Writing by the numbers

When it comes to writing, word count and page count are abstract goals: targets that we have to reach or boundaries that we struggle to remain within. Their relationship to the writing itself is often a source of conflict. We’re fighting to reach our word count or painfully cutting our precious word babies. Rarely do we see these numbers as tools that can help us, not only to meet our writing goals but to improve our writing through the whole process, from planning to drafting to revising. In this post, I’m going to share a few of the number-centred strategies that I use in my academic writing.

Getting ‘er done: for when you just want to get the words on the page or are working to a deadline

We all know that every big task needs to be broken down into smaller, achievable chunks. If your goal is a journal article (7000-10,000 words) or a book (50,0000-70,000 words) or a dissertation (50,000-100,000(!) words) you’ve probably broken that down into article sections or chapters, and you may have a sense of how long each section will be. What we tend to be pretty bad at is estimating how long it will take to write that many words and setting realistic goals for daily or weekly word counts. We also get easily daunted by these big numbers; even the length of a chapter (5000-8000 words) is too big to manage.

When I got it into my head last year that I wanted to write a book, I needed a tool to help me figure out how long it was going to take and how much I needed to write per session. After searching online, I came across Pacemaker: A Word Count Planner. It allowed me to:

  • Enter my word count goal.
  • Enter my desired completion date.
  • Build in time for revision at the end.
  • Set a “trajectory” (e.g. write same amount every day; write small amounts to start and increase gradually; start big and decrease, etc).
  • Set parameters for each day of the week (e.g. no writing on weekends, more writing on Tuesdays).
  • Block off times I was going to be away.
  • Visualize my progress as a list, calendar, or graph.

Once I entered my parameters (and these can be continually adjusted), Pacemaker spit out a schedule with specific word count goals for each day (some were zero, e.g. on weekends). As you write, you enter your progress. It recalculates based on whether you wrote more or less. It was so helpful that I finished my book draft on the EXACT DAY I had planned to, just seven months after I started. In other words, I highly recommend this powerful, simple, customizable, online, and FREE tool. Go there now!

Planning and outlining

Pacemaker was great for breaking down the book project into daily, bite-sized word count goals. I would certainly use it for writing a journal article or book chapter, but not before I used some numbers to help with more detailed planning and outlining.

A 9000-word article somehow has to fit your introduction, literature review, theoretical framework, methods, data, analysis, discussion, conclusion, references, and acknowledgements. I recommend that as you outline your article, you attach a word count to each of these sections. As you get further in, you can even attach a word count to each paragraph (e.g., if your lit review will be 1200 words with four paragraphs, mark 300 words beside each).

Attaching these goals is not only helpful for allowing you to mark your progress and reach those small, achievable objectives; it also helps you to visualize the “shape” of the paper and get a sense of proportion and balance. This way, you won’t accidentally write 4000 words of lit review and panic when you realize you haven’t even started to talk about your own work!

I highly recommend this for junior scholars and the more wordy among us. You want to make sure that while you build a solid foundation with your knowledge of the existing theory and literature, your own results and contributions are central. Don’t squish them in for the sake of an overly exhaustive lit review.

Revising and getting unstuck

If you’re struggling with a project or feeling stuck, using a “reverse word count” to analyze what’s going on in your paper can help you figure out where some problems lie.

Simply use your word processor’s select function to highlight each section (e.g. intro, methods etc.) and see what the word count is for each. Then write them all down and ask yourself if there are any obvious imbalances. Which sections are too heavy and which are too light? How long (word-wise) does it take you to get to your thesis? Your data? Your main argument?

Looking at your paper “numerically” can be a quick but effective way to visualize some of the blockages. Rather than writing and rewriting the same sentences or getting bogged down by trying to revise the whole thing, look at the numbers. They might help you figure out where you need to make some cuts; where you can spend a little more time explaining something; or how you could re-order some sentences or paragraphs to make your argument clearer or more compelling.

Final thought: Don’t fight your word count! Make it work for you to help you make progress and even improve your writing.





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