Eleven years ago when I started writing seriously again, tracking word count was all the rage. It seemed like everyone on LiveJournal was reporting word counts, talking about word counts, agonizing over word counts. Maybe it was also a factor of the energy of the times as well. Self-publishing hadn’t yet become the big thing it is now, and Nanowrimo was just starting to take off. The notion of writing 50,000 words in a month was HUGE. Thinking about doing that much involved…well, it involved 5000 word days! OMG! Could we all ever produce that much work?
Keep in mind that this was toward the end of the era when a successful midlist writer could eke out decent money if they could produce two solid novels a year. More than that and pseudonyms became necessary because agents and editors alike felt there were problems. Self-publishing and the notion of turning out books every two to four months was in the not-very-far-of-future.
I kept word count records from 2008 through 2014. In 2008, I wrote 151,848 words for the year. That covered only short story and novel words, not blogging (of which I was doing a lot during that time. Of those words, 126,410 were on both the early draft of Pledges of Honor, a rewrite of Netwalker Uprising, and possibly something on Federation Cowboy. Now, I can’t tell you if Cowboy was short story or an early novel attempt, though I do note about 3248 words of other writing, some of which was going toward a novelization of Cowboy’s world. 16,910 words were short stories. But I look at my daily word totals — mostly around 1000 words, with occasional 1500 word days.
Of course, I was working full-time at a challenging special education teaching job, getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write for an hour before checking social media, eating breakfast, then heading out for work at 6 am. I’d edit work at lunchtime and in the evening, so I’d be ready to do it all over again.
Now, I get up much later, and get about that same amount of words in before breakfast. However, after breakfast or else later in the day, I get more words in.
But still. Nearly 152k words for the year. A novel rewrite completed and a first draft completed, along with some other work. That was 2008.
2010 reflects some struggling. I wrote an abortive novel while working with a paid mentor, Nalo Hopkinson. I learned some painful things about my work. I know I must have written things not reflected in my word count log, but it was a difficult time for the job. Later word count journals show similar trends. Short stories written, essays written, but nothing reflecting a lot of novel work. Some of this might be tied to the fact that I was still striving to sell work to the big name publishers, trying to write short stories that could win Writers of the Future, not quite ready to give up on traditional publication while I struggled with a difficult job made worse by management issues and the onset of Common Core.
But I also had been taking writing classes as well as that mentorship. I was working at improving my writing. Short stories seemed to fit my stressed mental state, and I found myself able to whip out a batch of wry, semi-literate genre works that either got snatched up right away by lower-level markets or anthologies, or else languished with the praise “love the story, love your writing, can’t market it.” Familiar phrases.
I also wrote worldbuilding short stories and novelettes in the Netwalk Sequence world and published them online. But I didn’t track their production. I wasn’t writing novels and that didn’t feel right.
Some of this was all life stuff. The difficult job. Family issues. Friends dying. Piles of stuff going on. I was fighting stress and depression, and sometimes I couldn’t ski fast enough or ride far enough to keep ahead of it. I thought about going back to school. Becoming a school psychologist. But looking at what was involved, and what I saw coming in education — I didn’t see that as a solution to what I was facing. I hated my job. I hated where I live. I hated my life. And I just couldn’t write myself out of that slump.
I gave up keeping a writing log in 2014. It seemed to impede my production.
Besides, changes were on the horizon.
By 2015 I was completely committed to self-publishing, at least for novels. I had also left the job and my husband had retired. We had bought a rundown, modest second home in our dream location of Northeast Oregon and put sweat equity as well as money into making it more comfortable while avoiding as many unpleasant surprises as possible in an area subject to harsh winter temperatures. I wrote the third book in the Netwalk Sequence series, Netwalk’s Children, and had churned out several more connected short stories while building up to writing that incredibly difficult third novel.
I’d also gotten the rights back to Pledges of Honor from a small press publisher after my first book with them proved to be a difficult and unsatisfactory experience. They had decided to change their focus to a more “clean, Christian” orientation and, well…that ain’t Pledges. I also had assistance from a couple of very professional editors who pointed out that the ball had been dropped on the publisher’s side and that the publisher was technically in violation of contract.
I got lucky with that one. Pledges has turned out to be the “little book that could,” selling decently ever since I brought it out. Not consistently, but I’ve sold several hundred copies in both ebook and hardcopy. Not bad without much of a publishing plan.
But I still didn’t keep word count records any more. At this point, I could set myself a daily goal of 2000 words and hit it. Metrics? I didn’t need any stinkin’ metrics. I had a publishing plan. Goals. Things to do. Books to write. I was going to put out four books a year or collapse in the effort.
Welp, as you can imagine, the effort didn’t last. Two books a year proved to be my limit, two books along with short stories, essays, and etc. I wrote a sequel to Pledges of Honor, Challenges of Honor, as well as a prequel, Beyond Honor (calling this series Goddess’s Honor), and the final book of the Netwalk Sequence (to date), Netwalking Space. I also wrote a standalone book (that may yet become a series), Klone’s Stronghold.
At the same time, I held down a remote 12–15 hour a week teaching position for my old district. It didn’t seem to affect production but it did require three days where I was pretty much locked to my computer for four hours straight. No writing. Focusing on students, carrying a student load like I had during my face-to-face teaching days. Add that regular travel between Portland and NE Oregon, dealing with…stuff.
But I still didn’t keep a word count. By now I knew that with adequate worldbuilding and outlining, that I could turn out a solid, workable first draft in two months. That meant writing about 1500–2000 words a day. Doable.
By mid-2018 I was struggling again. This time the problem wasn’t stress and depression, it was a challenging book rewrite. I had finally gotten the rights back to that first book I sold, and I had this vision of turning it into an amazing post-apocalyptic cli-fi novel. I was also researching because I was finally going to get to writing that Weird West book I had been contemplating for years.
But the book just wouldn’t play. I fought that book for six months. Struggled to get even 900 words a day down on it. I still wasn’t recording my words but it was easy enough to track by watching the bar at the bottom of my Word screen.
I wrote short stories. Essays.
At last I finally admitted defeat, in the teeth of an icy and weird winter that was mild until February. In February I got serious, and started worldbuilding.
By the first of March I gave up and started keeping a word count again. This time I kept it simple. Date. Type of writing done. Total. Items worked on. I wanted the goad of keeping the record to get me back into the habit of prioritizing writing instead of letting it slip behind the many other obligations I had.
Word count tracking was just part of the return to discipline. I set my alarm to get up at 7 am, and write before breakfast. Then it became important to spend time writing after breakfast and a quick dip through social media.
The word count reflected that refocus. The first two weeks, word counts ranging from 1000–1500 words were common. Short stories. Essays. The first 2000+ word days were worldbuilding for the third novel in the Goddess’s Honor series, Choices of Honor.
It took eight days of writing Choices before the word count started hitting 2000+ a day. Since then, with few exceptions, 2000+ words per day has been the norm, and those days with less than 2000 words are tied to days when I took a break or else was doing something else where I couldn’t write in the morning.
The counts reflect that rededication.
In March, I wrote 46,162 words. Of those, 3358 were short stories, 7467 essays, 8727 worldbuilding, 1451 promo, 553 of edits, and 24,606 on Choices.
In April, I wrote 61,670 words. Of those, 264 were edits, 159 worldbuilding, 421 promotional, 4044 essays, and 56782 on Choices.
The numbers speak for themselves.
Now was all this change due to word tracking alone? Oh heavens no. Keep in mind that I was working on things even while struggling with that abortive novel. I had been jotting down notes. Blogging, though nothing like the glory days of LiveJournal.
Word tracking helped, though.
In order to make that number goal, I had to get to writing right away. I had to get words down even before I woke up. The combination of committing time and tracking words did the trick for me.
Will I keep this up? I suspect I’ll keep tracking words for a while yet, just because I had gotten out of the habit and the commitment of writing a set number of words every day before going about doing things. Keeping a tracking journal provides a level of accountability that I need.
I may need to adjust this process for the summer and for editing Choices — which, by the way, was the first book in some time to throw me the middle finger about rigorous plotting. I haven’t regretted it because the story is unfolding organically and taking off — and it looks like there will be a fourth book in the series, Judgment of Honor.
Keeping a word count journal was effective in the first place because it allowed me to gain a concept of what level of daily writing production I could reasonably sustain given specific circumstances. It allowed me to tell myself just how much time I needed to produce a solid first draft book. I still have that mental metric of “this is what 2000 words feels like, this is what 5000 words feels like, 1000 words, etc.” I know now that 2000 words on one project with the occasional bigger day is a doable thing, but if I’m going to write much more than 2000 words a day, it needs to be on different projects.
But now I need the accountability of keeping that journal. I need to be able to look at what I am writing and not so much the words I’m writing — though that is important, too. I want to track how much of each kind of writing I am doing.
Now it’s less about the number of words and more about the kinds of words. It’s a different look at the process. I know now how long it takes me to write that first draft book.
What I need to know now is how long it takes me to write that book along with other things — and that is what I am working on now.
(For the record, writing this essay put me over 4200 words for the day. Hmm. That said, the hands won’t be able to keep up with it….but we shall see what happens when I start worldbuilding on the next book once this rough draft is finished and resting.)