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Should Writers Set Word Quotas?

Updated on January 15, 2019
Carson Lloyd profile image

Carson Lloyd is a freelance writer who sets word quotas for himself all the time. Reaching them, however, is another matter entirely.

The Conundrum of Word Counting

One of the things that always perplexed me the most about the majority of my high school and college English classes was the almost fanatical interest in word count. Write this, a teacher would inform me, with this many words. Put together this presentation on 19th century northeastern American poets, if you please, but I better see this many words in it. For years it was hammered into my academic moral code that the act of writing anything, regardless of the subject matter, was always fundamentally tied to the amount of words I was able to count up at the end of it. This was just the reality of things, I thought, and challenging it was futile.

It wasn’t until much later, after the trails of school were concluded, that I began to discover more about my writing outside the education setting. What I could create and how I could create it, how I could feel about the craft of writing outside the traditional definitions given to me by college professors. And with these discoveries, I stumbled upon an intriguing concept; what if (and just try and bear with me here) the amount of words produced at the end of a writing session was not the only standard with which I judged that session? What if there was more to an hour or two at the keyboard than simply wondering at the end how many words were born from it?

Heavy stuff, you see.

But then, as I began to try my hand at writing with the intention of it being a means of putting food in the fridge and a roof over my head, I came to another important discovery; some of the folks out in the world who are willing to pay for the words writers put down actually care quite a bit about those word counts. I mean, a lot. Almost as much as my old English teachers, which is truly saying something.

This left me, as I assume it has left others, in a state of maddening confusion. Do word quotas really mean all that much? And if they do, should I set them for myself? Do I ensure that every day or week produces a certain amount of words?

Why You Should Set a Word Quota. . . . Sort Of

All of these conflicting questions and realizations have led me, therefore, to adopt three simple philosophies on the matter, lest my brain shut down entirely from the convolutedness of it all. First, yes it is true that word counts do matter. Second, in an ideal world, yes, you should set a word quota for yourself. And third, no, word quotas are not the be-all-end-all of writing endeavors.

We do, to some extent, have to accept the fact that for many writers part of their job is to be able to produce a certain amount of content so that their livelihoods can be maintained. Editors, clients, and content publishers will want drafts by certain deadlines, and in many cases, they will want that content to be a certain length. A writer who wants to stay on top of their job would do well, then, to make sure that they keep up a somewhat consistent output flow. By setting a quota for themselves at the end of each day or week will give them at least something of a structure with which to ensure that their work gets done consistently and on time. For many, hitting those benchmarks everyday can be a tremendous challenge, but it still nonetheless is a decent practice to maintain.

However (and this is a pretty sizeable however) it is equally true to remember that there will be days where the words a writer can produce will be different. Life will get in the way. Challenges will arise. Motivations may even wilt. These things happen, and when they do, we must refrain from casting any blame or shame on ourselves when the amount of work that we produce enters a state of fluctuation. Focusing on smaller, more immediate goals (finish this paragraph, edit that sentence, fix that awkward transition) are vastly more important than trying to reach some predetermined word goal. Provided, of course, your job doesn't depend on it.

Every Writer is Different

Above all, just remember that every writer and every responsibility is different, and that the ability to set word quotas can vary from person to person. A successful novelist with a far-off deadline and an open minded publisher will be looking at their daily word output far differently than a fresh-faced freelance writer struggling to make ends meet. So before you decide if you think word quotas are for you, consider first the kind of writer that you are and the kind of duties you are charged with. Keeping yourself motivated and bent on your writing is important for any writer, professional or recreational, but so too is ensuring that arbitrary goals serving nothing more than a misguided sense of progression does not take over your entire perspective. Finding the balance here and discovering just how you keep the words flowing to the page in the most effective way possible is the true name of the game here, and every writer must go through it in their own time, in their own way.

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    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 

      4 weeks ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Well put.

      I read somewhere something about writing by Agatha Christie. She was very strong on writers listening to their inner voice, letting the story itself guide the process, etc., ... *except* in the area of word count, where she said you *have* to follow industry standards if you are to be a professional.

      I know some people think her books are just "murder with snobbery," but I think she's a master.

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