Denise D. Young

Why Word Count Might Just Be Overrated

Why Word Count Might Just Be Overrated

Denise D. Young


Okay, so what if word counts just don’t matter as much as we think they do? What if metrics are nice, and they give us the warm fuzzies when we meet them, and they help us meet our deadlines, but maybe they’re way too overrated?

Creative Commons

Because I kinda think they are.

This is something I’ve been pondering for a while now. A while back I drafted a now-shelved novella called Goblins and Grimoires. The characters’ story will eventually be told, but not at all in the way I attempted it.

Don’t get me wrong. Failure isn’t always bad. Usually, failure teaches us.

But when I wrote that draft, I was obsessed with word count. I basically NaNo’d it—wrote a draft of it in a month. Fast drafting, you might say.

Yeah. It was awful.

I mean, not even salvageable. That poor story needs a page-one rewrite.

Now, there are other stories I’ve written in a matter of weeks, and they turned out to be rich, wonderful, layered stories. So, what’s the difference?

Over at Writer Unboxed, Steven James touches on this very phenomenon in his article “From 2000 to 300—Why You’re Writing Too Much.” James writes

Odds are, you’re trying to write too many words a day.

You’ve probably heard that you should write a thousand words per day. Or two thousand. Or five. Or ten.

Or maybe you signed up for a program in which you (supposedly) write a novel in a month. But for whatever reason, you’re trying to hit an arbitrary “word count” each day and if you don’t hit it you end up feeling somehow disappointed in yourself.

I tried that routine for a while.

One day in ten hours I pumped out six thousand words and I felt way ahead. Amazing! So productive! If I could do that every day…

Oh, yeah.

So then the next day I spend the same amount of time writing, and wrote exactly one word.



In ten hours.

Of course, I typed in more words, and then revised, deleted, rewrote, and so on, ending the day just one word further into the book.

That was the last time I tried to hit a certain word count. It was just too depressing and the ups and downs of good days and bad days wasn’t helping motivate me.

He goes on to note that writers are the only creative folks who seem to use such arbitrary metrics to “measure” creative productivity.

I’ve written stories in a night that emerged beautiful and fully formed, needing only minor revisions.

I’ve spent months drafting a novella, each word feeling grueling, but it ended up being one of the best things I ever wrote. If I’d forced myself to meet word count goals instead of allowing the story to unfold gradually, I might’ve ended up with a mess.

I am generally in favor of what I call “slow writing,” but I think a better term for it is “organic.”

Here’s the deal. Writing is hard and uncertain work. So, we want a recipe for success. Someone tells us if we write 1,000 words a day, we’ll be prolific and therefore successful. We figure out that if we write 1,667 words a day, we can pen a novel in a month. That’s a pretty tasty carrot to dangle in front of us. Who can resist?

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with word-count goals, but I think some of us do better with a more organic approach. As in, today I wrote 300 words. Yesterday I wrote 2,000. That’s just the nature of creativity.

My goal, instead, is to show up at the page. My goal is to work hard at my craft. My goal is to write thoughtfully and push myself to grow. I am notoriously bad at meeting word-count goals with any amount of consistency anyway, which is probably why they’re lousy for me in the long run.

So, yes, I’m going slow. And it seems to be working. So, yes, I’m allowing my stories to unfold at a more natural pace, and I’m emerging with better first drafts.

I think people worry if they allow word count goals to fall by the wayside, they’ll slip into laziness, and that is a risk, to be sure.

But what if we just change the metric? What if we vow to show up at the page every day and work hard? That might take us further than writing 2,000 words in the wrong direction.

If word count goals work for you, please, stick with them. I just think we need to realize, as writers, that word counts aren’t the only measure that matters.

What about you? Do you use word counts to track your writing progress? What other ways are there of keeping track of our creative processes?


On “Finding” Your Writing Voice by Denise D. Young

Voice seems to be the most elusive and hard to define aspect of writing. A Writers Digest article defines voice this way:

What the heck is “voice”? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.

In short, it’s what we choose to notice, the words we use, the phrases, the types of sentences. Voice is not only difficult to define; it’s tough to teach.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of different works: poems that explore my connection to the goddess and nature; short stories following a character through a harrowing, life-changing moment; epic novels about saving a world from impending doom; blog posts chronicling my journey as a writer.

And I no longer worry about writing voice. Because somehow, through all the practice, it’s just there. It’s in the words I choose to describe a character or setting. It’s in the settings I choose for my characters, the cottages and cabins and castles and gardens and ancient forests. It’s in the stories I choose to write (or the ones that choose me, depending on how you look at it).

Many of you have found your voice the same way. You wrote your first million words, anything from flash fiction to sprawling 100,000-word novels, and you discovered your voice along the way.

And if you’re new at this, still in the first stages of your journey and you hear people talking about this thing called voice, and you hear agents say that they’re looking for “a distinctive voice,” or you hear that what really captivates readers is a strong voice, my advice is to write. Write often. Write a lot. Even if you’re just scribbling a few lines here or there. Even if it’s in a journal. Just write.

Because I have learned that writing voice cannot be found when you look for it. It is discovered during your journey as a writer. One day you will look back at a body of work and realize your voice has been there all along.

So go forth. And write. Often. And a lot.

What about you? How do you define “voice”? How did you discover yours—or are you still discovering it?


Denise D. Young

Filling the Well: Nurturing Our Creative Selves by Denise D. Young

We talk a lot about goals here in the ROW80 world. And goals are very good things. Goals—measurable, realistic goals—are vital to our writing. They help provide structure and discipline, two things many of us writers desperately need. I know I thrive when I’m at my most productive, churning out work and spending plenty of time filling the page. But we risk burnout if we’re all work and no play. And writers need play, creative time that allows us to flourish. In short, we need to fill the well.

How can we do this?

Take ourselves on “artist dates.”

This idea comes from author Julia Cameron, who writes in The Artist’s Way

“An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. … Your artist is a child. Time with a parent matters more than monies spent. A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or an art gallery—these cost time, not money.”

Buy scrapbooking supplies at a local craft school. Go for a solitary walk. Feed the birds at the local park. Meditate. Once a week, find some way to carve out time for your artist date. This is vital to keeping the well filled.

Explore other creative outlets.

Think beyond writing, beyond the page. Would you like to dabble in watercolors, strum a guitar, get your hands dirty and work with clay? Would you like to embrace your inner chef, turn your backyard into an oasis of flowers and herbs, redecorate your writing space? Anything from painting to gardening can be a creative activity, and we can find inspiration in these other outlets.

Change up our writing space.

Sometimes we need a change of scenery. If you usually write at home, try writing at a local coffee shop. If you write at a coffee shop, grab a notebook or your laptop and head out to a local park. We can find new inspiration from a change in surroundings—plus, we’ll get to people watch, which often yields fresh new ideas. You never know where creativity is hiding.

Spend time in nature.

Nature is a creative force. Tiny green shoots burst from the earth. Birds build nests in the branches of a nearby maple tree. The sunset paints the sky in a wash of colors. Leaves blaze gold and scarlet in the autumn. Nature is constantly creating and transforming, so it can be a powerful source of inspiration for us creative types.

Even something small as walking on a summer morning, writing outside on a warm spring day, or watching the birds at the birdfeeder can inspire us. If we maintain a close connection with nature, regardless of whether we’re a city or country dweller, we maintain a connection to the source of creativity, to the most creative force there is.

Focus on what we’ve accomplished, not what we haven’t.

Goals are always forward looking and future oriented. They’re something we’ve yet to accomplish, and when we do achieve them, our first thought is usually, “What next?” Too often we focus on what we haven’t done, not what we have. We can foster a habit of shifting our focus to what we have done, not what we didn’t complete. We can savor small victories—exceeding our word count, finishing a project before deadline, even simply editing a page of work and knowing we’re leaving the story incrementally better than it was the day before.

Go ahead. Savor even the smallest of victories. Doing so can energize us, give us the boost we need to keep moving forward. If you’re having a particularly off day, try writing down a list of what you did accomplish that day, anything from sewing a button onto a shirt to taking a child to the dentist to reading a few chapters in a book. This forces us to focus on what we’ve done instead of what we haven’t.


Ultimately, our creativity needs to be fed. Most writers I know have no shortage of ideas. But fueling creative energy is vital to sitting down at the page and getting those ideas out of our heads and into the hands of readers. We just have to remember to fill the well.


Denise D. Young

Working Smarter, Not Harder: Making the most out of our writing time by Denise D. Young

Somewhere, a faucet is leaking—we need to call the plumber. A basket of laundry sits unfolded. A pile of dirty dishes taunt us from the sink, and someone has etched the words “Wash Me” in the dirt caking the back window of the car. A cat circles our feet, begging for attention. A kid calls out for a parent, in need of help with homework, a snack, or simply our attention.

In the middle of all of this, a cell phone beeps—another text from a friend or family member. Outside the window, the grass is about to go to seed, and it’s our job to mow it.

Sound familiar?

On top of these small daily distractions, then, is our writing career—for most of us, a calling, a vocation, a driving sense of purpose in our lives. We are writers. We write books, we blog, we tweet, we build and maintain our author platform. For many of us, writing isn’t a day job. That’s even more strain, more pressure.

Sometimes, being a writer feels a lot like being Wonder Woman or Superman, minus the superpowers. (I know, I’m disappointed, too, even as I hold out hope that my hitherto dormant super-speed or telekinesis will awaken one day soon.)

So, in a world full of responsibilities when we’re always on, always on the go, always connected, always in motion, how can we work more efficiently, use our time wisely?

If like me, your super-speed ability never activated, I’ve assembled a list of ways for us to work smarter, not harder.

First, we plan.

We set deadlines and plan ways to meet them. If we want to write an 80K novel in three months with weekends off, how many words per day must we write? Is that number reasonable?

In order for a plan to be effective, it must be as specific as possible. Planning leads to fewer wasted hours or even days. Planning gives us confidence that we can accomplish the task we’ve set our sights on. Even something as simple as a short, achievable to-do list can help us focus our time.

Second, we stop multitasking.

Studies have shown that the human brain simply isn’t very good at multitasking. It reduces our retention rate and costs us time, since the human brain needs time to switch between tasks. Ultimately, we’re not as good at multitasking as we think we are.

Third, we focus on quality, not quantity.

I used to be a full-out pantser—no planning, no outline, not one shred of backstory before I began writing. Sooner or later, I would get stuck and spend a great deal of time thrashing around in story quicksand, sinking deeper and deeper creatively until I calmed down enough to grab a branch and haul myself out of the muck.

I realized I needed a better way. I needed to work smarter, not harder. So I read book after book about writing craft. I set my sights on a new technique, one that would yield more cohesive first drafts. That was my goal in the first round of ROW80 this year.

And you know what? It worked. My latest first draft isn’t perfect. It still has flaws and missing pieces, but it’s so much better than my prior first drafts of stories. Why? Because I took the time to stop and assess my process and to learn a better way.

Sometimes slowing down is the answer.

Fourth, we stop comparing ourselves.

Everyone has their own process. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. Just because one writer writes 100 pages of a story, only to put those pages in a drawer and never look at them again doesn’t mean you should. Sure, you can try it, but you might find that there’s some story gold in those pages—plenty of bad pages, but some darn good ones too. You could be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Each of us must discover our own process. To do so, we need to slow down, we need to be kind to ourselves, and we need to assess where we are. Only then can we determine the best way to get where we’re going.

Fifth, we treat ourselves kindly.

As a writer, I work from home, so I’m essentially always in my office. I have to stop myself from working after my husband goes to bed at night. I could write a blog post, revise a scene, do some writing exercises at night, but instead I use that time to recharge—to read for fun, watch an episode of Chuck or Warehouse 13, flip through a magazine, or nibble on some dark chocolate. With a cat in my lap and an episode of a beloved show queued up, I’m ready for relaxation.

Without time to unwind, we leave ourselves vulnerable to burnout, chronic fatigue, and depression—call overwork Kryptonite for writers. Kait Nolan talked about self-kindness in her post to kick off this round, so I’ll direct you there for more detail. And last round, ROW80 sponsor Dawn Montgomery dove into the subject of burnout and recovery.

It’s enough to say that we often cut others more slack than we give ourselves. We hold ourselves to impossible standards and move at super-speed for long stretches of time. We need to remember to give ourselves a break every once in a while. The kinder we are to ourselves, the more easily the words flow, the more easily we silence our inner critic when necessary.


For this and every round of ROW80, I encourage you to work from a place of self-assessment. What can you do to improve your process? How can you change your process or your mindset so you’re making the most out of your writing time? And, most importantly, in what small ways can you show kindness to yourself—a pedicure, a massage, a few minutes of stillness or meditation, a glass of wine or cup of tea and a moment of stolen time?

What ways have you discovered that allow you to work smarter, not harder?


Denise D. Young

Bad Habit? Kick it to the curb and create a healthier writing routine by Denise D. Young

Ask yourself: How badly do you want this?

How long have you wanted to be a writer? Ever since you learned to read and became enamored of the written word? Since high school? Since last year or last month? Was it a sudden epiphany or a slow dawning? Remember that moment because there’s passion and power in it.

More importantly, why do you want this? Take a moment. Some of us are drawn to writing because it offers a sort of immortality. Our stories will outlast us. Others hope to touch the hearts and minds of others, to offer hope or inspiration where and when it’s needed most. Open a blank Word document or a grab a sheet of paper. Reflect on the moment you knew you wanted the writing life. Reflect on why, right now at this moment, you want to be a writer.

Life will throw obstacles in your path: A busy life, an illness, relationship ups and downs, an ever-shifting market, a lack of time or money or resources. If writing is your dream, cling to it. If you need the inspiration, print this quote out and tape it to your wall:

“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What’s standing in your way?

Be honest. Is it you? Sometimes we create our own obstacles. They may be negative thinking patterns; they may be poor sleep or work routines. The truth is that bad habits get in the way of creating a healthy, disciplined writing routine. Even the best writers can fall into them.

Start with an honest self-assessment. Don’t beat yourself up, but don’t sugarcoat anything either. Are you an over-thinker? An over-sleeper? An over-tweeter? A Facebook addict or a television binge-watcher? All of the above? You don’t have to fix everything. You don’t have to be a perfect person to be a good writer or to produce art consistently. In fact, I would argue that a perfect person would write some really boring books.

Identify the habit that is the biggest block to your writing routine. Mine, for example, is over-sleeping. There. I said it. Did it hurt to rip that Band-Aid off in front of all of you? Maybe a little, because being an over-sleeper makes me feel a bit lazy, to be honest. Is it helpful to admit it? You bet—because now it’s out there and I’m accountable.

If you can brainstorm a way for your characters to MacGyver their way out of any outlandish situation you throw at them, chances are that you can brainstorm ways to mitigate your bad habits. I, for example, will never be a morning person. My houseguests who rise at dawn are on their own for breakfast; I can’t function at that hour (unless that’s how late I stayed up the night before). But I don’t have to wake at sunrise; I just have to be out of my pajamas and in front of my computer at a reasonable hour. And that, with the right amount of caffeine, is completely feasible.

You’ve identified the habit that most interferes with your writing routine. Now, identify a handful of solutions. Feel free to ask your fellow writers for solutions or to do some research. Your solutions might be simple or off-the-wall. Find something that will work for you. I’m starting with creating a better bedtime ritual: Going to bed at 10 p.m. and reading until 11 instead of firing up an episode of “Murder, She Wrote” at midnight. I’m also going to put the alarm on the other side of the room instead of next to the bed. We’ll see how it works.

Now, I’m ready to hear from you. What bad habit most gets in the way of your writing routine? What solutions can you identify? How will addressing this issue help your writing? How badly do you want this?


Denise D. Young