Upping Your Word Count

Increasing our word counts is something many writers desire to do. Certainly that’s my aim, along with being a bit more consistent on a weekly basis when I’m drafting and when I’m revising. This week I just bought a Mac Mini, my first desk top computer in seven years, to be my offline writing playground, since the Internet is a big source of distraction for me. Writing programs and a music app are all that is installed on that computer. It will normally be unplugged from the Internet. Of course, avoiding distractions is just one factor in upping your word count.

Today’s Words of Wisdom is here to help. First, Robert Gregory Browne discusses how outlining helped him, followed by PJ Parris with some excellent tips (including staying off the Internet), and finally, James Scott Bell lays out how to set and track word count goals.

The full posts are date linked from their respective excerpts and are worth reading in full.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been a pantser. I come up with an idea, kinda sorta figure out who the main character is, then sit down and start writing. I had tried outlining many, many times (just like all the writing books say we should) and I just couldn’t stand to do them. My eyes would glaze over after three paragraphs.

Isn’t writing supposed to be fun?

But for the Harlequin Intrigue audition I had no choice but to write that outline and three sample chapters. It was full proposal or don’t bother auditioning. They weren’t going to hire me simply because they liked my Facebook page. (Or maybe in was MySpace in those days.)

When it came time to actually write the book, however, I discovered something quite wonderful. Because I had worked everything out in that outline, all I really had to do was, as they say, “word it in,” and I managed to bang that thing out in record time.

From there on out, I was a convert. At least when it came to Harlequin romances. I still wrote (and continue to write) my Robert Gregory Browne books by the seat of my pants (except for one exception I won’t get into here), but the Intrigues were all outlined first. Even after my editor said all she needed was a paragraph from me. I would write a ten to twenty page outline for myself, because I had to write those suckers fast.

I think the fastest I ever went from outline to finished book was about two and a half weeks. I’m no John Creasey, but I think 50K words in that amount of time is pretty damn fast.

So if you’re concerned about your snail’s pace as a writer, just know that as much as you might hate them, outlines can certainly be your friend.

Robert Gregory Browne—April 20, 2016


Are there truly any “secrets” to productivity? I don’t think so. If you ask successful people how they do what they do, their answers tend to repeat and are duh-fully common-sense.

  1. Turn off the internet. It’s a time-sucking Circe. If you, like me, turn to it to get a fix when the writing is going badly, well, Bunky, it’s time to cut the cord. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer that text alert. And don’t call up Google in the name of research when you’re really afraid to face chapter 6. The trick that works for me is to take my laptop to a place with no internet. Amazing how interesting your novel gets when all you have to look at is the wall. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of two computers like Lee, but you can disable your browser during work time.  There are even programs that do it for you: StayFocused, Anti-Social, SelfControl and my favorite — Write or Die.
  2. Figure out your peak writing hours.In my salad days, I was a night owl. I wrote my first novel between 9 p.m. and midnight while I was working full-time. Somewhere around age 55, I started getting up at dawn, so now I am an annoying morning person. I read the paper, have my coffee, walk the dogs, then get to work around 11 a.m. My batteries conk out about  3 p.m. so I usually quit. Now if you have a job, you have to carve out time — one to two hours a day with maybe Sunday off is enough to finish a book if you’re consistent.  You have to make your family understand this.
  3. Show up.Yeah, sounds pretty basic, but this one is the hardest for me. I am not a daily writer. There, I said it.  I am trying very very hard to change this. Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up. He’s right. If you hit 80 percent, you’re doing good. And you have to show up on the bad days, even if you don’t feel like writing, especially when you don’t feel like writing. Another one of Fastcompany.com’s contributors is P.K. Subban, who plays for the Nashville Predator’s hockey team. “Sometimes you get out there and your body is feeling great, and you don’t have to push it,” he says. “Sometimes you get out there and your legs feel like they’re 80 pounds apiece, and you gotta do a little extra.”
  4. Quit trying to be so damn perfect. This is my other downfall, the quest for the pretty page. Maybe Hemingway really did sit down every day and sweat out one true sentence. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Just turn on the faucet and let it flow. You can weed out the roughage later. Jodi Piccoult sticks a pin in the need for perfection: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

PJ Parrish—December 4, 2018


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.

James Scott Bell—January 6, 2019


Now it’s your turn to share your tips on upping word count.

  1. Do you find outlining helps? If you are panster, what helps you increase you word count?
  2. What is your own “common sense” tip or tips for getting down more words?
  3. Do you set and track your word counts? Any advice?

19 thoughts on “Upping Your Word Count

  1. ❖ Do you find outlining helps?
    ❦ I’m sure it does. The time I hit 10K words in one weekend, I’m pretty sure I was working from an outline. (I’ve never hit 10K, since.)
    ❖ If you are panster, what helps you increase you word count?
    ❦ Without an outline, brainstorming decisions helps a lot. (See my article on “Brainstorying.” https://jguentherauthor.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/brainstorying-the-garden-of-forking-paths/
    ❖ What is your own “common sense” tip or tips for getting down more words?
    ❦ Reading my output to a weekly workshop keeps me cranking out chapters at a rate of roughly a book a year. (I’ve been told by more than one person that they show up every week just to find out how my MC has survived his latest disaster.)
    ❖ Do you set and track your word counts? Any advice?
    ❦ I haven’t done that since about 1999. I focus more on chapters, which I let vary in length to match the story. I leave loose ends undone, but flag them with “zxc,” fast to type and easy to search on. Near the end, I compile all the zxc’s into a list, and check them off as I address them.
    ❦ I may try dictating new material. Sax Rohmer (Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward]* (1883–1959), used to dictate onto wax cylinders, then post them to London, where a typist would transcribe them onto paper and mail the typewritten version back to Rohmer for editing,

    * Ward deliberately crafted the Sax Rohmer persona, including a stylish fedora. He also wrote under several other pen names.

    • Excellent article, J.G. I think “brainstorying” is very apt. Thanks for posting the link here. I like your “zxc” tag. I use brackets myself, to indicate something to add, or, later in the novel, to “retcon” something earlier that I just came up with.

      Interesting story about Ward’s dictation method. Erle Stanley Gardner also dictated his fiction, into a tape recorder, and then had one of his several secretaries type it up. Author Kevin J. Anderson uses dictation extensively, often when he is out on a hike, narrating his story.

  2. Excellent advice today, Dale. Thanks for digging through the archives.

    Do you find outlining helps? If you are panster, what helps you increase you word count?

    I’ve been a planner for years. However, since I’ve been staying in the same story world, my plan has gotten sparse. I’ll know the beginning, the first plot point, midpoint, and the end, then pants the rest. That said, while writing I do keep major milestones in mind and am cognizant of their placement within the story. I guess you could say I’m plantsing, and I produce more words now than ever before. 😉

    What is your own “common sense” tip or tips for getting down more words?
    Persistence. Like Kris mentioned, you gotta show up, even when you don’t feel like it.

    Do you set and track your word counts? Any advice? No. Instead I track scenes. I tried tracking word counts, and I became obsessed with it. My best advice is to end the writing day in the middle of a scene, not at the end. If you’re mid-scene when you hit the keyboard the following day, you’ll never have to face a blank page. And stay off social media till you bang out some words!

    • Thanks, Sue!

      It’s great to hear that plantsing is working well for you. It’s something I want to do more of myself, and it’s encouraging to hear that it’s helped your word count. Internalizing story structure is a big factor in it succeeding.

      I like your tracking scenes rather than word counts.

      Hope you have a wonderful weekend!

  3. Do you find outlining helps? If you are panster, what helps you increase you word count?
    I wanna be an outliner when I grow up. 😎 My first book I semi-outlined (perhaps equivalent to Sue’s above-mentioned ‘plantser’), another book I pantsed. Since each project took varying lengths of time for various reasons due to life issues, I can’t really assess if one or the other was more beneficial for wordcount. Certainly neither method has resulted in less editing. LOL! And pantsing has been interesting–sometimes it makes word count flow easier because you are not hindered by trying to keep yourself in the box of your outline. But if your creative juices aren’t firing, there’s a lot of staring at the page.

    Do you set and track your word counts? Any advice?
    I do not set weekly word count goals at this point in my life. Whenever I have tried the devil on my shoulder is like “Yeah? We’ll see about that” and the goal doesn’t happen. I just record whatever my word count is on a daily basis so that at month’s end when I do an assessment, I can see what my writing progress was.

    I’ll be starting a new story project this fall which I hope to outline in some form or fashion first. We’ll see how the wordcount thing goes then.

    • Thanks for commenting, BK. Knowing oneself is a big part of succeeding as a writer in my view, and you seem to have a good handle on yourself as a writer and your own process. Certainly experimenting and trying new approaches can help you grow and become more “abundant” in your creativity.

  4. I’m also an outliner, but even beyond knowing what the plot points are, I find it helps to know what the scene arc will be before writing. Not that I know exactly how we’ll get from “character wanting information” to “character being told to do something she doesn’t want to do to get information,” but the arc keeps me focused.

    For producing words, I always got stuck keeping track of the wrods. So, years ago, I came up with a scene quota. I want to get this much of the chapter done by this time. And because you can never predict how long a scene will be, some days I write twice as much as others.

    • Fascinating to learn about your function-based mapping of your scenes, azali. That gives you a lot of room to discover how that plays out in scene. Having a scene quota and tracking scenes written is a good alternative to tracking word count, too.

  5. Good morning, Dale. Great picks from the archives, and a wonderful topic to discuss.

    1. Does outlining help? I currently use an outline, but it is gradually becoming less detailed as I allow my pantser side more freedom to roam while writing a scene or chapter. Giving the characters more freedom allows the words to flow faster. And dialogue will certainly crank up the word count.

    2. Common sense tip for more words? Less summarizing, more dialogue. Allow the characters to explore.

    3. Word counts? I write in Scrivener and keep track of a daily word count. But my goal is more about keeping the bum in the seat and meeting my daily quota for writing time.

    Thanks, Dale. Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Steve! Your experience of outlines becoming less detailed and allowing yourself to discovery write more is something I’ve seen with a number of writers. I’m heading in the direction myself, becoming more of a plantser, the wonderful term Sue used above.

      BICHOK is certainly an essential way to up our word counts.

      Hope you have a wonderful weekend!

  6. The “secret” to an increased word count is application: apply the butt to the seat of the chair and actually write fiction while you’re there. Respectfully, it’s called a work ethic.

    I never don the glistening white Authorial robes or ascend into the ivory control tower. I just take a deep breath and roll off the parapet of the story. Then I run through the trenches of the story with my characters, recording what happens and what they say and do in response. Great fun and authentic, unmanipulated stories..Can’t beat it.

    A TKZ writer wrote a few days ago that ““I had eight weeks to finish my novel. … If I wanted to finish on time, I’d have to write 4,500 words a week.I could do that. If I switched to extreme writing mode. In other words, ‘neglect everything else’.”

    When I read “I’d have to write 4,500 words” I nearly choked. I was expecting the next to words to be “a day,” not “a week.” This sort of quote makes me very, very glad I’m me. 4500 words is literally 4 and a half hours’ work at most. Well, if you can write a blazing fast 17 words per minute and if you trust your characters to live their story. (grin)

    If spontaneity matters in your story, consider this: Nobody can consciously ‘think up’ [or outline] anything spontaneous. Spontaneity is a characteristic of real, unscripted life and, in fiction, of the creative subconscious mind as the characters live out their real, unscripted story.

    • Butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard really is essential, isn’t it, Harvey? I agree about calling it a work ethic. I try to have that “discipline” while also encouraging myself to play. I love your self-admonition to “never don the glistening white Authorial robes or ascend into the ivory control tower, and instead roll into “the trenches of the story with your characters.” Very well put!

      • Oh, and I do keep a spreadsheet. Have since early 2014. It keeps track of fiction words per day, month and year-to-date and the same for nonfiction words. I then publish those numbers each day that I publish my Journal. Doing so helps keep me accountable.

        I have a daily word-count goal of 3000 publishable words of fiction per day. But the boon of having a spreadsheet, for me, is that no matter how much or how little I write, the numbers quickly add up and the rolling total spurs me on..

  7. I think what you have to learn is what you want to do, and your own writing style/process. I’m a word count person, but all the hints and suggestions given above are part of the toolbox. I’m not an outliner. The hardest bit of writing I had came when I got together with 2 writing buddies and we brainstormed for each other. I needed a way to end a short story I was working on, and once we’d finished hashing out all the ‘what ifs’, I went home and knew exactly what I had to write. It was tedious and boring. There was no excitement. It was “which words do I have to put down to get where this outline/plan goes?”
    I use a very simple Excel spreadsheet to track my word count. I put the starting point in one column, my ending point in the adjacent column, which contains a simple “subtract this from that” formula which shows me my word count at any given point. I’m a “net” person, so it’s purely numbers at the end of the day. If I cut, then those numbers go down.

    • Learning what you want to do and your own writing style/process is very important insight, Terry. Thanks for sharing your experience with outlining.

      Thanks, too, for mentioning your “net” approach to tracking word count, that’s not something that’s usually discussed.

  8. Great post, Dale! I started out a plotter but have moved over the pantsing side. I do have to know a few things when I start–who my protagonist is when they walk on the page–what made them who they are. Then, since I write romantic suspense, I have to know what the crime is and why it’s happening now–why not ten years ago or next year. I loosely have the ending, but not necessarily who did it.

    I do write to a page count that Scrivener figures out for me at the beginning of the ms. It gives a daily word count, but I really write to a weekly count. Scrivener just tells me how well I’m doing with it…or not doing.

  9. “Don’t be shown up by a ficus tree” haha!

    I think making a plan (by scene like Sue or by word count like JSB) and sticking with it regardless of whether you “feel like it” is a sound way to up the word count.

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