I’ve seen a lot of writers posting their word counts, which is awesome, especially so close to NaNoWriMo. But word counts need to have context. There are really just three situations where word counts matter:

  • You are a professional writer. Some or all of your livelihood depends on being able to hit those word counts on a daily basis.
  • You are just starting out as a writer, and you are still getting used to measuring by words instead of by pages.
  • You are extremely busy with any combination of getting the kids out of bed, going to work, studying for class, going to the gym, walking the dog, cleaning the house and quite a few other things that spill chaos into your day. You are posting your word count to celebrate a momentary victory of a couple hundred words over of your hectic schedule.

I think we all fall into the third category more than we’d like. But this is important, because learning to celebrate is an important part of being a writer. The process of writing is long, solitary and prone to rejection . . . lots and lots of rejection. The celebration of just a couple words of days is important to morale and staying motivated.

But on the other hand, it takes more than simply writing to improve as a writer. I have heard quite a few theories of what it takes to become a competent writer. The figures range from seven books to fourteen years to a million words. The last one seems to be the most prevalent. I’ve spoken to many writers who treat this like a homework assignment, and really don’t think of themselves as writers . . . until they’ve reached a million words.

The problem is one million words is actually a vague goal. Are we just talking about prose here? Do all the comic scripts I’ve written count? What about all my blogs? Does this post count? And what about revisions? Do negative words . . . the words I’ve replaced from editing and revising . . . also count?

Does writing a million words make you a competent writer? I think writing a million words would make you a more comfortable writer, perhaps even a more confident writer. And while both of these attributes are important, neither are a measure of competence.

So if word count isn’t the answer, what is required to make us better writers? The answer is simple: people. I’m not just talking about people to cheer you on, though that is important. You need people to help you learn and grow. Join a writer’s group, even if it is just online. Listen to a podcast or two. Take a writing class. Attend a writing conference. Whatever you do, make sure there’s human interaction. Writing is a solitary process, but the life of a writer doesn’t have to be.

This doesn’t mean aiming for a million words is a bad goal. It does have one clear benefit: it keeps you humble. It helps you realize you have a long way to go. And don’t think famous writers are immune to this. Let’s say you write that New York Times bestselling novel before you even reach 500,000 words. What are you going to do for an encore? Or the one after that? Humility and perspective aren’t luxuries in this business – they’re essentials.

So if you want to keep celebrating that word count, don’t aim for a million. Aim for a billion, a trillion and whatever comes after a gajillion.

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