The Answer to an Even Bigger Question

Rule of Engagement 3.2

I love numbers.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not some sort of mathematician.  I’m not even all that adept at numerical manipulation: in restaurants, like many, I struggle to calculate my portion of a group bill, and to also figure out an appropriate gratuity, and somewhat typical of my generation, I generally can’t perform long division in my head unlike the many people of my parents’ generation who can.

Still, though, numbers hold a place in my heart, or at least, the idea of numbers does, as does what they represent.  For in numbers, I see a concrete means of comparing two or more different states of being: how something is to how it could or should be; how something is to how it was previously; where something started and where it ends.

In short, numbers can be used to monitor change and – more importantly – progress.

And what writer isn’t interested in that?

Practice makes more practicing

I am a practical person, and as such, my thoughts are always concerned with the specific nature of my various practices.  Simply put, when it comes to writing, it’s not enough for me to just make the decision to write every day; I need to figure out how much I’m going to write every day.

I need to put a number on it.

I’ve been unofficially tracking my daily word count since the middle of April.  I was officially tracking it at the start of April, but the numbers were so low, I couldn’t bear to enter them into my Excel document.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was averaging about 250 words a day.  Now, I do work full-time, so I don’t have the entire day to crank out thousands of new words.  Still, 250 words in the two to two-and-a-half hours in the evening I did have to devote to it seemed a woefully low count.

Six years ago, before I took my break from writing, I used to write 700-800 words in about four hours.  In retrospect, that figure likewise seems a little protracted, but I’ve always known myself to be a deliberate (read: slow) writer for whom completed novels are less like the waxing and waning of the moon than they are apocalyptic planetary alignments.

250 words a day felt even more galling in the face of this fact.

A conversation I could count on

I have a good friend – let’s call her NL – with whom I meet up once a week at a local coffee shop.  Though not a writer herself, whether she wants to or not, she receives an update on my writing each and every week.  Often this update comprises a summary of the scene I just finished writing, or the one next on the docket.

Much more often, it involves me complaining about my low daily word count.

NL is so encouraging.  I get so wound up about this issue, and tries her best to put things in perspective.  Below is a paraphrased rendition of a recent discussion on word count.

JN: (Slouching dejectedly) I’m only writing 250 words a day.  It’s going to take me forever to finish this novel.

NL: I don’t know; it seems like a good amount to me.  (Sips tea thoughtfully) Do you know how many words are on one page of a published book?

JN: I calculated it out years ago: one double-spaced page of Times New Roman text is about the same as a one paperback novel page: about 250-300 words.

NL: Well, there you go.  250 words is one page of a book; you’re writing a page of a book a day.  How long is your novel going to be?

JN: I dunno (shrugs) – 350 pages?  That’s about how long the first part was. [A/N: My novel is a novel in two volumes.]

NL: (Nodding sagely) Well, there – see?  If you write a page a day, then you’ll be finished in a year.  That seems like a really good accomplishment to write a novel in a year.

JN: Yeah, I guess. (Pause; wheels turning) But if I write 500 words a day, I’ll be finished in half the time.

It’s a simple bit of mathematics, but the concept is one that’s too profound to ignore: If I write twice as much a day as I currently am, it’ll take me half as long to be finished.

While a novel in a year is a good accomplishment, a novel in six months is even better.  For, again, after not having made a word of progress on my novel for six years, I don’t want it to take me any longer than it has to be completed.

Working S-M-A-R-Ter

And thus did I set about selecting my daily word count goal.  Regardless of what the specific number ended up being, I believe the act of setting a number in general to be a good practice for me rather than aimlessly floundering toward whatever inconsistent sum of words I happen to produce each night.  Recall, I am very left-brained in my thinking.  Don’t let the fact I’m creative fool you; I’m also about as linear as they come.

Furthermore, I doubt there’s a person in the English-speaking world who’s worked in any sort of corporate environment (or one with pretensions of corporate-ness) who hasn’t heard of SMART goal setting: that is, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.  As much as I like to maintain a strict separation between work and writing (hell, work and anything non-work-related), making trackable progress toward the fulfilment of my goals holds much appeal.  Plus, the SMART method is, well … smart.  It makes perfectly rational sense.

Now, I could just track my page numbers – the page I’m on today versus the page I was on yesterday – but page numbers can be arbitrary: I change chapter divisions all the time, which affects the page numbers.  I also often (much to my chagrin) delete whole pages or paragraphs to write them anew, thereby making it possible to hit my daily word target yet end up on a lower page number than when I started.

No, word count is the most objective measure of writing progress there is.  Hence Rule of Engagement 3.2:

Write 400 new words on my work-in-progress novel each writing session.

Yes, I realize 400 isn’t 250 times two.

Over the last two weeks, my word count has jumped up to about 430 words a day.  On some occasions, I’ve been able to get that in just under two hours.  There are specific factors at play (which I’ll discuss in future blog posts) that have enabled my increased productivity.  I’m definitely happy for the change, yet I also recognize that things can always change back as quickly as they changed forward.

In choosing my word count goal, I thus wanted to select a number that pushed me toward what I already know I’m capable of, yet leaves room for the unexpected.  I can always write more if I’m having an especially prolific night.

Besides, if I calculate it out and compare to six years ago, 400 words in two hours is the same speed as 800 words in four.

I may be a slow writer, but at least I’m consistently slow.


In my day job we may do a lot of SMART goal-setting, but it’s balanced by another task that’s one of my particular duties: project and program evaluation.  I will thus report back at a later date as to how I’m doing with my daily word count goal and reassess whether it’s working out for me.  After all, it may have been said that “It’s a dream until you write it down, and then it’s a goal”, but it’s also been said, in the words of home renovation luminary Bob Vila, “Measure twice, cut one”.

But I am curious as to how others monitor their writing progress: Do you count daily words too?  Weekly words?  Have an entirely different means of keeping track as your story grows?  What is your progress goal, and how much time do you allot to achieving it?  I am always interested in the methods of others, so consider leaving a comment.

Related post: The Answer to the Big Question (Rule of Engagement 3.1)

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