Reflections on Writing, Part II

Yesterday I shared part I of my reflections on my year of writing. Aside from deadlines and scrum boards, my other favorite writing tip is to embrace word counts. I think historians tend to view word counts as a dirty concept. One that only *journalists* utilize to churn out words to meet pressing deadlines. But the truth is that our books are made up of words too and most of our contracts specify a certain number of words.
So let’s try a positive approach to these big, bad word counts. I believe we should view word counts as a tool to help manage projects and fuel productivity. Here is how.
Sometimes when I look at my book as a whole (or another writing project), it seems daunting and overwhelming. Figuring out where to start and how to proceed can be incredibly difficult. Thoughts like “I’ll never finish it” start to creep into my head. That’s where words come in. Let’s say the book is 110,000 words. On a good writing day (not out-of-this-world, but not stuck-in-the-mud), I can rely on myself to produce 1,500 words. If I write 1,500 words every day for 74 days (or just over two months), I’ll have 110,000 words.
Now, obviously I’m not going to write every day. Life happens and I have other obligations. Even if I did write every day, they won’t all be productive days and I won’t hit 1,500 words every time. Plus, many of the 1,500 words are going to be crap. Just plain crap. That’s how writing should be. Write quickly, then edit. Edit, edit, and edit some more.
Here is the good news. Let’s say you have a 10,000 word introduction, a 10,000 word conclusion, and six 15,000 word chapters. A chapter can still feel like an awfully big task. But if you target 1,500 words a day, that’s only 10 days! Instead, give yourself 3 weeks. Plan to have a draft after 2 weeks or 2.5 weeks, then spend a few days editing. Bam! You have a solid chapter. Sure you’ll probably edit a bunch later down the road, but it’s a good plan to move your manuscript forward.
That was my strategy for my writing year. I set chapter deadlines roughly once every 3-4 weeks. I broke that down into weekly increments, then daily increments. I scheduled in extra editing weeks and wild card weeks for when the train simply went off the rails. 8 months later, I had my revised manuscript ready for my workshop.
It goes without saying that I was (and am) in an incredibly fortunate position. My postdoctoral fellowship prioritized writing above all else, I had small teaching requirements, and few other obligations. I can’t imagine sustaining my productivity while operating under a normal or even semi-normal teaching load. I know people who do and they are superhuman. That being said, I think the principle behind word counts can be scaled down to accommodate any schedule and make writing tasks seem less impossible. I encourage you to give it a try and let me know how it goes!

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