05/12/2015 01:46 pm ET Updated May 10, 2016

The Word Count Dilemma

Every modern word processor has the ability to display a document's word count. Even before modern computing, novelists measured progress by pages, generally one manuscript page equally two-hundred and fifty words. As a writer, the most obvious thing that one must do is write, and to succeed in all likelihood, write on a consistent basis.

Full time writers who make a living writing have the time to write every day, but that does not mean that the desire is always present. There are many anecdotes out there about various successful writers and their output per day. Stephen King writes 2,000 words per day when he is working on a novel. He does not take off for holidays or weekends. King writes every day until he finishes the first draft, places it in the drawer for a couple of months, and comes back to it later with fresh eyes. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would write a page and then revise it meticulously until it was in final draft form, eliminating rewrites in the process. Barbara Kingsolver writes so much that she throws away hundreds of pages of content on a regular basis in order to work towards something worthwhile. Many other writers follow similar processes to these, but a writer's work habits are developed largely by trial and error. Full time writers have figured it out, but what about those that are pulling a 9-5 and trying to squeeze in a few precious hours here and there to commit to the Muse?

By setting a daily word count, writing a novel can become a lot more manageable. Simply adding the words per day, whether it be 500, 1,000 or 2,000 like King, shows when the first draft will be complete. Part time writers often times do not have the luxury to write every day, but a simple fix to this, is lowering the word count. Setting the bar at Stephen King's level is likely asking to fail, because with a full time job and other responsibilities that the struggling writer may have, reaching 2,000 words can be daunting, not to mention, putting words on the page just to reach the desired goal, leads to quantity over quality. But first drafts are supposed to bad anyways, right? Generally yes, but first drafts that are forced are rarely going to be helped by a second draft as the second time over will be almost a complete rewrite. All of the time put into the first draft has turned into a frustrating mess that will only make the act of writing it again even more tiresome, confusing, and filled with feelings of despair.

Instead, setting a daily goal of even just 200 words a day during the week keeps the writing fresh, fun, and completely manageable. Maybe write 500 words a day on Saturday and Sunday making the weekly word count 2,000. Reaching a novel length piece of writing will take almost a year at this pace, but the knowledge that it was worked on every day for a full year with careful consideration to the words on the page will lead to better rewrites and edits.

As the habit of writing every day becomes normal, increased output for future pieces of writing is a lot more feasible. The word count may double to 400 per day, and a manuscript could be completed in just six months. Two novels could be produced in one year, and the cycle continues.

Achieving a daily goal, whatever that goal may be, is what is important. The quantitative number itself is not the idea of setting a word count. The development of a consistent process that will be followed until completion is what word counts should be based on. Ideally, building on the habit of daily writing, however large or small that is for each writer, is what will determine if the writer is actually in fact a writer.

Comparing yourself to prize winning and commercially successful novelists is not rational and can only lead to negative thoughts. Make goals, maintain them, and most importantly, write every day, because starting a daily routine for writing is difficult, but abandoning that same routine can be as simple as skipping one day of writing.