I’ve recently received more than a little flack from writers on Twitter for setting daily word counts for myself, which mystifies me more than I can say. When I observed that it’s difficult to count your progress in daily words when you’re editing instead of writing new material, someone commented, “It’s easy if you don’t track progress at all!”
I’ve got many years of writing experience under my belt and I’m pretty comfortable with my process, so I didn’t have any problem answering him, “If I did that, then I wouldn’t make any progress at all,” and continuing on with my day. But if I’d received that sort of advice as a new writer, unsure of myself and what I was doing? Just the idea makes me shudder.
I thrive under the pressure of a deadline. Give me a goal, even an insane one, and I’ll be stepping up to bat trying to figure out a way to accomplish it before you’ve even finished speaking. I once tried to write 50,000 words in a day, just to see if I could. (I made it to 16k and decided I wanted food and sleep more than I wanted to achieve some arbitrary ambition) But without a goal to propel me and keep me typing away?
I web surf. I catch up on my TV shows. I knit. What I don’t do is write. I need that pressure to keep me going, keep me moving forward, keep me choosing to write when there are so many other ways to squander my time that require much less effort.
The prevalence of this attitude that tracking progress, setting goals, and keeping yourself accountable is a bad thing has bewildered me since I first encountered it, but I ran into a situation today that I think may be what people fear when they give this advice. Things snowballed on top of one another for me this morning and before I knew it it was almost lunch time and I hadn’t written a word. Every time I thought about writing my chest clenched a little bit tighter and another burst of adrenaline clawed through my system. I was staring at the clock practically hyperventilating in my seat, and every time I started to think about putting words to paper, all that came to mind was, “Oh God, I have to write three thousand words a day for the rest of the month in order to finish this book when I want to. It’s 10am and I haven’t written anything. I will never make it. I’m not going to make it today, and I’m not going to finish this book on time, either. It’s too late. It’ll never happen.”
It’s a truly awful state to be in, and if this is what people are imagining others devolving into when they give the advice not to set goals, I can understand it at least a little. It’s not a productive state of mind, and does far more harm than good. But it’s not a reason to not to set them.
The problem comes, I think, when people get in a mindset where they can’t reevaluate goals. When I realized the state I was getting myself into, I didn’t try to force myself through it. That would have done more harm than good. I took a step back and said. “Okay, you know what? Sanity is more important than word count. I’m giving myself the day off.”
Gnothi Sauton. Know thyself. That’s is the part that’s important. Not the setting or abandoning of goals, but the ability to look at what you’re doing and evaluate whether it works for you or not, instead of stubbornly forcing yourself down the road you think you ought to take, when all it ever does is lead you to a dead end. I know that goal setting is vital to my process the same way I know that phase drafting, which everyone seems to be getting excited about these days, would be lethal to it. Does that mean that every time someone mentions the technique, I suggest that they’d be better off pantsing it?
Of course not. There are as many ways to write a book as there are people writing them, and what works for me may not work for everyone else, or even anyone else. It’s my process — that’s all.
I think a vital part of learning to write is learning what works for you, and what doesn’t, and too the ability to reevaluate when circumstances change. And it’s just as important that we let others do the same. One True Way-isms hurt more people than they help.