Writing with Word Count Goals: Pros and Cons

If you’re a writer, you may at some point have set a word count goal for a story you were writing. If you’ve ever been a NaNoWriMo participant, you know the real struggle and pain and the hard-earned reward at the end of the month once you finally reach 50K. Sometimes writing for word count goals can be useful for people but personally, I’ve found that there are also some unhelpful and fruitless qualities about the exercise.

Writing with Word Count Goals - Tea with Tumnus

We’ll start with the Pros.

  • Having word count goals within a certain time frame could help you write faster and write more content. Take NaNoWriMo, an obvious example. You kind of need to know the word goal and set aside time each day to write a certain amount of words so that you will, by the 30th of November, reach or go beyond 50,000 words. Why, there are even prizes for reaching 50K…no less. (So if you’re at 49,998, just write The End. Simple.)
  • Making a word count goal and achieving it can make you feel good as a writer. Meeting any goal is a very good feeling; it’s rewarding and comforting. It’s a wonderful accomplishment to know how much more you’ve added to your story—whether it’s good or bad, because you can always go back and edit. Word counts work for writing first drafts and setting one can also help you stay on track.
  • Word count goals might help when you’re lacking the motivation to write. Rather than just making yourself write, strive towards a certain word count and reward yourself when you’ve reached that goal. Over time, when this exercise becomes a habit, you can increase your word count goal or eliminate it altogether, knowing that you will write whether or not you know how many words you need to get or not.
  • Word count races improve typing speed. ‘Nuff said. Just don’t incorporate whatever you wrote in a race into your story. Unless it’s edited.

Now for the Cons.

  • Word count goals end up putting QUANTITY over QUALITY. Making sure you hit a certain word amount can lead to unnecessary anxiety. Rather than writing what you know the story needs, you can quickly end up writing a bunch of filler paragraphs, plot holes, rabbit trails or unnecessary dialog. In the end, you have written 2,000 words, sure, but is what you wrote any good in keeping?
  • As a good writer, relying on set times of day and a fixed writing routine is better than hammering out a couple thousand words and then calling it a day. Keeping word count goals isn’t the only way to stay disciplined and organized. Setting aside a couple hours a day or whatnot is preferable, whether or not you write a lot or just sit there drowning in the depths of the inspiration-deprived abyss. The right words will come to you. Just don’t use the wrong words for the sake of quantity.
  • Word count goals may cause you to lose sight of the reason why you even wanted to write this story. Soon, how many words you wrote and even how fast you wrote them becomes the overarching concern.
  • Finishing a story based on word count goals means way more editing. Sure, you finished the rough draft quickly, but now all the time you should have spent carefully writing the content goes into editing all that content. All the filler content you wrote simply for the sake of a word amount either needs to be removed, replaced, watered down, or moved somewhere else. And that’s a lot of extra work. Plus, it will most likely leave you with almost half of your book gone, depending on how much you wrote or relied on word count goals instead of story quality while writing.
  • Keeping word count goals is forcing. All you want is to see a higher number on your word count tracker. It’s stressful and a lot of unnecessary pressure, let’s face it! No wonder people complain so much about NaNoWriMo. 50K in 30 days is rewarding, but man, who doesn’t go through blood, sweat and tears to get to that point?
  • Word count goals may shift your mood negatively. If you wrote a good amount, but didn’t end up meeting your word count goal, you could end up feeling more discouraged and self-deprecating than if you had written the same amount without a word count. What if you had written a good amount? There’s no good reason to pout because you were 100 words short. Celebrate the fact that you actually wrote some that day.

In the end, I prefer not to use word count goals. I don’t even look at the word count tracker anymore. The only exception is NaNoWriMo, because at least I can get a very, very rough draft of a novel out there. At least I can type out all my ideas and scenes and filler into 50K, and even if the quality isn’t great, at least I have something to work with. When writing my other stories, however, I rely on how much time I wrote rather than on how many words I got down. Quality, to me, is more important than quantity in a rough draft.

Do you like using word count goals? How have they helped or not helped you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Cheers and write on!

10 thoughts on “Writing with Word Count Goals: Pros and Cons

  1. Lot’s of great points here. I’m kind of in the middle about word counters. I love watching the bar fill up as I write my novel. But there are also times where I don’t want to use them either. It’s all about what works for you.

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  2. This is so, SO true. Participating in NaNo has shown me the value of *not* having a time limit/daily goal for writing. When I decided to do it last November, I didn’t realize just how hard it would be!! Yes, I made it, but, wow, the literal sweat and tears!!! Plus my editing took a full two weeks, because I was so concerned that most of what I’d created during that process of intense deadline wasn’t very good. As it turned out, most of it was worth keeping — but it’s quite the gamble. Not one I feel like getting into again, lol.

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    • Yeah, NaNoWriMo 2016 was the first time I had ever relied on word count to determine if I was finished or not. I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my NaNo novel didn’t need much cut out; I was thinking I woud have to edit out loads.

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  3. I predominantly write plays, and word count goals can be tricky. Especially if the majority of my writing is dialogue, not description or world-building.

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      • It’s tricky because you’re focussing on the spoken word and whether your characters mean what they say. I love writing dialogue, but setting a word count is tricky because typically less is more. Thank you 🙂

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  4. I don’t pay attention to word counts unless I’m submitting something that has a required range. I was just glad when I published my novel that it came out thicker than a pamphlet! When I first saw it, I thought, wow, this is a real book!

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