Do Your Word Counts Measure Up?

    Setting a goal to write so many words a day (as Stephen King and many other writers do) can work for you, but only when you’re generating new material.

    That might seem obvious, but keep in mind, there are six stages in the creative process and in only one of those six stages do you have your fingers on the keyboard or pen on the page.

    Trying to hit a word-count goal when in you’re in any of the other five stages will be an exercise in frustration. It’s more effective to keep track of how much time you give your writing when you’re in these five stages.

    The most effective things to do during your writing time depends on which of the six stages you’re in.

    Stage 1: First Insight

    In this stage, you’re looking for your next writing project or the next phase of a larger project. You wonder “what if, how about, why not…”

    This is when you should be reading widely to see what grabs your attention, completing an Interest Inventory, freewriting, clustering, mind mapping, and using other brainstorming methods.

    Notice that even when you’re freewriting, you’re not drafting the actual piece yet and not likely to produce significant word counts, so this is not that one stage in six to use word counts.

    Stage 2: Saturation

    In this research stage you seek as much information as you can about the topic, characters, setting, etc.

    You read, interview people and use search engines, questionnaires, surveys, field research, etc.

    This stage is much more about input than output, so word counts aren’t much use here.

    Stage 3: Incubation

    After you’ve gathered so much information, your conscious mind won’t be able to make sense of it for awhile. Your main job is to keep your conscious mind occupied with some small thing so your unconscious is free to search for new associations and connections.

    Hazards of Incubation
    Patience is essential during Incubation; cracking the egg open early to see what’s happening inside only kills the chick.

    If you don’t understand what Incubation is and what to do to move through it, this stage can be very frustrating. You might think you’re blocked, even though this is a natural part of the creative process.

    Unfortunately, if you don’t know how to get through this stage and expect to measure your progress with word counts, you can actually create a block.

    There isn’t much point in taking in any more information and you won’t be ready to write until you move through the next stage, Illumination.

    You might take a walk or a nap, freewrite questions and answers, try to explain the problem to someone else, cluster, brainstorm, doodle, or get your body busy.

    Stage 4: Illumination

    This flash of insight that follows Incubation is everyone’s favorite stage. In this “A-ha” or “Eureka” moment, everything fits together.

    Because this is typically a brief stage, you probably won’t have time to do more than jot a few notes or draw a quick cluster or mind-map.

    You’re still not doing the kind of drafting that makes counting words a practical tool yet.

    Stage 5: Verification

    Finally, you’ve arrived in the stage where you’re drafting and generating new material. Now you can effectively use word counts.

    This is the stage where you make something tangible out of the insight you received in Illumination, something that can be shared with others.

    You’ll draft, revise, rewrite, edit, proofread, ask for feedback, read out loud, etc. But don’t try to draft and revise at the same time. Letting your early drafts be imperfect approximations of what you’re trying to write is really the most effective approach.

    Repeat Stages 1 – 5

    Drafting and revising in Verification often raise new questions and lead you back to First Insight. You might go through the first five stages just once for a short piece; you’ll repeat the first five stages many times to complete a large writing project.

    Sometimes after completing a writing project, you move into a kind of limbo where you’re not sure what to work on next and don’t have enough creative energy to move into First Insight. This is the Hibernation stage.

    Stage 6: Hibernation

    During this the fallow time, your primary task is to recharge your batteries and restore your creative energy.

    Like Incubation, this stage is often mistaken for writer’s block, but is a natural part of the creative process that needs to be respected. Like Saturation, this is a stage about input, not output.

    You need to do whatever renews your creative spirit. Look at beautiful images or art. Listen to beautiful music. Be in beautiful natural spaces. Garden, walk, sit by a lake or river, rest, wait.

    Give yourself time to just be; it’s the only way you can fill yourself up and have something to share again.

    As your creative energy returns, you’ll start wondering “what if, why not, how about…” and other open-ended questions that will funnel you back to First Insight.

    Your Stage

    What stage are you in now? Are you doing the tasks that fit that stage or creating unnecessary frustration trying to count words in any stage other than Verification?

    A guest post by Rosanne Bane. She writes Bane Of Your Resistance and teaches at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her new book, Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance will be available in August.

    About the author

      Rosanne Bane

    • Lukas says:

      This came as a nice relief. Thanks for clarifying the hibernation stage. I always put the blame on the block – but it seems to me now that my brain after 4 years of full-time job and part-time writing hibernated for a year. Hope it’s not running on Windows, this state in that system might be perilous.

    • The word count can be still observed, but as a post measure – once a week you add all the words you wrote that week ad divide them by 7. This way it stays as a good indicator of your output rate, but doesn’t put a stifling pressure on you.

    • How fortunate for me to stumble across this article today. Recently proofed the galleys on Book Two, mumbling about whether to do Book Three or Book Four next, feeling kinda dumb and wondering where all that energy and intelligence came from to do those first two books. Was on my way “out to the garden an’ eat worms”. I’d lost sight of the stages, of course. Thanks so much, I’m off to the garden to breathe.

    • Liz McC says:

      I’m glad to be able to feel justified when I am just not inspired to write. I gave up on the so many words a day requirement and now just concentrate on writing SOMETHING every day- even if it is just to get practice and inspiration going. I often find that writing about events in my own life or studies present deeper themes which enrich the “surface writing” which I had done while using my conscious mind too much. I’m just glad to hear that others go through the same process.

      • Thanks Liz for sharing your observations. I’m delighted to hear you gave up on word counts as the measure of your commitment to writing or your success. I know what you mean about surface writing compared to deeper writing…

    • At last, a article that doesn’t make me feel guilty because I am not churning out hundreds of words every day. The process you describe is the process I use. I also do a lot of hand writing in notebooks which is very liberating. thanks

      • Liz McC says:

        Me, too! I’ve devoured writing books, but they all seem pretty short-sighted about the whole “different strokes for different folks” concept. I don’t know if it’s the same way for you, but I have to put on the headphones and crank some music up so loud that I can’t think. And then the writing doesn’t have to flow through my overactive, hypercritical conscious mind because it is completely overwhelmed. Good luck! Perhaps I’ll see your name on my bookshelf soon.

      • You’re welcome Moira. And thanks for your comment — as a fellow writer you know how gratifying it is to get positive feedback.

    • I have been trying to find a way to write everyday for quite some time now. But, for one reason or another, I end up writing something about once a week. I had never thought about writing as something that happens in clearly defined stages as you have described above.

      I guess I have to try this approach, and maybe I will be able to fulfill my writing goal. Thanks for the post. 🙂

      • You’re welcome NeoBluePanther!

        You might want to try making a small, regular commitment — no more than 10 or 15 minutes a day 3 – 5 days a week. If you get on a roll and want to keep going, you can, but you commit to no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and because you’ve committed yourself, you show up no matter what!

        I call this 15 Magic Minutes and it’s amazing how effective it is. If you’re curious, do a search on 15 Magic Minutes or look at the Recommended Practices category on my blog or send me an email at [email protected].

    • Savita Narayan says:

      Very informative. What’s an Interest Inventory, by the way?


      • Thanks Savita! The Interest Inventory is a collection of questions to help writers identify topics/issues they might want to write about.

    • This was a very informative post. I’ve been writing for some time now, and have come to just accept whatever stage I am in, for what it is. I had never been able to put a label on those stages until now. This, however, puts everything in perspective. Thank you!
      Kevin J. McArthur
      Author: Devastation, Benjamin Ridge, and others.

      • You’re most welcome Kevin! Isn’t it interesting how our intuition is often ahead of our intellect? Good for you for recognizing and respecting your process!

    • Some great insights here but I’d also observe that most writers should be writing more than one thing at a time. Thus, you can be in different stages with different articles — and therefore writing every day. As well, if you’re doing a super big project (such as a book), and don’t want to be distracted by other writing tasks, I still recommend Julia Cameron’s “morning pages.” (Pages you write every morning about your life and thoughts.) Writing is like exercise and if you don’t do it regularly your muscles start to atrophy!

      • Thanks Daphane! You’re absolutely right that you can be in different stages with different pieces and could therefore be drafting every day. And Julia Cameron’s morning pages are a great way to warm up. Other forms of creative play like coloring, drawing, painting, dancing, playing with clay or PlayDoh, making collages or any other play just for the sake of play provide the same benefits of doing morning pages. (I call this Process and discuss the brain-related benefits in my book.)

    • Jevon says:

      What a great article. I am actually at step 5, but thanks to this I realize I’m trying to draft and revise at the same time, which is causing my output to be too slow. I’m going to try just getting what’s on my mind out in words without thinking too much.

      • Excellent Jevon! Drafting and editing actually engage different parts of the brain and are quite different cognitive tasks. Trying to edit as you write is a form of multitasking and like most multitasking actually takes more time. I suspect your drafting will not only be faster, but smoother and more inspired too when you put the editing temporarily on hold.

    • Chris says:

      Thank you for clarifying that I don’t need to be cranking out 1000 words per day EVERYDAY. 🙂 I knew I had valid reasons for not “writing” every day when I’m writing, just never codified and identified those periods like you did.

      • You’re welcome. There is so much more to writing than cranking out the words — isn’t good to know your inutition was on target about that?

    • Carol says:

      This article is excellent and discovered I am in between stages 1 and 2! Am intrigued by the Interests Inventory and would like to get a copy too. What e-mail address do I use to send for this?

    • Ah yes, I remember the 6 steps from Psychology! Who do I email for the Interests Inventory, by the way?

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