Techniques to get you writing, Part 3: Using wordcounts to gain momentum

This is part three of the “Techniques to get you writing” series.  These posts are aimed at beginning writers struggling to develop good writing habits, or experienced writers who are struggling to get momentum on a project.  Part 1 looked at the psychology of failure, and how we sabotage ourselves without realising it.  Part 2 was about designing effective goals.  Part 3, this post, is mostly about counting, and how to count in a way that makes your brain think you are moving faster than you are.

This is a timely post, since I’m in week 5 of a personal marathon, and running a Novel Push Initiative marathon for a group of writers.  So lets talk further about using wordcounts not just as a way to track your progress, but as a way to drive your writing forward.

Before we start, let me just say that I do not endorse NaNoWriMo as a writing technique.  That sort of output, more often than not, just leads to pages of unfocussed dross.  I’m not saying don’t do it; it’s a great way to have fun in a community environment.  But if you’re looking to use the exercise to help you write, you’re better off learning good writing habits first.

Set up good writing habits: devising daily goals.

The maxim is “write every day”, but it’s never that simple.  Unless you’re a hermit or independently wealthy, life gets in the way of writing.  And when you’ve come home from work, fed the family and/or pets, cleaned the kitchen, put out the garbage, listened to your mother whine on the phone for an hour…  You feel more like collapsing into bed than writing.  And if your goal is “write every day”, it’s easy for that goal to get lost in the crowd of daily goals, along with “remember to keep important receipts” and “water the houseplants before they get crispy”.

Remember part 2 of our series?  Small goals.  Goals you can achieve in a short period of time.  “Write every day” is a big, sprawling goal.  “Write half a page” is a nice, neat little goal, and you can encourage yourself to achieve it.  “Ten minutes, easy.  I can do that after I load the dishwasher, before Gossip Girls comes on”.  Talking yourself into an activity is much easier if the activity is small.

And of course, chose a wordcount that you can comfortably achieve.  Don’t look at someone’s 4,000 words a day output, if you know you can only reliably manage 400.  Do what is achievable.  Remember:

It is better to overshoot a small goal than fail to reach a large one.

Give yourself a boost: writing marathons.

Once you have set your daily goal and you are consistently hitting that target, it’s time to stretch yourself.  The best way to do that is with short bursts of writing called “marathons” or “wordathons”.  There are two ways to use these.

If you know you have a day coming up which is free of distractions, then prepare yourself for a 1-day marathon.  You’re going to sit down on that day and aim for a wordcount that will feel like an incredible achievement compared to your daily count.  You can sit down and just write and see what you get, but you’re more likely to get a good result by setting yourself a target.  If your daily 100 words takes you 10 minutes, and you know that you can count on 6 uninterrupted hours, then set yourself a goal of 3,000 words for the day.  Remember that you may need time to stop and recap during the day as you pump out the words.

If you want to see whether you can write more per day, then set yourself a short marathon, 5 to 7 days, where you will increase your daily count by a set amount.  If you normally write 100, aim for 200.  If you write 1,000, aim for 1,500.  Stick with it for those 5 to 7 days, come hell or high water.  When you go back to your daily counts, they will feel like a breeze.  Afterwards, you will often find that what you thought was your limit has been stretched, and you are able to reach a higher target more easily.

Sounds easy!  What’s the catch?

At first glance, wordcounts seem to be a simple target to hit.  Novel length 100,000 words plus writing time 6 months equals 500 words a day.  Easy!  So why is it that we often come to a grinding halt after a couple of weeks?  Why doesn’t everyone win NaNoWriMo?  Story issues aside, a lot of the time it has to do with the way the brain measures progression.

Let me give you an example.  If I asked you whether you prefer to run uphill or downhill, which would you choose?  Most people choose downhill, because it’s easier.  This is a fundamental ‘truth’ that our brain knows; uphill hurts, downhill doesn’t.  So unless you’re a masochist, you’ll prefer to run downhill.

How about this one?   The journey out always seems longer than the journey home, especially if you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before.  The reason being, on the way home you are going past things you have already seen.  The brain doesn’t need to assimilate them again, and half the time the recognition and processing go on in the subconscious mind.  The brain is physically doing less work, so psychologically it feels like less time has passed, when in fact the journey is the same length.

What does this have to do with wordcounts?  These little ‘truths’ can be turned into techniques to trick your brain into thinking that you are going faster; that you are ‘going home’ or ‘travelling downhill’, feelings that give you a little psychological boost to keep you moving.  Now lets look at how to use it in your writing.

Travel downhill.

Personal trainers are smart people, or at least one of them was, once. Because they figured out a secret to get people to run farther, and harder, by the simple method of counting down, not up.

Your PT doesn’t set the clock at zero and tell you to run 5 kms.  They set the clock at 5 kms and get you to run to zero. Watching that distance count down, not up as you run makes it seem easier, because as you run the goal gets smaller. 5 km, 4 km, 3 2 1 home! This trick is pure psychological balderdash, but it works.

So use this to trick your brain into making the writing marathon easier.  The goal will be the same; 50,000 (or 25,000) words, which can be a daunting amount, especially if you’ve powered on for a week and only have 11,600 words to show for it.  What your brain says is “Only 11,600?  Look how far we have to go!”

Turn it around, and look at it another way.  Instead of saying “I’ve only written 11,600 words”, tell yourself “I’ve only got 38,400 to go”.  Your goal has now gone down from 50k to 38k.  The mountain just got a little bit smaller, a little bit easier.  Instead of struggling up the 50,000 word mountain, you’re coasting down the slope, getting closer and closer to the bottom with every word.

Logically, this makes no sense, but let’s be honest, we’re not the most logical of creatures.  It’s the same goal, you’re just looking at it differently.  Don’t just take my word for it, give it a try.  You might be surprised.

Stop watching the clock.

You write and you write, and you check your wordcount again.  78 words?  Oh come on!  You’re sure you must have written more than that!  You’ll never make it at this rate.  Cue self-defeating behaviour and the end of your writing day.

The more you check your progress, the slower you will go.  Forget watching the scenery.  Stop looking for landmarks.  Just drive.

There are several ways you can defeat the need to check your progress every few minutes.  One is to count pages; tell yourself you won’t check your wordcount until you’ve made it to the next page.  However if you are a compulsive checker, this can be just as bad.  Another way is to get an alarm clock.  Set it for 20 minutes, sit down in front of the page and force yourself not to check your wordcount until the alarm goes off.  Once you stop interrupting your flow every few minutes, you’ll find the journey fades to the subconscious, and your mind will focus on the story.

Don’t count the shortfall.

You’re in the middle of a writing marathon. You miss a day, or two, or four, and suddenly you’re 7,000 words behind and wondering how on earth you can catch up. If you keep telling yourself that you are 7,000 words behind, you raise the stress levels and promote avoidance behaviours, which just exacerbates the problem.

Here’s a trick I learned from my budgeting coach. One of the most common ways that budgets fail is overspending; you make a few bad purchases and suddenly you’re over budget for the month and then you think “why bother” and the budget goes out the window and you’re back where you started.

My budgeting coach says this; “everyone overspends. It happens. Recognise that it has happened and move on.” At the beginning of every month, you tally up what was overspent in the previous month, and you pay it from your income. Then it’s gone; the sins not washed away, but dealt with and not hanging over your head.

So, we deal with it. Take your shortfall, divide it by the number of days remaining in the marathon, and add that to your daily goal. You’ll find that you’re only doing a few hundred words a day more to catch up.  Suddenly it’s not so scary. A huge shortfall has been transformed into an achievable goal.

These techniques all assume you are facing the page with something to say.  But what do you do on the days when writer’s block hits like a sledgehammer and you just have no words left to write?  Next time we look at bargaining with your brain: using threats and blackmail to get you moving again.

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12 thoughts on “Techniques to get you writing, Part 3: Using wordcounts to gain momentum

  1. I go through phases of demanding 1000 words a day, but generally my default setting is simply to ask myself to produce something each day, and trust to my natural inclination to overdo things to see to the rest.

  2. A subject dear to every writer’s heart!

    Personally, I set 1000 words a day and don’t allow myself to go to bed until I’ve done it. People seem to think I’m fast, which I find bizarre because I think I’m slow.

    PD James wrote her novels by getting up an hour early and typing in the kitchen while everyone slept, and that was while dealing with an institutionalised husband with mental health issues, raising children, and a very high level government job.

      • I’ve finished those 1,000 words at 2am more than once. On very rare occasions it’s all over in an hour or two.

        Oddly, as soon as I make the target, writing always becomes faster. If I’m on a roll then I *don’t stop*. On a good day (really rare) I could turn in a few thousand good words.

  3. Admittedly I’ve had more of the “I should have wrote more than that” checking reactions when I’m racing against a deadline and composing on the computer. That never seems to happen when I bring longhand to the computer to type. :)

  4. Wow, Merrilee, how many words did you write just for this post? If you’re like me, it can stretch into the thousands without even realizing it.

    Two points you brought up are very valid for beginning writers:

    1. NaNoWriMo is NOT a good measure of learning to write. As you know, I finished my NaNo novel last year, and try as I might, I could never get back to it later to fill in all those blanks I rushed through to get to the 50K word mark. And so it sits. I’d rather take the time to crank out a quality piece of work that stands a chance of publication than slap a bunch of words together just to meet a deadline.

    2. As you said, don’t clock watch (or word watch). Just as you did in writing this post, words will pile up if you stop thinking about them and just write. When I sit down to write, I go back and reread what I wrote the say before, just to get back into the groove of my story. I often find myself fleshing out and adding to these bits, and the next thing I know, I already have 500 to 1000 words. Then I hit the ground running with the new stuff.

    I set time limits rather than word limits for a day. Tell yourself something like “Today I have two hours to write uninterrupted,” then do it. Don’t check your word count until you’re done for the day. And don’t chastise yourself if you hit a wall some days and end up spending an hour staring at the screen in dumb silence because the well has run dry.

    I’ll add a third point and I think this one is very important. Just because the words aren’t showing up on the page, doesn’t mean nothing is happening. I can go days without writing a word while trying to work something out in a WIP. Meanwhile, my brain is writing the scene in my head, getting it just right. When it’s ready, stand back and watch the flood gates open.

    What I’m saying is, writing, like any creative endeavor, is an organic process. Sometimes you have to be patient and trust yourself to let it take its course.

    • Yes, well, I find it easier to write non-fiction :)

      I agree that sometimes you need to let a scene percolate in your head, but I also believe that, even if you do, you should be writing something else in the meantime.

  5. Great post. I use a combination of counting up & down at the same time, if that makes any sense – during personal marathons I use an excel sheet where every day I put in my total word count, and it shows me both how much I’ve written so far, and how much I have left to go.

    Yes, I’m an obsessive counter.

    As for the next post, it sounds promising! Using threats and blackmail? Are you not going to mention rewards? That tends to work for me, but I’m pretty easily bribed.

    • Cajoling works when you’re just avoiding. Threats and blackmail are for when the subconscious is not playing the writing game :)

      I use a marathon spreadsheet that someone made for Nano. It’s great, and tells you how many words you need to write the next day to reach your overall goal.

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