Word Count or Time Goal? Which Gets More Writing Done?

writing word count or time goal

A day in the life of a writer requires discipline and a constant battle with distractions and personal demons that tell you your writing isn’t worth squat.

I wake up in the morning, pry myself out of bed and sulk around thinking that a bowl of cereal or cup of tea is the next piece in the puzzle to making myself ready to stare at the screen for the next few hours and write. I’ve spoken about how inspiration is BS, and even William Faulkner agrees with me:

I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

This inspiration to write often comes from a goal, written on paper, or so ingrained in your habits that it flows out of you naturally everyday. This started turning my mind wheels, because I often switch off between my goals.

Sometimes I set a time limit and other times I set a word count goal for writing.

I’ve bounced back and forth with both word count and time goals for writing, finding that sometimes a time limit leads to sloppy work, while word count goals give me an excuse to take all the time in the world, leading to an inefficient workflow.

Let’s take a look at influential writers and see exactly how they approached the goal setting situation. It seems that some are clock punchers, sticking to a time frame, and others are word count chasers, plucking their keyboard until a number is reached.

Clock Punchers

According to Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mark Twain would focus primarily on time. He woke up in the morning to a filling breakfast then headed to his study where he stayed uninterrupted until 5pm. His time-based model allowed him to pump out about 1,000 words per day as a result.

In a 1968 interview Jack Kerouac didn’t seem to have much need for word counts, since the timing and setting meant everything:

The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired.

In an interview, Simone de Beauvoir explained how she chopped her writing work into two time frames throughout the day. With no apparent focus on word count, she had her tea, started work at 10am and stopped at around 1pm. Later in the evening she would get back at it and work from 5pm to 9pm.

Word Count Chasers

Stephen King reveals that he never lets a day pass without hammering out at least 2,000 words per day. He focuses on word count as opposed to setting a time limit. King talks about his entire routine and how he even manages to hit his mark on weekends and holidays in his book On Writing.

Hemingway wrote in the morning and seemingly sat down to write whenever he felt the urge, but his 500 word goal is one of the more popular approaches that current writers seem to follow.

James Joyce used a different approach, and I’m not sure if I would classify him as a clock puncher or word count chaser. The Ulysses scribe once mentioned this in conversation:

“I’ve been working hard on [Ulysses] all day,” said Joyce.

Does that mean that you have written a great deal?” I said.

Two sentences,” said Joyce.

I looked sideways but Joyce was not smiling. I thought of [French novelist Gustave] Flaubert. “You’ve been seeking the mot juste?” I said.

No,” said Joyce. “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence.”

So in a sense he focused on perfecting those two sentences, but this also gave him an unlimited amount of time to achieve those perfect sentences.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section if you are more of a clock puncher or word count chaser. Have you tried both word count and time goals for writing and found that one is more effective than the other?

Set up a self-hosted WordPress blog in 10 minutes or less by watching my step-by-step video tutorial. Get your words out to the world and take full control of your blog. I recommend using BlueHost web hosting. It is the only hosting service I personally recommend, and I use it for this site! Learn more….

About Joe Warnimont

I am a writer, marketing expert and adventure seeker. I help people write, market their writing, live truthfully and embrace their lives through creativity. You can find me riding my bike around the streets of Chicago. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.

Comments

  1. Armen Pogharian says:

    I go with word count. My goal is 1000 words a day, including edits to previous days’ work. I write every day and only count the words on my books, i.e., I don’t count blog posts or other things. I track the words written in a spreadsheet – yeah it’s geeky, but so am I and it helps me with accountability. Time is easy to measure, but it’s very hard for me to be consistent wrt time of day or even number of hours. I might spend three hours and get less than a hundred words, but then write 1000 in the next hour. The number method may doesn’t always lead to the best writing, but I think it’s better to write first and edit later – more productive and it gives things time to settle.

    • Hey Armen, this seems like a pretty well thought out system. I like the idea of writing down word counts in a spreadsheet. I’ll have to try that out. This would help for future word count and completion date projections as well. 🙂

  2. If I get to the computer (always early morning) and am inspired, I use neither word count nor time to lash myself across the shoulders. If uninspired, I force myself to write 1000 words. In that case, sometimes inspiration comes and if it doesn’t I often spend the following morning editing the previous day’s 1000 words.

    • The idea of writing regardless of inspiration is key for me. Jotting down a bunch of crap usually gets the juices flowing, as opposed to sitting and staring or browsing.

  3. I haven’t set a daily goal yet (though I know I should) but being that I’ll be heading back to college soon, I’ll probably have to set a time goal among all my other commitments like classes, work, and extra-curriculars. However, I feel I’d be more efficient with a word count goal instead because I’d rather have time be arbitrary when I write and I feel more accomplished writing X words/pages instead of writing for Y hours.

    Again, I don’t have a goal set yet, but I plan to plug in some writing time into my schedule, as well as write whenever I can regardless.

    • Nice Ben. Let me know what you decide on. I’m interested to see how students fit writing into their schedules. In school I had trouble with the time method since I just ended up procrastinating. So I had to focus on word counts.

      • Since getting ready for college, I’ve decided to go with the time clock method; I’ve only set about 1-2hrs. aside every day during my week. Now the trick is to keep to that schedule for the semester.

        Of course, there’s always just writing until you can’t think of anything else to write about at that time.

  4. Charles Ray says:

    Both have their drawbacks, but time goals tend to be more distracting as you constantly look at your watch to see how much time you have left to write – time that could be spent writing.

  5. Interesting conversation! Because of family obligations, I have only certain times that I can devote to writing, so I suppose that’s a “time limit”. But I make sure I write a certain number of words/chapters during that time. I’ve always worked best under deadline, anyway. If I know a chapter is “due” on a certain day, I get it written. If I give myself permission to do something else, I’ll always find a reason not to finish. So I’m my own editor, and I demand chapters, on time, from myself.

  6. I am still searching for what is ‘right’ for me. How I feel is to much of an influence now and I don’t like it.

  7. I am a full-time college student and parent, which leaves me waking up early and going to bed late to snatch a few dark, silent hours for writing. I don’t set a word count goal or time limit; I just make sure that I’m writing something. I normally keep track of how many words I’ve written on a particular piece, or chapter (not including blog posts, schoolwork, etc.). If I’m particularly uninspired, I let myself get away with 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. If I am inspired, I churn them out like a lunatic, not keeping track until I’m spent.

  8. The clock is my guide. I am a single parent, so I don’t start until after my kids are at school & the afternoon bell ends my day. I might be able to get more writing done after, but dinner and bedtime routine interrupt the flow again.

  9. Phoenix Grey says:

    I’m definitely a word count chaser, I’ve tried timing myself – sitting down for an hor, say, and writing, but the problem is that I sit staring at the clock and don’t actually do any writing, or not much anyway. By setting myself a daily/weekly/monthly word count goal, at some point I have to sit down and write those words.