Writing, word counts and targets

One of the trickiest things about managing a writing project is keeping on track to meet deadlines. #NaNoWriMo and to some extent its academic equivalent #AcWriMo are about setting writing targets for the month of November in an effort to make a chunk of progress on a piece of work.

This year, they’ve come at entirely the wrong time for me, because I’m at the point with my next non-fiction book* where I need to start redrafting sections I’ve already written and working up notes into continuous prose rather than writing more. That’s my priority so although I have a fiction project on the side I’m not going to do #NaNoWriMo. I do, however, recommend it for kickstarting a project: I did it without really planning to in 2016 (I was trying to avoid the real world) and got a draft of a novel up from 15k to 31k words.

The big push tactic worked for me that November because I was writing something set in a place and time I knew very well and I didn’t need to do much research. I could just sit down, imagine and turn out 500+ words a day, even alongside a busy teaching schedule. If you’re not at that point, you might need to set a different sort of target. This is not a one-size-fits-all business.

Personal circumstances also affect target-setting and writing practice. I like writing first thing, but if you have to get children to school or be on a commuter train at 6am then that may not suit you. Targets have to work for you as well as your book.

With that said, some examples of targets I’ve set for myself in the past include:

  • Writing 2,000 words a week. Weekly targets didn’t work very well for me. I tended to leave all the writing to one day, which meant that if I missed a week because I wasn’t feeling well, or because something urgent came up at work, then I had a lot of catching-up to do.
  • Writing 1000 words of notes/super-rough draft a day. I’ve had this target for my new non-fiction book to keep the research on track and was consistently beating it (though not in teaching term).
  • Writing 200 words a day. I have this mini-target at the moment for the side fiction project and again am ahead. That either means I’ll finish a draft ahead of schedule or (more likely) I’ll buy myself space for when I need to stop and work exclusively on finishing the main project.
  • Editing 20 pages of fairly polished draft a day (okay when I didn’t have much else on: a stretch alongside teaching).
  • Editing 3500 words of notes/super-rough draft a day (this is new: we’ll see how it goes).

I’ve found three big advantages of writing daily to modest targets. First, they keep the work fresh in my mind, which means I’m not constantly coming back to it after a break thinking ‘oh dear, now where have I got up to?’ Second, setting targets that I can often beat helps me feel like I’m ahead of the game (a good feeling) and means I have slippage time factored in if things go wrong. Third, reasonable targets help stop writing from sprawling into what should be time off. I find it much easier to stop and do something different if I can tick off my target for the day, which is in turn good for my work/life balance.

* My next non-fiction book, provisionally titled The Crucible of Europe, is about various people and things you have heard of from sixteenth-century Italy (and some you probably haven’t) and how they are connected. All being well, it will be out in Spring 2020.


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