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Re-thinking word count goals

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Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

Have you ever tried to force yourself to write in order to meet an arbitrary word count? It is a ponderous, painful exercise. I have been attempting to follow an oft repeated suggestion that setting a word count is an effective way to establish a daily writing practice. Not only is it purported to be helpful but should be considered an important guideline.

But learning to develop other aspects of craft can fall by the wayside as you grapple with the energy to meet this goal.

And if you are writing flash fiction, it becomes counterintuitive when trying to cultivate aspects of compression in your writing. Learning how to capture the essence of a situation with a brevity of words is a critical micro skill that doesn’t come easily. Especially to someone like me, who trained academically in another field where being wordy was both accepted as well as expected.

Writing is about showing not telling. Which can be hard to learn to do if you have a tendency to ramble. Sometimes it seems that adhering to goals that no longer serve us should be easy to let go of. But somehow that dark shadow of perfectionism creeps into your head reminding you to achieve a daily word count. If we aren’t mindful of this tendency to hang onto goals that no longer serve our purpose, it can haunt our efforts to learn to tell stories well.

Learning how to use very few words to tell a story that generates a complexity of emotions is more difficult than it sounds. Compression techniques are the underpinning of flash fiction. So my writing goals are evolving from trying to achieve a specific number of words to experimenting with other ways to develop and build my “compression” muscles.

Whether I practice writing 50 or 100 word stories or attempt to create a story in the format of a bingo card, I am feeling more confident with the focus of new writing goals. Learning to honour the elusive art of compression rather than the length of story seems a worthy alternative to monitoring word counts.

And writing goals just like any goals we establish in our lives should serve us in our growth and development. Learning when we have outgrown a disciplined habit requires flexibility and patience.

Now if only I could remember to stop myself from clicking the drop down box to reveal my word count before I leave my computer!

happy writing!