Why Word Count Goals Matter

I once read about Jerry Seinfeld’s writing process. Seinfeld uses a wall calendar with the entire year on it. For every day he writes, he gets to mark off the day with a big red X. He says, “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.” I agree with this advice.  I spent the better part of this year pregnant and writing whenever I wasn’t completely exhausted (a.k.a. rarely), but I’ve been writing daily since November 1 again (thanks, NaNoWriMo!), and I’m back to my old self.

When I wasn’t writing daily, my view of myself as a writer shifted. I was scared to draft (what if the writing wasn’t any good?). Revision problems felt unable to be fixed, so query projects fell dormant. Even this blog almost died. In short, I’d given myself amnesia regarding my track record. Had I not written hundreds of thousands of words before? Had I not relished in revisions that made my work so much better, even if the process was difficult? Had I not enjoyed the sharing my viewpoint on horror? I had done all of these things, by gum!

Empowered writers rely on a track record (that chain of X’s) in order to keep going. If too much time elapses between chains, the writer has to start all over again, hence Seinfeld’s admonishment to not break the chain. In my last post, I discussed the importance of student vision for their work through the use of a pacing guide, but a vision is nothing if the page remains blank. For this reason, I set minimum word count goals for each day students spend typing a major assignment in class. Gone are the days when we’d spend a week in the lab with students ranging in completion from “We’re supposed to be writing something?” to “I decided to make it 40 pages long.”

Now, students have a 20- to 30-minute block of time to hit the goal, usually between 100 to 167 words, depending on student age. If you’ve done NaNoWriMo,  which expects 1,667 words daily, this is chump change. To novice writers, it sounds like a lot, because they have no idea what to expect of themselves. Because of NaNo, I know that I can write about 1,000 words an hour if I have a vision and write regularly in draft mode (writers’ notebooks are invaluable training grounds for this). I’m expecting 9th graders to write a tenth of what I write in a third of the time.

It makes sense that breaking a major writing task down into manageable chunks would help student writing production. It definitely helps mine. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to fix everything that’s wrong with this novel today!” or “80,000 words in 24 hours, let’s do this!” I’m no Rachel Aaron, who writes 10,000 words a day, but we follow the same underlying philosophy: writing requires enthusiasm, vision, and time. Besides, students love checking their word counts.

When they see how quickly the words pile up, they say, “This isn’t so difficult!” and, “Only 20 more words to go!” By having a concrete number, they squeeze out a few more words than they otherwise would. If they finish early, I tell them to reread what they have so far and make it better. Afterwards, they can continue adding onto their drafts.

Just like their goal is doable, during this time, so is mine. While they write, I can do a quick scan and see whose fingers aren’t flying. Then, I just have to coach them through the next 100 words. Usually, all this takes is a question: What do you need to tell the reader next? Other times it’s about starting or ending or finding the right information to include, all mini-lessons I’m prepared to teach in my sleep. When it’s distracting day, as school days often are, I remind students how we act during notebook time to cue the types of behavior writers exhibit while drafting. This works for me too.

Last year, I had a senior who’d never taken a “regular” English class in high school. As a result, he’d never been asked to write anything longer than a paragraph. After graduation, he planned to enroll in community college, so he needed to be able to write full-length papers. In my twelve-week composition class, he wrote six two-page papers. While the word counts got him to the quantity, more important things happened: he found his voice, revised his work for his purposes, and confidently entered college. These effects are more important than any number could ever be.

How has writing daily or using word counts affected you? Have you used word counts with your students?

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