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Lots of writers depend on writing goals to stay productive and to put out good work consistently. Let’s have a look at whether it makes sense to measure that by your word count, be it by counting pages manually or through a feature of your writing app.

Goals in Scrivener and Word

After explaining the goals you might want to set, we’ll have a look at different scenarios at Microsoft Word and Scrivener, in case you want to follow these examples.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong about setting a writing goal.

Writing, in general, is the best, we all agree on that. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. I personally believe there cannot be enough good books by even more writers. But writing is more than mere word processing. It often takes on almost meditative traits in many forms, from (personal) diaries to (public) blog posts – digital, analog, directed to one or a million.

If you take this variety into consideration, you can’t help but find it at least a little weird how we try to measure our “accomplishments” in numbers, but I don’t want to drive the argument into the absurd beforehand.

Why counting words is a good practice

Everybody familiar with the SMART formula and other tips on productivity, in general, knows that measurable goals not only motivate you but give you a sense of achievement.

This goes for writing just as for sports:

You want to see your rings closed, your flag waving, or those fireworks exploding. We’re such a sophisticated species, aren’t we?

And even if the gamification hasn’t taken possession of writing apps as much as in fitness apps, a quick Google search or a glance at writers like Stephen King will tell you that they like to measure their progress in numbers just as well.

And that’s great!

It encourages a sense of community and competition – just think of phenomenons like the NaNoWriMo.

But it especially forces the rookie or novice to form a habit and to reflect on it. And to take you that first fear; I never felt any hostility in the question of my current “count.” Don’t see this kind of competition as something negative!

In short, the word count plays into not one, but several human desires. We get to know ourselves, and we can compare our accomplishments with those of others at the same time.

That said, I consider the doomsday scenarios about the technologization of writing into ones and zeros misguided. You could just as well – even though less technical – count your handwritten pages, even though that procedure might complicate comparing yourself to others due to our individual handwriting or paper format.

Still, if you prescribe three pages to yourself – as in the idea of the Morning Pages (described by Julia Cameron & Mark Bryan*, Hal Elrod, and Littlecoffeefox), you get used to a routine just as well as a Word user writing 750 words a day.

What counts (got it? Counts…) and what gives these models value is the way they codify consistency and your attitude towards your goal, which brings me to the next point.

Why counting your words isn’t (always) right

Clearly, the fear of the blank page is the fundamental horror for every writer; just think of Borge’s horrifying endless book in his short story The Book of Sand. And since nowadays, cursors start blinking at us as well, the empty pages’ blame is gathering momentum.

Still, it’s not just about bringing words on paper or bytes onto your hard drive. Yes, every project has its phases; an experimental one or a research phase and – hopefully– one for editing and cutting.

You cannot account for these different phases and their varying output by just counting words!

Also, do not assume that 2000 words for a non-fiction book will go down the same way as 2000 words for a novel.

And before the hate mails rain down on me: I’m not saying that one is easier than the other; I’m just saying that a novelist usually spends more time on honing his wording, comparisons, and images than a non-fiction writer. So, don’t get too focused on that number on your screen!

Demands on research for novelists and non-fiction writers

Non-fiction books and scientific publications demand a different approach toward your research, especially a varying amount of research.

When I wrote my dissertation in Medieval Studies, I spent days just on reading others’ research, occasionally making notes and writing down excerpts.

In return, I wrote something between 5000 and 7000 words on writing days, all in one sitting. I often had collected the information beforehand – quotes, arguments, discussion points – so I just had to verbalize everything, which made that workload very much doable.

Then there were those “1500 word days” when I could discuss smaller topics en bloc.

Would I recommend that procedure to other writers, potentially to other graduate students? – Not necessarily, and definitely not for different departments.

But what about novelists? – Well, only if they want to be known for that one hit wonder. Because after that procedure, they will either suffer from burnout, sit in front of a lousy manuscript, or possibly never write again.

Of course, all writers share certain working routines and project phases, where different activities take priority.

But blindly setting a numbered goal for yourself is not only inappropriate towards your topic and genre. It will also prematurely end your project, especially if you cannot assess your own workload yet.

Set realistic writing goals

Do you remember that we talked about the motivation you can gain from your running app’s closed rings? The opposite comes up just as often: If you evaluate yourself poorly or set an unrealistic goal, your mood will change into disappointment, self-doubt, and demotivation quicker than you can say “outline level draft.”

In sports, you don’t plan to run a daily marathon if you couldn’t manage to walk for a half hour last week. Well, you can plan it, but… You get my point. And if on your third day, you notice that you prefer swimming to running, that’s okay, too.

It’s the same way with writing. Just as you wouldn’t possibly think of timing swimmers, sprinters, and jockeys in comparison, you should beware of inconsiderately comparing writing activities.

And that doesn’t even take into account that there are entirely different working types.

So, set goals for yourself, control them regularly. If you enjoy it or it motivates you, compete with other writers. But be realistic in choosing your goals and, if need be, adjust them accordingly.

Different kinds of writing goals

If you’re in a research phase as I described it above, then other metrics than your word count will be useful to you. Perhaps you keep count of the sources you excerpted from or the ones you can now exclude from your references because they turned out to be irrelevant.

Saving time counts as an achievement, too!

For God’s sake, don’t read for the pure purpose of reading or for the feeling of productivity when defining your topic, especially when you have to meet a deadline!

Or just document the time spent at your computer or writing desk.

Obviously, that won’t serve you well if you just stare at a blinking cursor for hours; but it’s more valuable than counting words when you’re editing your footnotes.

You can pick the conclusion of a thesis or your protagonist’s action as a unit, or you can write until your pen or battery is empty – just remember to unplug before! Just kidding…

Many of these benchmarks appear arbitrary, but so do 2000 words, save that this number has such a slick look.

Experiment a little and reserve different controls for each individual working phase.

If you happen to be in a phase where counting words makes sense and appears appropriate, your text processor will likely help you to implement that goal.

Now that we’ve gotten your attitude out of the way let’s have a look at what Microsoft Word and Scrivener have to offer.

Word count in Microsoft Word

The counter in Word – much like many other features – is strongly oriented towards layout and proofreaders’ needs (since they are often concerned with your document’s design).

Word counts…

  • pages
  • words
  • signs with or without spaces
  • paragraphs, and
  • lines

You can also activate the additional count for footnotes and endnotes.

I haven’t seen the statistic report after revising all mistakes in a document, so for a meaningful evaluation of paragraph lengths, etc. – as proposed by Rudolf Flesch’s formula – I would prefer online tools, although they vary from German to English.

Of course, add-ins allow you to expand upon Word’s basic functionality regarding word count.

I should be writing: Add-in for Word & Web app

You can install I should be writing for free through the Microsoft Store integrated into Word.

If you want to save your progress through several writing sessions, you can additionally create a user account on ishouldbewriting.net. At the same time, you can use the site as a web app offering the same functionality as the add-in for Word.

Web App I should be writing

There is, however, one additional function within the web app, and here’s the kicker: You can activate a setting which lets your complete sentences disappear, so you can fully concentrate on your work and write forward. There’s even a Pacman mode to motivate the gamers among you even further.

Within Microsoft Word, you choose between timely goals and word count. The latter one can be hidden while editing.

For those night owls among you, there’s a night mode. And for additional motivation, you can even observe who’s using the add-in currently. A nice bonus which could pay off for writers groups or online events like NaNoWriMo.

Here’s what I like about the add-in: I should be writing not only focusses on training you to hit a certain word count or a timely end goal like writing for 20 minutes a day. It also trains you to bring words on paper quickly and to edit later; a huge advantage! The only other realm where I know of this idea is in dictation.

So, with that, Word gives you the layout-oriented basics for word count, which you can extend through add-ins up until gamifying your process.

Less layout, more writing app: Project goals in Scrivener

Other than Word, Scrivener cannot be extended through plugins. All features for goal setting and tracking are integrated right into the app itself, which goes to show you that the Scrivener team expects a different kind of user than Microsoft.

How do you set up goals in Scrivener? – Well, you have two options.

Goals for single documents

Document Goals for Writing in Scrivener

As I mentioned in other posts, the binder, by and large, offers the greatest functionality for outlining and editing inside of Scrivener.

Once you created a new chapter or scene inside your project, the little target at the bottom right of your editor window lets you set goals for your word count.

You cannot set timely goals as in I should be writing, but more on that when we get to Scrivener’s second option.

When you pass the finish line, you can get a little pop-up message, if that won’t distract you. By default, Scrivener shows you an orange bar inside the editor before you hit a goal. That bar turns green once you pass your goal.

You can see your actual goal number next to the current word count, right at the bottom of your editing window.

As is often the case, Scrivener allows you to change the UI to your liking.

If you don’t like the traffic light scheme red–orange–green for your goals’ bar, click on Settings – Appearance – Target Progress Bars – Colors.

Target Progress Bars Colors Scrivener

To pick another color for start, middle and finish line, just right-click the individual colors inside the boxes and choose your favorites.

However, the goal function inside Scrivener does entail more.

Goals for entire projects

Project Goals in Scrivener

If you need more precise – and timely – goals, then Scrivener’s project goals will be up your alley.

Click on Project – Show project goals. Here you define the goals for the project currently opened. You can measure said goal in…

  • words
  • signs, and
  • pages

You can set up session goals for individual days, but only in words and signs. But the real magic, my dear pen pusher, is hidden behind options.

In here, you tell Scrivener which chapters and documents should be taken into account for your goals, if and when your counter should be reset, whether you want to light a fire under yourself with negative counts, and even on what weekdays you set out to write.

Since you have the option to mark a deadline inside a calendar, the app might automatically adjust your previous session goal, depending on the weekdays you put in. A killer feature for writers with tight schedules, be it when writing a term paper or reminding yourself of your publisher’s deadline.

Scrivener offers a couple of other settings which Word and even I should be writing don’t have. But in return, the goal feature is completely project and writer-oriented.

There’s no platform to compete with other writers as with I should be writing. I don’t think that option is necessarily a must-have, but you should know, what the individual apps have to offer.

So these are a couple of examples on tracking your progress by varying measures, from readability up to your deadlines.

Of course, your possibilities are endless – handwriting aficionados might still prefer a more flexible system like the bullet journal, but more on that in another post.

What writing routines and controls do you use to keep on task? Do you count words, pages, maybe even metaphors?

Let me know, inside the comments, via email or on Twitter!

I always love to learn, and of course, steal other writer’s routines!

I’ll read you later!


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