Obligatory Word Count Notes

Fifteen years ago, when I was living in North Carolina and spending upwards of twenty hours a week training for triathlon, I belonged to a Listserv called Tri-DRS. Listserves, for those who don’t remember, were the mailing list precursors to today’s Google Groups and online forums. It was customary for members of the “Triathletes of the Dead Runner’s Society” (don’t ask) to share a brief description of their daily training as part of their signature when sending an email. We had all manner of abbreviations for different tri-specific workouts, but the most common was the simple OTN, Obligatory Training Note. Throughout the day my Inbox would pile up with emails from the hundreds of members around the country as people asked gear questions, share race reports, and provided all manner of advice and inspiration. And at the bottom of most of those emails was a simple not-so obligatory training note that let us all know how far that person swam, biked, or ran that day.

These days athletes have apps like Garmin Connect, Fitbit, and Strava to share their workouts. Strava combines aspects of social media with the capacity to share GPS routes and training diaries, take part in monthly mileage challenges and, for better or worse, see where you rank on various route segments against all the other users. You can give Kudos to your friends and comment on one another’s efforts and even filter the rankings by age and weight. It has its detractors, and it certainly isn’t without its negative implications, but I do enjoy using it. Here’s an entry from one of my recent mountain bike rides that shows a lot of the app’s features, including my ranking on segments, discussion from friends, and more.

What I enjoy most about Strava and those old training notes on Tri-DRS was that it not only allowed me to see what my peers were up to, but it helped me stay motivated. By seeing the types of rides others were doing, I was able to tell whether my efforts were on par or if I was slacking off. Was I riding enough? Was I taking too many recovery days? Am I as committed as I ought to be?

Like the solitary writer at the desk, the life of the lonely distance runner also provides ample opportunity for self-doubt to creep in.

Sharing Word Counts

When I began this year’s writing efforts one of the first things I did was to create a spreadsheet that I now use to track my daily productivity. I track my daily hours (actual work, not just time at the desk — big difference!) and my word count for each day, split into four different topics: Fiction, Blogging, Strategy Guides, and Other. I picked an arbitrary number out of the air — 250,000 words — and built a series of sheets, one for each month, that measured my daily performance against the pace I would need to match to hit my goal. A summary page lets me scan my progress over the year and see how I’m doing. That goal of a quarter-million words was far too low (only 685 per day, 7 days a week), as it turns out.

Or is it? After all, it’s not like I’m privy to the daily output of other writers.

I attended my first monthly PNWA meeting earlier this month. It was a panel discussion about trends in publishing and during the Q&A portion of the two-hour meeting, the panel was asked about their daily writing output. It varied, naturally. One of the authors worked full-time and had children so she did the bulk of her writing on the weekends. Two others, including Boyd Morrison, one of Clive Cussler’s co-authors, discussed their desire to get 1500 good, solid words done each day, but it depended on what they were working on. But, all in all, the goal was to write a full scene.

Tim Grahl, the first-time novelist sharing his process with long-time editor Shawn Coyne on the StoryGrid podcasts recently discussed his output. There were days when he admitted to feeling lousy for only getting 700 words on paper. Yet he recently spent a day on a plane and managed to push through all that resistance and generate more than 6,000 words. Coyne assured him all of this was normal, and that the quality of those 6,000 words he put down wasn’t even all that important on the first draft.

That was refreshing to hear.

I mention what these others have recently shared because, as a first-time novelist with the luxury of being able to devote myself to this full-time, I too worry about my productivity. Looking over my tracking sheets, I see that on the days that I work on my fiction, I tend to average roughly 1600 words. And I might go so far as to say that some of them are even usable. Some days I write much, much more. Other days, I end up spending the bulk of my time doing research and outlining or working on the blog or other tasks.

A Strava for Writers?

Though I’m already 57% of the way through my annual goal of 250,000 words (a number I’m sure to double for 2017), I know it would be much higher if there was a place where I could see what others in my cohort were generating. I know the NaNoWriMo community must have apps and websites that they use to help motivate one another through their November; I wonder if something like that exists year-round. Does it?

This isn’t to say that I want or feel the need to be competing with others for top word count. Not at all. Rather, some sense of camaraderie and motivation and maybe even a touch of accountability. So much of what I’m doing right now — what most writers are doing — is alone. Not just the writing, but the managing of the writing.

Am I working hard enough? Am I getting enough down on paper each day? I think I am. I’m generally satisfied with my efforts, but I know there’s room for improvement. There always is.

Maybe interacting with a bunch of other amateurs isn’t the best solution. After all, there’s always the chance they know as little about this as I do or have equally poor habits. A good chance, probably. But just like all of us way back when training for our first Ironmans and marathons, patterns emerged and everyone’s hard work gradually helped lift the efforts of the collective. Little by little, those with private coaches and years of experience chimed in and offered wisdom to the group and as our race times improved and our training took better form, that bunch of amateurs morphed into a bunch of veteran racers.

If only there was a Strava for writers. Not necessarily a writer’s group, but something akin to it. A productivity-focused writer’s group with limited social media aspects that allowed for comments and encouragement, but not time-sucking discussions and critiques.

So some questions for you fellow writers:

  1. How many words do you typically average each day you spend writing?
  2. Do you know of any websites or apps or online communities where you share your daily/weekly productivity?
  3. If you belong to any online writer’s groups, which ones?

Let me hear it in the comments below. Thanks!

Post Image by Bridget Coila, used under Creative Commons.

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6 thoughts on “Obligatory Word Count Notes

  1. Hmmm … I have been working on my sequel to Raising John lately. I did some measurements to try to figure out how much time I absolutely need to budget in order to finish the draft in time to finish the revisions in time to get everything to an editor in time to publish by the end of the year. And, I discovered I can bang out 2000 words in an hour if I have a clear idea what I’m trying to write. If I don’t know what I’m trying to write, then I’ll spend hours outlining and not get any words down.

    That said, what I’m coming up with is serviceable but I wouldn’t call it literary. I’m trying to get the story down and will worry about making the writing more lyrical in the revisions.

    1. Interesting! Thanks for sharing! I know you have weaved back and forth a bit between pantsing and plotting, and it does sound like the plotting route yields a faster product.

      I too find that if I have a very clear idea of what I’m writing (usually an outlined chapter that I’ve already broken into steps) I too can average 1500 to 2000 words in an hour. And then, other times, it takes hours to write half as much. And the more effort I put into outlining, the higher quality the first draft is.

      Funny how that works. 🙂

  2. Also, since I couldn’t comment on your Crazy Trip Dispatch post there, I’ll comment here. I admire that you are able to be so honest about the experience, and the aftermath. I think there’s a lot of pressure to always be positive about our experiences, especially those that are so deliberately undertaken and so fantastical. But, even when you’re doing an amazing around-the-world trip, you still have to deal with all the aspects of being human, so of course it’s not perfect. And, others’ envy isn’t fun … it’s awkward.

    Oh, one other quibble – you say you have seen all your friends since you have been back. *ahem*

    1. Thanks. One of the things I’m proud of with my blogging about our trip whether at TwoFarGone or on guest-blogs (or my article in Adventure Cyclist) is that I was always honest about the negative aspects and about my emotions. And as much as I love hearing people say they enjoyed the photos and such, I appreciate people saying they enjoyed the honesty of my writing even more. There’s so much pressure to put forth a smiling face and act as if everything is THE GREATEST MOST AMAZING THING EVER! and that’s just not reality. The highs were really high, the lows really low.

      About seeing all of my friends… check your inbox. 🙂

  3. Word count varies wildly for me, depending on what type of writing I’m doing. As you’ve noted above, a solid outline and plan usually makes things quicker. On days that I write fiction, it’s usual for me to get anywhere between 500 and 1500 words an hour. Shutting off the self-editing while writing ups that more, but isn’t something that is always easy for me to do.

    Now, strategy guide writing is a whole other beast and I can churn out a lot more words than that in an hour but, as you know, that just comes from necessity. =)

    1. Oh yeah, strategy guide writing is entirely different. Completely normal to bust out 8,000+ in a day.

      I’ve been really good about not self-editing while working on the first draft, but it’s so tempting. Must keep going!

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