least a few days a week (since I’m a freelance writer and write all the time, every day). Whatever comes out is what comes out.

    Usually I will write anywhere from 1200-2500 words in a 45-60 minute sitting. I’m pretty fast once I get going. But I’ve always been that way…I write in spurts!

  • It’s always so helpful…and encouraging…to read about other’s writing habits. When I’m in the midst of a story with a self-imposed deadline, I try to crank out as many words as possible while my Littles are napping. At first, I didn’t set any deadlines because I was just learning what I could do. Now, with a couple of hours and a solid outline, I can do 1,500 to 2,000 words. Time is limited since I homeschool six children, so I make sure that I’m ready when the time comes — no more email, checking blogs, social media, schoolwork, etc. When the schedule permits, I can sometimes get a Friday or Saturday relatively free (thanks to my husband!) and really crank out the words (at least for me :) ). Thanks so much, Wendy and friends, for all the helpful information.

  • I measure my writing goals in scenes. My word could goal per scene is 1200-1800. On weekdays when I’m working my day job, I aim for one scene in the evening. On my days off I’ll set a 2 or 3 scene goal depending on the time I have available. I work full-time and have kids and other commitments so if I can reach my workday goal two of three times a week and my day off goal one day a week I consider it a successfull writing week.

    • I also measure writing goals in scenes. In the first draft, I intentionally don’t label chapter breaks. This gives me freedom to fine tune the best transitions during the editing phase.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Interesting. I wonder is scene-goals make for more vivid writing. It would be fun to see. I do know that writing some scenes was so draining it was hard to continue afterward.

  • Wendy, love this post! More of these, please. :)

    Here’s my question for everyone. What about when you’re in a stage where you’re not writing? That’s where I’m at right now, getting ready for a book launch. I’m finding it a challenge to stay on track because the work isn’t as measurable, if that makes sense.

    Any ideas?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Hmmm. Could you set task goals? Six contacts, one blog post, one publisher task, etc?

      My question: Does your publishing schedule really allow you to have a writing-free launch? Tell us how. Most writers are writing their current book, editing the last one, coming up with a concept for the next contract and doing the marketing for the launch of the last book they finished.

      • Since I’m going indie and am the publisher too–and I’m a first-timer–I have to set writing aside for the time. In the future I plan to still write during the pre- and post-launch, but this time I’m focusing on the tasks so I figure out exactly what I’m doing. I’m hoping the work takes less time than I expect and that I can return to writing sooner. That would be a fabulous surprise. :)

  • Leah E. Good says:

    I can’t believe I never realized you are the Wendy Lawton who wrote the Daughter’s of the Faith books. I really enjoyed them when I was younger, and regularly recommend them to families with tween girls.

  • Elissa says:

    I don’t pay attention to word count. My “other job” is art, and I can’t imagine counting brushstrokes either. When I write, it’s by the scene or chapter. I have a goal in mind when I sit down, and I work toward it.

    I do like the weekly word count idea though. If I were under contract, I would probably do a variation of that, using an outline. I would divide the outline up and set weekly scene/chapter goals based on when I needed my first draft done.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      You are blessed Elissa if you’ve never had to create to a deadline. The first thirty years of my professional life were spent as an artist– a sculptor. I lived by goals and deadlines and found I did my best work under tight deadlines.

      • Elissa says:

        Gosh, yes I have deadlines. Perhaps I should have mentioned I was a commercial artist before I moved into commissioned paintings. ;)

  • Michelle LIm says:

    Wendy, thank you for sharing the methods of other writers. It is so very helpful to see the variety of writing approaches and how they work for others.

    I have written 9,000 once during Nanowrimo, but usually I write between 1,000-3,000 on an average day. I like to race with my critique buddies. When I am struggling to get the urge to write, we race to finish a scene. It really doesn’t matter as much who wins as it does that we encouraged each other to continue on even when we don’t always feel like it.

    The main thing is finding a system that keeps putting words on the page.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      On the day you did 9000, did you collapse or were you able to write the next day? I often wonder if slow and steady wins the race. (I’ll probably never know– I’m fits and starts.)

      • Michelle LIm says:

        LOL! Yes, I was completely drained after the 9,000 word day. I don’t highly recommend it.

        I do set scene goals for myself more than word count, but I typically try to keep my word count per scene to at least 1,000. In the editing process I add, not delete. (Unusual, I know.)

        If a person writes two scenes a day at about 1,500 words each (1 chapterish), that is a whole rough draft in 30 working days or so of a fiction novel. It really helps to think of it that way.

  • I’ve been in polishing mode for a while, but when I’m writing? Hmmm, I aim for a few thousand or more, give or take the kids’ schedules. And I write on weekends. Basically whenever I can. And I’m a night hawk, so once the house is quiet, I can let it rip onto the screen.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Yep. I love nights for working as well.

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      It’s interesting how different writers are. For me, night is time to SLEEP. I actually like writing where I can hear my husband doing something else–watching TV, music, working in the yard. Background noise pushes me deeper inside my own world.

      • Jen says:

        Oh, me too, Sarah (with the activity in the background thing)! But that has it’s draw-backs, doesn’t it? I hate coming back into the real world to answer such pressing questions like, “Mommy, can I have a snack?” And then my husband worries about my mental health, because often I’ll stare at the questioning child with a blank expression–transitioning between worlds takes a few seconds.

  • When I’m in the early stages of story plotting, my pace is slow. I write the rough draft of many scenes with my pen first, and then flesh them out on the more sterile environment of the screen.

    Most days, I get 1,000 words down, but I have a hard time not pausing to fix errors right away.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It is hard. Lauraine Snelling is the teacher who made me practice editing-free writing.

      • Michelle LIm says:

        It is hard for lots of people not to feel the need to fix. I have to be honest, I am a rough draft lover, so the editor in me stays quiet while I write what I call the “Plot Draft.”

        Sometimes thinking of it as the “Plot Draft” where you just get the plot on the page, frees you from feeling the need for perfection.

      • Sondra Kraak says:

        What are the benefits of editing-free writing? I love to edit and revise, and I can’t decide if this makes the final editing easier or just slows the process down. I think I could edit my work forever and never be quite satisfied. Since I have a basic plot in mind, but not specifics, editing what I’ve written can be a stall tactic when I get stuck, and that’s not good!

  • Because of work and ministry commitments, my days are not the same. I don’t think daily. But I’m going to start a daily log (thank you, Ann Gabhart). Data analysis is a big part of my day job. It’s high time I generate some personal data and analyze the trends. Surely there’s a pattern to be found and improved.

  • Elysabeth says:

    I’m a terrible goal-setter/writer as I’ve attempted to participate in NaNo several years and only one year did actually accomplish the 50,000 word goal over a 30-day period, just not from November 1 to November 30 (I was crazy busy that year in November and ended up writing from the middle of November to the middle of December, breaking 56,000 words in that 30 day period). I work at home and have to have discipline for that but can’t seem to discipline myself to write and I really need to finish the second novel in my YA paranormal mystery series. All of these are great suggestions to help one keep on track with their writing, whether or not you have a publisher contracted deadline or a self-imposed deadline. I need to get back to it and set my goals and get everything done so I can start publishing books again.

    Thanks for the great article – E :)

    Elysabeth Eldering
    Author
    FINALLY HOME (a Kelly Watson, YA, paranormal mystery)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Working at home has it’s own pitfalls doesn’t it.

      • Elysabeth says:

        Very much so. I tend to let things get in the way of staying focused on my job and then when I get off work, I don’t feel like opening any of my writing projects to work on them but I need to; now that I’m almost finished with a crocheting project that needs to be done before I concentrate on anything else, I hope to be getting back to my writing. I have two stories I need to complete before the end of the year (one hopefully by the end of the summer, and the other by at least December) so I can get those polished and ready to go. So better get back to work so I can finish the pressing project so I can get back to my writing. E :)

  • Amy Sauder says:

    I will have to try planning out the scenes I’ll write the next day. Thanks for sharing that tip! I know there’s some days I sit to write and then realize “Oh no! I don’t know what the next scene of the story is. I’ll have to figure that out first….” and don’t get to the actual writing for a few days.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I’ve also heard some authors say that they stop writing right in the middle of dialogue. It’s fun to pick up the words and makes for an easier start.

  • Becky Jones says:

    I am really encouraged by this concept of “ramp time.” It sure can take a while to find your footing! I’m eager to hear writers explain how far they have to trudge into a given manuscript before they feel like it takes a turn, comes alive, and starts writing itself…

  • Allison Duke says:

    By tracking my word count in small time increments, I know that I can write 1000 words in a good hour. By a “good” hour, I mean those times when I know where my story is going and the words are flowing well. As an unpublished writer and a pastor’s wife with two children under 5, these days I think it’s a good week if I get in two hours of writing, or about 2000 words. However, when I’m writing a first draft, my ideal goal is to write 5,000 words a week. When I’m editing and rewriting what I’ve already written, my goal is one chapter a day, 5 days a week. I’m trying to arrange my schedule to work toward that goal.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      5000 words a week would net you two rough drafts a year with weeks left over. Nothing to sneeze at– that’s a full-time working author.

  • Angela Mills says:

    I actually disconnect my wireless and turn off my phone when I’m writing and I find I have a much faster pace that way. My count varies from 1,000-5,000 and when I’m really going I’ve hit 9,000 in one day. That’s highly unusual, though :)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Wow. I’ll bet you were totally used up after 9000.

      I’m the crazy kind of person who, if I hit 9000, would try to figure out how to make that an everyday goal. “Why I could write a historical in two weeks. . .”

      • Angela Mills says:

        Yes and yes. I felt something similar to a runner’s high and journaled that night about trying to replicate all of the circumstances! But it hasn’t happened again :)

  • Wendy, I love what you said about getting “gusts up to 7500″. It was so inspiring to hear how others write too. My routine of six mornings a week works well for me. In each session I usually complete a chapter–I thoroughly enjoy it when a “gust” happens. I’m working on a short and long synopsis right now, and as a mystery writer it feels sacrilegious to write spoilers. ;) I hope I get an agent who prefers to read the query and then go straight to the MS. In the meantime, it’s helped me to appreciate my WIP more now that I can see it from a different perspective.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  • “I don’t count words, mainly because my characters don’t count words either.”

  • Jack Bybee says:

    Wendy:
    Truly decent posting – hoping to see Part Two. Just one terribly ‘old school’ (read mature) habit I have discovered to meet (or not) the Daily Daily Count – I carry a wire-bound note book – I write longhand and, eventually retype and expand. But, like having a sketch book for art, having a note book and pencil, in a meeting, waiting at the bus stop etc. etc. is a great way of keeping up. We don’t all have to sit in front of a silly monitor ALL the time, just to keep up. Word counts are… word counts.
    Keep creating,

    Jack Bybee,
    Author: Journal of Frank Rudd Bybee, 1897 – 1900.

  • Great post! I am a word counter. I use Scrivener and it allows me to set goals for both the overall project and each writing session. Progress is tracked by a color change in the target window. I don’t allow myself to get online, check email, anything until my target has turned green.
    I do have a question about word count though. Is there an industry standard in scene/chapter word counts? What is the general rule of thumb?

  • Darby Kern says:

    Somedays I feel lucky if I get 500 words down. I’ve had days where I did 1200-1800 words that on rereading were just awful.

    I like Lawrence Block’s routine- write first thing in the day for a few hours and spend the rest of the day doing what you need to do. Pushing yourself to write MORE is not always productive in the long run.

    Now if I could just get back into a routine…

  • Jan Thompson says:

    Thank you for this, Wendy! This is timely as I’ve just recently decided to switch back to a daily word count. Long ago I was keeping a daily word tallies but for the last 6-10 months I’ve been on a weekly word count a la James Scott Bell. Due to my scheduling during the school year I could only write in spurts. But as summer is coming I should have more time to write daily, and so I’m switching back to daily quotas. So appreciate your blog and reading about how authors are disciplined about their daily word counts. That’s the key, isn’t it? Personal disciple to stick to it!

  • I definitely set goals, but they change depending on my project. Picture books take less time to complete. I can often get a first draft done in three days. That doesn’t mean it will be ready, as I tend to edit everything at least three times before submitting it.

    This MG novel I am working on has me trying to turn out 1000 words whenever I sit down to write–which isn’t often while starting a new career as a real estate agent. I’m sure God has a better handle on it than I do alone, so I’ll keep praying He’s show me the way to get it all to happen, while I keep setting my goals.

  • Jen says:

    One of my crit partners recently cranked out a rough draft novella (40K) in a weekend. Holy keyboard smokes! I can’t even imagine.

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