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Goals are great things. I love goals, if just to say that I met one. But have you ever noticed how, when you meet a goal, you suddenly think you’re “done?”

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You are working all morning for that 2000 words of your goal, and around noon, perhaps you hit it. Or maybe it’s closer to two or three, you type that 2000th word. You suddenly think, “Great. Now I’m done. I can go watch TV for the rest of the day.”

Why? Why am I done simply because I typed 2000 words? If I stop at that 2000th word, have I done my best for the day?

During the month of November, thousands of hopeful novelists strive to write an average of 1667 words a day for 30 days. Many will make that goal, and skim in at 50K words by November 30th. Many will abandon their attempts halfway through, having realized they don’t have the time, they bit off more than they can chew, or simply get discouraged by a few days of not meeting their goals, or develop plot difficulties and/or hate their story and give up. But everyone participating in NaNo has a word count goal set for them, and if they want to “win,” it’s vital that they make it.

There is nothing inherently bad in setting a word count goal, if that is what motivates you. Indeed, for a first draft, I find daily word count goals can be incredibly effective at getting the story on the pages. But what about when you’re past that first draft? And what about those days spent outlining?

This November, I have consistently been wondering something along the lines of: How effective is meeting a daily word count goal? In the past I’ve gone back and forth setting daily word count goals and daily time-spent-writing goals. I’ve made lists and prioritized, I’ve set page goals for editing.

Like most writers, the most effective way (by far) to get me to sit down at the computer is to give me a deadline. But I must have a deadline that other people care about–I need someone else to hold me accountable to that deadline.

But this November has been different for me in several ways.
a) I’m a mother to an eight-month-old;
b) I’m enrolled in a rather demanding online writing class;
c) I’m using NaNo to edit a previous NaNo novel.

All of the above reasons have made a daily word count goal challenging to say the least. When am I supposed to pound through 1667 words? The inconsistent nap times? Or at night when I’m supposed to be enjoying family time? Or late at night, after the baby goes to sleep, and I’m so exhausted I can’t think straight? And is it supposed to take priority over my online course, which is teaching me better writing skills and habits? And when editing, does word count matter as much as it did the first time around?

The thing about word count is: every writing book tells you not to use two words when one will do. NaNo suggests the very opposite. Every November I see memes and quotes fly around of how people suggest “upping” your word count: add “s/he said” after everything; give your characters names with multiple words (e.g. Mrs. St. John versus Carolyn); hyphenate rather than use a compound word; etc.

For NaNo, those are great little ways to add words to the first draft. But really, all that does is increase your work later, and possibly affect how your novel is seen when you try to get an agent for it. Agents want to know your novel’s word count, and if it’s too long (or not long enough) for a genre. If you have an extra three thousand words that really don’t need to be there in your novel, it’s not helping you, it’s hurting. So how effective does that word count goal look now?

There are several ways that word count goals affect me.
1) Motivate me to get words on the page.
2) Motivate me to sit down and write.
3) Makes me throw words down on the page, even if they aren’t “the right words.”
4) Stresses me out and makes me feel guilty if I didn’t meet my daily word count goal.
5) Can give me “writer’s block” by forcing me to vomit something on the page.
6) Prevents me from going back to edit.

Clearly, word count goals can both make me more effective, and less effective. I can get more words on the page, but the quality of words is lower. It makes me sit down and write for the day, forcing me to set aside time for writing.

However, a forced word count also give me difficulties. If life gets in the way, I feel guilty about not getting the time to write, and I get stressed if I don’t accomplish my writing goal for the day or week. And when I do sit down, throwing words onto the page in haste, simply to make a goal, I’m often less than pleased with the words that come out.

Preventing me from editing as I write is both a positive and negative. Many times something I write “in the moment” doesn’t turn out to be necessary later on down the road, sometimes the very next day. By not going back and immediately editing out something I know is superfluous to my novel, is it helping or hurting? Granted, I could always mark it in red or with a comment or highlight and come back later, after NaNo, to remove it, but isn’t that more work? Shouldn’t I just delete it as soon as I know it won’t work?

There are clear pros and cons to having a daily word count goal. Every author works best under different conditions. Every author has a different take on their art.

Part of being a writer is finding out what works for you. 

For me, word count goals are great for the first draft. I pound out that draft and don’t worry about censoring my words.

For editing, word count goals are torture. I find myself pounding through a revision, but unhappy with the direction the words take. Instead of taking the time to make the draft as good as possible, I throw vomit upon the pages and force myself to revise yet again in an endless cycle.

So what works for you? What’s your writing process?