The Word Count Trap

Indulge me in a quick little thought experiment. Imagine you’re dropped down in an unknown corner of a forest. You’re informed that you’re twenty miles from civilization if you head in the right direction.

Compass

Twenty miles. That’s a tangible goal, right? It’s measurable and achievable. It might be a hell of a long way, and it might take you a few days, and it might hurt, but you can do this. If you stay focused and determined, you can make it happen.

Please notice, however, that I say focused and determined, notsingle-minded’.

If you walk and walk without rest, you’re going to wear a hole in your foot and you’re going to be useless. If you walk and walk without water you’re going to collapse due to heat exhaustion. If you walk and walk without checking if you’re going in the right direction, you’re going to wander in circles and you will be lost, possibly forever.

Now imagine you’re not in the literal woods, but in the wilderness of your own insane, wonderful, brilliant decision to write a novel. If you’ve just pulled up a fresh document, you’re eighty thousand words from the end.

Eighty-thousand words. That’s a tangible goal, right? It’s measurable and achievable. It might be a hell of a lot of words, and it might take you a few months, and it might hurt, but you can do this. If you stay focused and determined, you can make it happen.

Lost in WordsBut the perils of being blind to everything but your goal, the perils of being focused on word count and word count alone are almost as bad as those of walking and walking and walking.

I call it the word count trap, and I fall into it all the time. I’m so obsessed with getting my thousand+ words written every day that I keep slogging forward. I don’t have time to take a nap or read a book or go on a trip; I have to write. I don’t have time to talk to my friends; I have to write. I don’t have time to re-examine my outline; I have to write.

But for me at least, writing without rest means writing crap. Writing without community means getting bogged down. Writing without a plan is like wandering in the woods without a compass.

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally come to recognize that getting rest makes me a better writer. Reading and sleeping keep my mind fresh. Attending writer group meetings and going on writer retreats give me the distance and space to come back at my manuscript with a renewed sense of energy and a better perspective about where the story is going. Revisiting my (admittedly spare) outline keeps me going in the right direction, and helps me adjust my course to stay on track.

I spent this past week traveling, and one of my destinations was a writer retreat sponsored by my old RWA chapter. Fellow Bad Girl Jenna Patrick already blogged about the things she’s learned and the friendships she’s formed by attending retreats, but for a moment, I want to focus on the value of just plain retreating. It’s not just about learning–it’s about retreating. It’s about stepping away and stepping back. I may not have gotten any words written this week—my word count may have suffered. But I came back re-energized and feeling like I know where I’m going, and like I’m on the right road both in this manuscript and in my life.

I got out of the word count trap.

And when I get back to writing tomorrow, I have absolutely no doubt that I’m going to writing better, faster, and with more purpose than I was before I left. It won’t take me long to catch up, and I’ll feel better for having taken the time away.

So when you get bogged down, remember that the answer isn’t always to just keep pressing forward. Sometimes, you’re much better served by stopping and taking care of yourself and getting some distance, then coming back to your words, rested and refreshed.

  • How do you recharge when you get bogged down?

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