JyriAnd Blog

On Counting Words

On Counting Words

Software engineers often talk about the old days when managers measured the productivity of a programmer by the number of lines of code they wrote. More lines of code meant more productivity. LOC(lines of code) measurement was also a way to prove to the client that actual work had been done. His money was well spent.

Programmers tried not to disappoint the managers — and solved problems by writing 10 lines of code for something that could have been fixed with one line. They avoided removing old and useless code because they might have ended up in a situation where they produced negative number LOC.

Manager: “What do you mean you wrote -500 lines of code today?”

Now programmers laugh about the medieval practices that were common sense just a few decades ago. We can’t measure creative work with numbers.

So, what I’m trying to say? Why am I writing about programmers? Because I think writers might be repeating the same error, measuring success by number of words they have written.

Autobiographical sidetrack

I began writing in my early teens. When I was 14 years old, I stumbled on a Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, and after reading it, I decided to become a writer.

Jack London was a prolific writer, he authored over 40 books. One rule that made Jack London so prolific was to write one thousand clean words every day, never missing a single day. I wanted to be like him, so I adopted this rule.

Unlike Jack London, I was not so self-disciplined. It was impossible to stick to that rule. I started skipping the days I wrote and felt that writing had become a chore. Before adopting the rule I wrote with enjoyment, now it was a burden.

I tried hard. I needed to fill the quota with 1000 words. If it meant writing useless gibberish, I did that. After the draft was completed, I was reluctant to remove any words—these 1000 words were earned by hard work, why would I delete the words? If Jack London could do it, then I must be able to do it as well. I was young, and my whole self-image was built upon being an adventurer writer like Jack London.

Finally, I gave up, although, some of my short stories got published. But the rigid writing regiment became so boring and mind-numbing that I abandoned creative writing for 15 years.

Now, I’m back at writing. I still love Jack London, but now I know that I shouldn’t follow his advice. What works for him, doesn’t work for me. Yes, writing every day is important, and I’m doing it as much as I can—but without a specific goal. I don’t count words I write. It doesn’t make sense to me.

Problem with daily goal

The biggest problem with specific daily word output is that it makes us afraid of writing. We fear the moment we have to sit down and start typing. 1000 words a day? What if I don’t have so many words in me? That is the time the procrastination takes over.

By setting a rigid goal, we have set a limiting goal that will hold us back until we allow ourselves to relax and view writing from another perspective. Instead of squeezing one more paragraph out of our heads to achieve the goal, let’s close the editor and take a walk.

Jack London was able to write a clean draft with the first try. We might think we can too, and maybe some of us can, but what if this expectation is killing our creativity?

We know: If we don’t get 1000 clean words, then we will need to revise it. And if we need to revise it, what words will we count as our daily achievement? Will we subtract from the initial amount? Do we consider rewriting as part of writing? That’s where it gets confusing.

“But I need a goal to stick to; otherwise I will start slacking off,” I hear you saying.

Instead of setting an arbitrary goal, like 1000 words per day, start building systems. Systems will allow you to write whenever you want, not only in the morning.

We are losing much of the creativity when we only have one single time of the day for writing. What are we going to do if we get an urge to write in the afternoon? Will we count these words as an advance for next day?

Or maybe we will decide to skip tomorrow’s writing session because we already got 2 times the amount of our usual output? And most important of all—what if we start to get into the flow only after the first 900 words. We are struggling for 900 words, and then, finally, when we feel like we are flowing, we need to stop because we have reached our daily goal.