Staying Motivated with Word Count

24 Aug

by Savannah J. Foley


I’ve had some good writing weekends. Weekends where I write 10,000 words. And I’ve had some bad ones, where I get maybe 200 words. Every single time I sit down to write, I’m always amazed by how much text it actually takes to make even 100 words. For example, in Times New Roman sized 12, double-spaced, an average page from one of my books has 350 words on it. This paragraph only has 89, and look at all of the ideas I’ve expressed so far.

So even though numbers like 100, 200, or 300 seem low in comparison to what I get on a good weeknight (2,000), that’s actually quite a bit of writing.

And I’m obsessed with word count. Here’s a picture of the spreadsheet I keep open in Google docs when I’m working on my books (the word counts are from the zombie book I have going on the side) (click to see it bigger!):

I got into word counts when I participated in NaNoWriMo last year, and made the foundation of the above chart at that point. (At the time I originally wrote this post, I was the only one I knew of who kept charts like this, but then Susan came up with the awesome idea of us at LTWF sharing our daily goals/achievements with each other. For the past week we’ve updated our word counts in a shared google docs, and it’s been incredibly motivational, as Susan mentioned yesterday, but I still maintain this chart on my own!)

These days, whenever I’m writing and hit a pause (you know the kind. The one where your brain interjects and says, “HEY! Let’s go check email! Or Twitter! Or Facebook! Or Google+!”) I do a word count check and update the word count chart. I know when I’m really hitting my stride because 500 words will go by and I’ve been so engrossed in my story I didn’t even think to stop and check. I’ve gotten really good at estimating how many words I just wrote by the time it took. On average I can do 1,000 an hour (Yes, I also maintain complicated hour-by-hour charts as well. What can I say, I love charts!)

Yes, this behavior is obsessive. But it has also taught me something about writing and motivation:

Writing takes a long time. A long, long, long, long time. From conception to actualization on my last book it took 9 months. In actual writing time it took 3 months. That’s faster than some, slower than others, but still, when you think about it, a really freaking long time.

9 months of staying motivated about a story. 3 months about showing up and making it happen (Or as Susan calls it, BICHOK). 90 nights of going home with the intention of working on this huuuuuuge project, and sometimes not even getting started. This past weekend, I spent 8 solid hours over two different days, and got almost 9k out of it. But that was 8 hours of my weekend dedicated to doing nothing but writing. That’s an entire work day! And I only added about three scenes.

If you let yourself think about how much work and time goes into making a novel, it’s very easy to become demotivated. That’s why I like word counts. It compartmentalizes my goal for the day, and makes it attainable. I don’t think about having to write 70,000 words. Instead, I usually shoot for about 1,500 per night. That’s doable. It takes about two hours, but I’m lucky in that I have that time every evening.

During the day, I do spare some thought to the eventualities of the novel, but mostly I focus on the upcoming scene. I use all spare time to think about what I’m going to write that night, and then when I get in front of the computer I know exactly what I’m doing.

By the end of the novel, I’ve spent about 90 full days with my characters. Thinking about them, talking to them, exploring their worlds in my mind. They become friends. And that’s something else to look forward to during the process; it’s not a race to the finish, but a stroll with good company and an exciting reward at the end.

In other words, “It’s not the destination, but the journey.” And the satisfaction of every small goal along the way.


How do you stay motivated when working on a novel?


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website and blog is at She is currently working with her agent to sell a sleeping beauty retelling about a girl who wakes up after a hundred years with no memory of her former life. You can read excerpts from her stories here.

24 Responses to “Staying Motivated with Word Count”

  1. Angela August 24, 2011 at 5:37 AM #

    I love reading about other people who have daily word goals. A year ago I decided to write a minimum of 500 words everyday–no exceptions. I managed to achieve that goal despite being sick or just plain lazy. It really helped me build discipline and actually finish writing the first draft of a novel.

    • savannahjfoley August 24, 2011 at 8:07 AM #

      I know someone else who had a 500-word count goal… It was very inspiring see her work on it every day, but that’s not a system that would work for me. As you can see, I take ‘breaks’, lol.

  2. Nicole Basaraba August 24, 2011 at 7:39 AM #

    I’ ve also found by joining the ROW80 writing challenge, that word count goals help. I have three goals, an overall short-term goal, a weekly goal and a daily goal. So if I don’t meet one goal at least I have two more to fall back on. I also keep a spread sheet with word counts, but its words counts for each scene and chapter.

  3. donnagalanti August 24, 2011 at 7:59 AM #

    Great post! I have been languishing on word count with no routine in the summer with school out. Gearing up for days alone to write again I will be using this chart as I too am obsessed with word count. I think the visual will help motivate me to keep on target to my date of writing THE END on my current novel. When 2 or 3 days go by with “0” that is a kick in the pants to get going! I did have a daily goal of 500 words but not recording it. I am also adding in the project delivery date as a visual – to see my deadline looming. Thanks for the process!

    • savannahjfoley August 24, 2011 at 8:08 AM #

      Definitely do a chart! And deadline dates are fun, in my opinion. If you’re putting the work in you see the date as ‘arrival date’, as in ‘yay, my book will be here on this day!’

  4. authorguy August 24, 2011 at 8:20 AM #

    I try to write some every day, but no set goal. I rarely obsess about my word count. Unless I’m, like, 150 words away from 23K…must go.

    • savannahjfoley August 24, 2011 at 10:09 AM #

      I love crossing those ‘threshold’ amounts!

  5. Stacy Green August 24, 2011 at 9:40 AM #

    Word count helps me. I’ve been plotting the last couple of weeks, and staying motivated with that can be a challenge. I figure my book will be 90-100K, so I like to divide the word count by 2k. If I can write 2k/day, that’s 50 writing days to get it done. Take into account how tough that can be, and we’re probably looking at 90 days writing time. But if I can get a good first draft in 90 days, I’ll be satisfied.

    • savannahjfoley August 24, 2011 at 10:10 AM #

      I love to think of myself as writing 2k a day, but as you can see from my chart that’s more likely to not happen than it is. I do share your 90-day deadlines… I like to finish within three months.

  6. Holly August 24, 2011 at 10:21 AM #

    I love the idea of making a chart for your word count goal. I’m all about the goal-setting, but this is a really visual way to keep motivated. Maybe I’ll make one for myself now. 😉

    • savannahjfoley August 24, 2011 at 10:22 AM #

      Do it!! I am all about some charts.

  7. Asia Morela August 24, 2011 at 2:33 PM #

    I kind of like charts; I may try your method! 😉

    My own statistics so far have showed that I can reach about 600 words per hour on average. Not very high. However, unlike you I’ve actually been amazed at how little text big numbers actually represented. Like, when I read about some people trying to write at least 500 words a day, I thought, “Wow, that’s a lot!” But the next day I sat on my computer to write, I did a wordcount check after feeling like I’d written almost nothing and it was very near 500… Suddenly, 500 words a day looked completely doable, even though I am studying full-time plus working part-time, which does often put a strain on my motivation…

    • savannahjfoley August 25, 2011 at 11:31 AM #

      No, no, that’s pretty high for an hour’s work!

      And I do agree with you about the numbers thing… after the first hundred words I always used to think my count should be way higher than it was.

  8. Aya Tsintziras August 24, 2011 at 2:33 PM #

    Great post! I too am kind of obsessed with word counts (but what writer isn’t? I mean really…) It’s definitely good motivation — I try to do 2,000 words a day and usually it works out. I feel like making a chart would make me feel too anxious though! 🙂

    • savannahjfoley August 25, 2011 at 11:32 AM #

      I’m currently shooting for 1.5k per day so I can fit in the gym, cooking, and reading all in one night, but I used to do 2k too!

      I like the chart because I can look back on my work and visually see all those days I put in the time.

  9. Safferina August 25, 2011 at 1:44 AM #

    I wished I could do 1000 words an hour. I wrote 5000 words yesterday and it took me at least 8 hours!! I love when you get in the ‘zone’ and the word count just breezes past, but it sucks when it feels like you’ve put out a lot, and it turns out to be 200 words.

    I need to try that word count file. Graphs do see awesome!!
    Thanks for the idea.

    • savannahjfoley August 25, 2011 at 11:33 AM #

      If I was Zombie!Savannah I would say ‘graaaaaaaaphs’. 🙂

      Congrats on your 5k! I always feel over the moon when I hit huge counts in day.

  10. linda August 25, 2011 at 9:12 AM #

    Ooh, great idea! I love charts and spreadsheets too! I should totally do this once I’m ready to start drafting. I made a spreadsheet for Camp NaNoWriMo but then realized I suck as a pantser, so I changed my focus to planning/plotting instead of increasing word count. But tracking metrics sounds fun so I’ll definitely give that a shot. Thanks!

    • savannahjfoley August 25, 2011 at 11:34 AM #

      Yes, in the beginning it’s far more important to figure out plots instead of word count. Sometimes it takes me 10k on a new story just to realize I have to scrap all that and start over from a different angle.

  11. Mark August 25, 2011 at 4:19 PM #

    I don’t have a daily goal, because there are so many days I simply can’t write becauseof other obligations. I have a weekly goal instead, 4K. And that’s cumulative, meaning that if during one week I write only 3500, I’d better plan for 4500 the next week in order to keep up. This pace works for me, and it means it will take 20 weeks for a 80K first draft. The next stage, rewriting, is much faster and I easily manage 10K per week, meaning another 8 weeks to get a second draft. I allow myself several weeks of vacation after the first draft, in order to look at it with fresh eyes. Another vacation between second draft and third/final. In total, one year from start to finished manuscript, using this method.

  12. Zoe G August 25, 2011 at 9:20 PM #

    I think I saw this on your blog, and it actually got me to create my own word count spreadsheet. I always love playing around in Excel (since I’m part nerd) so it was a bit of fun for me to figure out all the formulas and such. I was actually really surprised by how well it kept me motivated too. Since I wouldn’t want to see zeros on my word count chart, I would force myself into putting SOMETHING together, even if it was just 20 words or so. Definitely taught me some diligence with my writing 🙂

  13. Michael Arnzen September 17, 2011 at 9:55 AM #

    This is wonderful. I use the same method — esp helpful on a single long-term project like a novel, and like several folks above I break the count down by chapter… this helps me track CHAPTER BALANCE and PACING as well as my own productivity. So this is important data (or metrics, or whatever you want to call it) for the story as much as for the writer’s motivation. I also have used a deck of cards (the number of which matched my outline — one for each chapter) to track my progress in a book, turning over a card when I felt that chapter was a solidly done draft… over time, I could visualize how close I was getting to the end. I might try this with note cards that have plot points on them in the future. But the point here is that it is so easy to get lost in a book and it helps to “see” where you are in the big picture. The outline is the map, but tricks like word count tracking and my deck of cards trick help with the rest.

    Hope this isn’t too self-serving, but you might want to check out the book I co-edited, called Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction, for some great tips on “writing more” by authors like Susan Mallery and Lee McClain.


  1. Savannah J. Foley » Blog Archive » THE DEAD-FILLED HALLS Deconstructed and Excerpt! - October 17, 2012

    […] during some of our down-time. Returning to normal life, I kept a word count chart in google docs (I detail that process here) and used that every day to track my […]

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