Timed Writing or Word Counts? How to Blend the Two for Greater Productivity

Posted July 9, 2015 by Amanda Shofner in Writing / 2 Comments

photo via Death to the Stock Photo
photo via Death to the Stock Photo

When it comes to writing, do you use timed writing or word counts?

Here’s how one can feed the other:

When I first started writing, I preferred word count goals for a simple reason. If I could reach my goal in a shorter amount of time, I could stop sooner. And while it sounds perfect in theory, in practice I spent more time writing fewer words.

Productivity in writing depends on your ability to get focused and stay focused.

Ah, focus. What helps a writer focus is unique to the writer. It might depend on the day or your mood. When I wrote by word count, it was easy to get distracted by social media or whatever shiny object in your peripheral vision. (And yes, dear friends, that includes other writing projects.) That meant it took longer to reach my word count goal than it probably should have.

When I went back to work full-time, I couldn’t afford to write by word count. I had limited time in the morning and evening to write, so timed writing became my new way of tracking my progress. I wrote — and still write — in 30 minute sprints. Short and sweet, yes, but when I get going, I can put out 1k in that time.

If you don’t track it, you can’t improve it.

Tracking your word count is smart — it keeps you honest about how much you accomplish in any given day/week/month. But if you don’t understand how much time it takes you to write those words or even why some word counts take you longer to write than others, you’ll never learn how to be more productive (or anything about your process, actually).

When I set out to achieve my 20k/week goal, I didn’t think of it in terms of word count, but how many hours of writing I would need to block out in my schedule. Your ability to output the same word count changes drastically from day-to-day, but time is fixed. Writing by time created a writing habit for me, far better than writing by word count ever did.

(More on my 20k/week goal here.)

Timing my writing works best when I use a timer rather than noting the time. Something where I can see an actual ticking clock. When I’m on my desktop, I use my second screen (Google “timer” and use the one Google supplies for you — it goes full screen). When I use my laptop, I generally make use of the timer on my iPod, since I also like to listen to music.

The ticking clock is where the magic began.

For me — and I can’t stress that enough: for me — knowing I have a limited amount of time to put down words forces me to get the words out onto the page. I write fast. I can’t afford to think, “Is this really how I want to write it?” or “Wait, does this sound stupid?” or “Maybe I should rewrite this.” I just write.

This process has taught me something great about my writing process: timing my writing increases my productivity as I race the clock. I can tell if I’m writing slow or fast — even just 10 minutes into my sprint. The more I write this way, the easier it is to get focused and stay focused — the easier it is to build a reliable writing habit.

The biggest obstacle you face is yourself.

When I see authors struggling, it’s rarely the work of outside forces. It’s how they’ve taught themselves to think about writing and the tactics they use to accomplish it. It’s doing the same thing, over and over, expecting something to magically change. It won’t.

If you don’t make time for writing, you’ll never have any. If you think your writing is horrible but do little to improve it or inform yourself, it always will be. If you don’t learn how to get focused and stay focused, you’ll always be distracted.

When was the last time you experimented with your writing process?

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2 responses to “Timed Writing or Word Counts? How to Blend the Two for Greater Productivity

  1. Tracking by the word is more tempting for me, probably because it’s measurable progress I can look at to feel accomplished about my writing day. It’s so hard to recognize that if I spend 30 minutes writing but only get 150 words down, that was still time well spent. You’re right though: It’s much easier to build time into our schedules than word counts. If I want to hit 1000 words per day, I’ll probably assume it will take more time than I have . . . which will make me more likely to skip writing altogether. I need to get on board with productive writing in smaller chunks if that’s what it takes!

    • Don’t get me wrong — I still track my progress by word count. I have a spreadsheet that calculates my daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly numbers. It’s just that, when I sit down to write, I don’t write to a word count: I write to a set time.

      It’s kind of freeing in a way, because I always know when I can stop. And I think taking advantage of small time chunks can definitely increase your output — it’s surprising where you can find 15, 20, 30 minutes in your day. I mean, I used to get 200-ish words on my phone on the way home from work. I think it’s easier to build community with writers when you write by sprints, too, since you can usually find someone willing to sprint with you. Always nice when you don’t have to feel alone, right? 🙂

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