On Setting Word Count Goals

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m a goal setter, but it didn’t come naturally. When I was a young pup I tended toward the Walt Whitman school of life: I loaf and invite my soul.

That had to change when I went to law school. And then when I joined a big law firm; even more when I went into private practice.

Later, I started running a small business and really had to get into goals, for they are an essential part of Entrepreneurship 101. Those were good self-study years for me. What I learned back then has served me in good stead ever since. (If you’re interested in the details of those lessons, I put them into a monograph available here.)

When I was just starting out on this writing gig, I got some invaluable advice: set a word quota, not a time quota. Don’t say, “I’m going to write for two hours every day!” because there are too many ways to waste that time. You could stare out the window for an hour and a half and call it creativity.

A word count quota produces pages. A page a day is a book a year. (A page is approximately 250 words. A Ficus tree can write 250 words a day. Don’t be shown up by a Ficus tree.)

Over the years I’ve been asked about my quota and system for keeping track, so here it is.

My quota, as it has been for most of my career, is 6,000 words a week—312,000 words a year. I try to write six days a week and take Sundays off to rest the noggin. Having a weekly quota helps because if I miss a day for some reason, I can make up the words on another day.

This works for me, though it’s nothing compared to what some of the great old pulp writers used to do. A few of them pounded out one million words or more per year, and on manual typewriters, too!

Sheesh. They must have driven their neighbors crazy.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, was one of the million-plus boys. Sometimes his fingers would bleed. He’d tape them up and keep typing.

Then he discovered the Ditcaphone. At the peak of his productive years Gardner was dictating his books and had a team of secretaries transcribing them. These days there are several options for speaking your words. Google Docs has a pretty fair dictation mode. So does Mac OS. I’ve done some dictating via my phone (into Google Docs) and on the computer, but it never feels quite right to me. With the editing that’s involved after I dictate, I wonder if the actual word count + time equation isn’t just about the same.

Anyway … I wrote 313,508 words in 2018.

I keep track of my words in two ways. When I compose in Scrivener, which I do most of the time, it has a handy-dandy word count tracker for both the overall project and the current session. If I’m writing in Word, I first jot down the word count of the document. I type, and when I finish I simply subtract the old word count from the new.

I tally these words on a spreadsheet, and have been doing so for twenty years. On my spreadsheet I have four categories: novels, non-fiction, short fiction, and writing. That last category is specific to my craft teaching. So I can look at my sheet and see how many words I’ve written in each category per day. I have a daily tally, and a weekly tally. I have a cell next to the weekly tally that keeps track of my cumulative output.

Next to that latter cell I put in a number. The number is a sequential sum of 6000. So at the seven-day mark, I put 6000. At the fourteen-day mark, 12,000. And so on, right up to 312,000. That way I can see if I’m falling too far behind. Here’s a portion of my spreadsheet from 2018 (click to enlarge):

Okay, does all this seem too complicated? It really isn’t. Once you have the spreadsheet figured out you can reproduce it easily each year. And once you’re in the habit of tracking your daily word count, it will become second nature.

What should your quota be? I advise writers to figure out how many words they can comfortably produce in a normal week, then up that by 10% as a stretch goal.

So what is my word count goal for 2019?

312,000.

What’s yours? Do you have a system for keeping track? Or does the thought of goals for your writing make you nervous?

***

FYI, tomorrow is release day for my new Mike Romeo thriller. It’s available for pre-order now at the special launch price of $2.99.

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45 thoughts on “On Setting Word Count Goals

  1. Very good post, Jim, and thanks for this. I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll share this widely.

    I too use a word-count goal. Mine’s daily, but if I miss or fall short, the sun still comes up and the goal resets the next morning. (grin) I usually meet it, and I often go over. Sometimes way over.

    When I’m in a novel, I generally write every day. I also usually take a few days off between novels, but only until I’m jonesing to put words on the page again (usually no more than three days). During that time, I’m usually involved in online workshops where I learn new (to me) techniques. Though more and more often, I’m finding I already know and use the techniques from the workshops.

    I also keep track on a productivity spreadsheet one year at a time. Mine shows the titles in the left column with dates of the month across the top. The first column to the right of the title is a Carried Forward column in case a book crosses from one month into the next.

    At the bottom of each month are daily totals and the annual total, automatically updated each day for fiction. At the far right are totals for each project (usually fiction, occasionally a nonfiction book), a total for my daily nonfiction (my Journal, which I share in a blog with others), plus the updating annual totals for fiction, nonfiction and overall words.

    It works for me, shows my daily, monthly and annual progress, and most importantly keeps driving me back to the keyboard.

    I rise very early to write so I don’t miss much family time, and my wife is very supportive. In this way, I’ve written 37 novels, 7 novellas, almost 200 short stories and 17 nonfiction books since I went full time in April 2014.

    • Excellent system, Harvey. The most important part of which is a supportive wife. I applaud your results.

      I, too, rise early and always try to get my “nifty 350” in, as it make meeting the daily quota much easier.

      • I agree. My nifty 350 is 500. It’s as if I know I can always write 500 words (about a half-hour). So if I’m nearing my daily goal and start feeling a little tired, I can easily push on for another 500 words. (grin)

  2. Jim, I wonder about editing/revising when you write about your word-count goals.

    If I were to crank out 1000 words a day, I’d soon have more material than I could ever finish editing/revising. I finished a draft of my novel at around 81K words and have been editing/revising since (and had already spent much time editing/revising before I rounded out the draft). The draft has grown to around 91K by now, but that’s over several months of revising, so not much new writing at all. I’ve also got a backlog of short stories and a novella that I’m revising.

    Do you recommend to just keep creating new material, even if one will never get around to revising/editing it all? What’s your practice?

    • Great question. I count all “new” words. I revise my previous day’s pages (lightly) and track the new words. If I’m doing a heavy edit and add material, that counts, too. But I’m always working on something new, too. I have four categories of writing, with projects “in development” under each. It’s not uncommon for me to write across two or three or sometimes four projects in a given day.

      To Lori: the balance for me is always to get my word count in, and then edit. Editing uses a slightly different portion of my brain, so I do a lot of this work in the early afternoon, since my peak writing time is mornings. If I have a deadline, I might take a whole day editing and write more on other days. I’ve also been known to cheat and write on a Sunday.

      Make sense?

  3. This is very timely for me. I work a full time job. I leave the house at 730 a.m. I do theatre. When I’m rehearsing or in show I get home around 10 pm. Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoons I’m on stage.

    When I’ve tried in the past to set a word or a time goal, I just get frustrated. My creative brain locks up when I feel like a hamster on a treadmill ( which is the entire rest of my life).

    And yet last year’s project was organizing what I’ve written – 5 different projects all in notebooks where I can see them. These were written back stage, stuck in traffic, on road trips with my husband. As long as there’s not a time limit or a word limit, I can write forever.

    This year my goal is to finish these 5 projects however it happens.

    • Cynthia, your challenge is not uncommon. I have a friend, a published writer of legal thrillers, who works full time in the city and writes on his commute by train in and out and does as much as he can.

      Good on you for the notebooks and the goal. Carpe Typem!

      • Thank you. I’m going to aim for 1 page per day and anything else is gravy. I tend to be an overachiever so I’m hoping to do more. Definitely tracking this year. Thank you for that.

  4. I’m big on word count goals. My minimum is 1000 a day. I shoot for 500 before lunch. I use a very simple Excel spreadsheet which is open on my second monitor so I can plug in where I am. Not as fancy as Scrivener, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to use the program the way I need (and I’ve taken 3 classes, one from the author of Scrivener for Dummies), and I’m an old dog. Word and Excel work fine.
    When I finish the manuscript, it’s almost always too fat, so I do have periods of time where my word count is negative. I have never been able to work on more than one project at a time.
    Here’s an example of my simple spreadsheet: https://terryodell.com/deadlines-word-counts-and-writing-goals/
    And if you scroll down in this post, you can see where things go negative in edits.
    https://terryodell.com/editing-fine-tuning-the-manuscript

    I’ve never thought of an annual goal, though. I just finished my current novel, which goes to the editor tomorrow, and I’m not 100% sure where I’m going next. But once I start, it’ll be a 1000 words/day minimum again.

    • Thanks for the added samples, Terry. I commend both your posts. The 1k daily minimum has been, I think, the most popular for writers over the years. Have a happy and productive 2019!

  5. Jim, just ordered Romeo and the monograph. As always, excellent advice.

    A question: how do you handle word count goals when editing? I probably spend more hours editing than writing. Often the count only goes up or down by a net 100 words/day yet I’ve worked for several hours and (usually) improved the ms. Could this question be expanded into another post (hint, hint)?

    • Debbie: I don’t worry about them. I went from over 100K to about 88K in the current WIP to whip it into shape for the editor. Ultimately, the “real” goal is “finish the damn book” so I don’t worry about numbers when I’m editing.

    • Thanks, Debbie…as I noted above, I do count words that I add in an edit, but also keep up on the new projects I’m working on.

      Another way to look at it, I suppose, is that editing could be seen as a task like any other you have–going to the grocery store, fixing that leak, visiting a sick friend. Things we just have to do in life. This may include a day job.

      You have to take into consideration these other commitments when setting a weekly goal. Maybe bunch up most of the word count on the weekend, etc.

  6. I didn’t know Google docs had a dictation feature! I just had to buy a new computer because my old one pleaded to be retired. Just have to figure out how to get my mic working on it….

  7. Since my first novel’s release date is in Feb, 2019, all my goals for the last six months or so have been focused on marketing / promotion-related stuff. I’ve jotted down some notes for the next book, but have produced precious little actual output because it seems to me my most important job right now is to make the first book as successful as possible. Having said that, I’m afraid I might be losing some writer’s muscle memory.

    What do you recommend for a newbie like me during this special time of first book release?

    On another note, I ordered and read the first three books in the Romeo series. I love the character of Mike Romeo, and I devoured those books like a good meal after a day’s fast. I’m only sorry the fourth book, which I had pre-ordered, is coming out tomorrow. It means another day of putting off my book club reading in order to follow Romeo around.

    (Can I blame JSB for my procrastination?)

    • Very kind of you, Kay.

      You bring up a very important issue, a subset of the question, How much marketing should I do in relation to writing? With a first novel, it’s understandable to put as much time in getting attention for it as possible…but I urge you take the long view. It’s not one book that makes a career, but book after book…the kind of books that makes a reader want to find others by that author. So find that place, Kay, where you can be producing new work (quota!) and also attend to marketing (which doesn’t have to be complicated! See my book on the subject.)

  8. This is a very timely post. I’ve had brief periods in my writing career (Nanowrimos and a few deadlines) where I successfully implemented daily and weekly word count quotas, but I fell off the proverbial wagon quite a while ago, and despite working up various spreadsheets, haven’t tracked consistently, which of course defeats the whole purpose.

    I’m a part-time writer with a part-time library job three-days a week, including Saturdays. No complaints–I have writing friends with full-time day jobs who would kill for my schedule, but it does make for variable writing hours.

    I’ve also really wanted to work on more than one project at a time, like you do, but haven’t been able to consistently do so. Still, I want to, because it sounds like a terrific way to balance drafting new material and editing existing material, working both sides of the brain regularly.

    I think the solution is making sure I have time for both, and keeping my word count goals reasonable and not too ambitious. I like the word count tracker you worked up.

    I’m currently on a deadline to finish the first draft of my current novel (Book 1 of a new series) get it rewritten and then off to beta readers, so have to focus on that, but once it’s off to my betas, I can see about get this going. I am going to start tracking my word counts regularly NOW though, as warm up. Thank you, and a belated Happy New Year!

    • Back at you, Dale. I didn’t always work on more than one project. But then I read that’s what Asimov did, and we all know what his output was, both fiction and non-fiction. I find especially that switching over to a non-fiction from a fiction (or vice versa) is a good way to let my “boys in the basement” work on the project I just left. Amazing thing, the brain.

  9. Thanks for the thoughts on your quota system. I had five days off from my day job during the holidays. I wanted to do 2000 words a day. After the first day, I realized I should take the fifth day off to relax with my wife. So I had three days to do 8000 words. I thought of your quota system and did the math – 2667 words for three days then take a break. I made it, and enjoyed that last day.

    Your ideas on keeping several projects going at the same time have convinced me that it’s time to start some nonfiction projects I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

    Thanks for the motivation! I’ve pre-ordered and am looking forward to reading ROMEO’S FIGHT.

    Have a productive New Year!

    • Thanks for the good word (and order) Steve. Great news about your stint there. Congrats.

      And yes, as I mentioned to Dale, having a non-fiction side is great…I even wrote a whole book (SOME PEOPLE ARE DEAD) based on just riffing on obituaries. It was a great fun…and thanks to self-publishing, made me some extra lettuce, too.

  10. Keep writing is the main idea, in whatever manner we can and however it will fit into our lifestyle. Posts like this one, coupled with suggestions from other writers who share their methods, are appreciated. There will be that one gem that makes the world of difference.

    Congratulations on the impending new release!

  11. I keep adding monthly to the time I write, but I can’t seem to write as much as I’d like with marketing, editing, and grad school assignments. I am definitely implementing your word count goals this year. Thank you so much for the post!

  12. I use a count tracker too. Pacemaker in my case now as it’s fun.
    I’m going for a million this year as I manage (when writing) at least 3k a day. I have the summer off, so I can either do stuff with family, work on editing, or just not have a deadline. Summer recess and all 😉

    You can code in the breaks that show where you should be, or have a compare that turns cells green or red, which I used to do on my own spreadsheet 😉

    Kai

  13. I set goals by chapter completions because I like to finish a whole scene or sequence in one sitting. Therefore, my daily number varies. I don’t think I could finish a chapter and then write half of the next.

    My chapters vary from 4-8 pages, and sometime, I’d like your thoughts on chapter lengths. In the old days, writers seemed to be consistent with mostly 8-page or mostly 10-page chapters. What is the trend now?

    • We live in a James Patterson age now, Nancy. What would normally be a 10 page chapter gets chopped up into two or three sections.

      I like to write in scenes. My Romeo books have no chapters, just breaks. This frees me up to jump around as I see fit. No set page count.

  14. While I do set up a goal schedule by day, it’s the monthly total I live by, because I know where I have to be when to meet whatever deadline. I go with the six days a week, too, and if I need more than one day off I have to “buy” it by getting ahead. My calendar’s a mess, true, with different colors. Red for deadlines, blue, green and purple for different publishers, and my favorite turquoise for the indie stuff I’m getting ready. But I can tell at a glance if I’m where I need to be, or behind enough that I need to get that extra page every day to catch up or buy Tuesday off for that special event.

    And I am tapping my foot impatiently waiting for my next Romeo fix to hit my Kindle!!

  15. Good post thanks Jim. A timely reminder that regular work is needed if you want results. I love your spreadsheet idea – thanks for sharing.
    I find a daily minimum works for me. I set it low (250 words on the days I work, 500 when I have the whole day), because on the days when I’m tired or think I don’t have time, it is doable – “it’s only a page!” – and I usually do much more than the minimum, which makes me feel good. If I have a higher target that I don’t make, then I feel disappointed with myself. It means I still write every day and even if I just did the minimum 250 words each day, I’d still have a book in a year. It’s worth a try for anyone who finds target word counts hard.
    Having said that, after reading your post, I’m going to up my minimum!

    • Good stretch, Linda. It’s the consistency that matters as much as the count. You’re finding the number that works for you. You can always adjust.

      One year I decided to try for 10k a week. It was too high for me, so back it came to i6k. We all have a “sweet spot.”

      Happy writing.

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  17. I use an horrifically complex spreadsheet that goes back to 2003. Unfortunately, I only tracked my time spent writing for the first ten years, then I belatedly began tracking my word count. (I have no idea why the sudden epiphany, but let’s say it was because of one of your books.) Anyway, now I live by words counts (6k a week) though I still track my time because it’s fun to see that, in 2018, I made £0.37 an hour.

  18. A lot of good information presented – thanks. I’m a goal-oriented person, so a word count is good for me (so is a deadline).

    I used to use Excel, but since I started using Scrivener, it keeps track of everything, so I stopped the extra step. Working my entire career as an engineer, I can keep numbers in my head, so I’m pretty aware of where I am with word count.

    The biggest problem I have is that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot get my Ficus tree to produce more than fifty words a day, and that’s only if I refuse to water it if it doesn’t write.

  19. Goals matter–specific and measurable. You name the profession, that’s what people do. You name the people who excel at a profession, that’s what they do. Mine happens to be a thousand words a day minimum, five days a week. Do I always succeed? No. Do I sometimes surpass it? Sure.

    It’s a bit more difficult when juggling more than one project at a time–current WIP, reviewing previous manuscript’s edits by publisher’s editor, marketing for work slated to be published in the coming months, but that’s a good problem to have. Oh, and part of the cause of having that problem? Setting and meeting productivity goals–and having virtual mentors such as you, Scott. No buttering up by me here–your writing advice books are solid, and they’ve helped me a lot. Thank you.

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