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Battle of the Writing Productivity Methods: Word Count Versus Timed

by Jennifer on April 21, 2010

By Jennifer Blanchard

As you know, there are many different methods for getting writing done.

You can set a deadline and write towards it; you can choose a word count and write towards it; you can choose a number of hours you want to spend writing every day and write towards it, etc.

With so many choices, it’s often difficult to know which one is the right method for you. And maybe there isn’t just one, but a combination of methods that work for you.

Although there are many methods for getting writing done, there are two methods that seem to be the most popular among writers: Having a word count goal or a timed writing goal.

But which one is best? Or is one best?

Word Count Method
If you subscribe to the word count method, you choose a word count goal (either a daily goal or a weekly goal). And when you sit down to write, you don’t get up until you hit that number.

Choosing a word count works like this:

  • Determine how many words you want to write in a given day/week. For example, maybe you want to write 500 words a day.Pick a number that you can comfortably hit. Or you can make it a bit of a challenge for you.
  • Once you have your word-count goal, determine when you can fit writing into your schedule.
  • When the time comes, sit down and write your words.

Pretty simple.

Timed Writing Method
If you subscribe to the timed writing method, you choose an amount of time (an hour, 30 minutes) and then sit down and write until time is up.

Choosing a timed writing goal works like this:

  • Determine how long you want to spend writing in a given day. For example, maybe you want to write for an hour every day.Choose an amount of time that you can you can fit into your day, every day. You can also choose to increase your writing time on the weekends.
  • Once you have your timed-writing goal, determine when you can fit writing into your schedule.
  • Sit down and write until time is up.

Also pretty simple.

But which method works best? Which method helps you get more writing done?

Battle of the Writing Methods
The timed-writing method and the word-count method seem to be the most popular methods. That’s because they both work. And they are both effective ways to get writing done.

But which one is most effective? Which one works best?

The Word Count Method

  • An accurate way of tracking exactly how much writing you get done.
  • Specific–so you know how much you have left to write.
  • Makes it easy to divide a larger work into smaller pieces (like taking a 1,200-word article and breaking it up into two 600-word writing sessions).
  • It helps you have something concrete to focus on.
  • It can be a challenge to meet the word count on days when you’re not feeling as inspired.
  • Sometimes you might want to write more or less, depending on how you’re feeling.
  • It’s difficult to tell how long it may take you to write your word count, which can cause scheduling problems. Plus some days it might take you more time to write it and other days it might take you less.

The Timed Writing Method

  • It gives you a specific goal (i.e., write for 30 minutes).
  • It gives you a timeframe to write in, which helps keep you focused.
  • You can easily track how many hours you spent writing.
  • It’s easy to find blocks of time in your schedule when you can write.
  • It’s more difficult to track how much writing you’re actually getting done.
  • Since it’s a timed goal, the amount of writing you get done will vary day-to-day.
  • If you get distracted during your writing time, you won’t get nearly as much writing done.

So which method is best? Which method takes the trophy home?

Winner: Do what works for you.

Yes, that’s right. There is no clear winner.

That’s because, while both of these methods work well, neither is the perfect method. It’s all about what works for you.

It’s easy to try and do what others writers do, but at the end of the day, your best writing will come from using a method that works for you.

So if scheduling an hour of writing time into your day works best for you, do it. And if writing 500 words a day works best for you, do it.

Because at the end of the day, it’s about getting writing done. No matter which method you choose.

My Personal Experience
Over the years I’ve used both of these methods on-and-off.

Here are my thoughts on them:

Timed Writing Method: When I first started out writing, I used to schedule writing time into my day. In the morning, for example, I’d do a 10-minute writing exercise. Then I’d fit in an hour of writing time at lunch.

What I found with this method, however, was that I was often getting distracted during my writing sessions. So I’d only be spending 20 or 30 minutes out of my hour session actually doing any writing.

Word Count Method: This method works best for me. If I choose a word count for the post I’m working on, for example, it makes it easier for me to stay on track and get my writing done. I may still get distracted, but then I keep re-focusing on my writing until I hit my word count.

Sometimes that means I spend three hours working on one post. But on the nights when I know I have a lot to do, the word count helps me stay focused, write without stopping and get my post done quickly.

Which of these methods works best for you? What has your experience been with using these writing methods?

For more on writing productivity methods and choosing the one that works best for you, read Butt-In-Chair.
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dan April 21, 2010 at 11:53 am

Great post, but you could have found a better photo. That one is disturbing.

Back on topic – word count works better for me. If I screw off I have to force myself to keep writing until I get my required words. If I finish early, I reward myself with a cup of tea or a walk. Plus, I know about when I’ll have my first draft complete!

2 jblan April 21, 2010 at 12:02 pm

@Dan Don’t worry…those are models in the picture. Not people who are actually fighting (you can read more about it on Polina’s Flickr page [http://www.flickr.com/photos/polinasergeeva/3052373944/]. The image was inspired by Fight Club, the movie.)

Glad to hear one of the two methods works for you. I think word count works well for procrastinating writers especially because, as you said, if you screw off, you still have to reach that number. It doesn’t work quite that way with timed writing.

3 Icy Sedgwick April 21, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I chose the “write a weekly web serial” route. I set myself the task of writing a weekly installment of 400-500 words, which I publish on my blog on Fridays. Knowing I have an audience who expect something gives me a deadline to work to, which gets me writing far more often than I would if I just had a word count or a time limit.

Just a thought…

4 jblan April 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm

@Icy Sedgwick You have to do what works for you. If integrating the word count method into a weekly blog post goal helps you get writing done, I say go for it! Deadlines are extremely important for writing success.

5 Elizabeth S. April 21, 2010 at 1:41 pm

I like the combo method: 500 words or 1.5 hours, whichever comes last.

Also, if you count things like planning and revision, you pretty much have to use the timed writing method instead of counting words.

6 jblan April 21, 2010 at 1:48 pm

@Elizabeth S. Planning and revision can still be done via the word count method. You just have to set a revision goal–say re-writing 1,000 words a week–and work from there. But as I said, it’s about what works for you!

7 Valerie April 21, 2010 at 6:27 pm

The time method has always worked best for me, but I do it a bit differently. I set a timer for only ten minutes, during which time I am not allowed to do anything but write. When the time is up, I force myself to get up and do something else for at least another ten minutes. I repeat this process for as much actual time as I have available.

My brain simultaneously relaxes because it knows after ten minutes I can do something else, and it also goes into hyperdrive because ten minutes isn’t very long at all so I have to write quickly. I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo three times now using this method, and have even extended it to more mundane tasks like cleaning the house. I love it!

8 SG Redling April 21, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Like Valerie, I picked up my habit after a few successful NaNoWriMos although I picked up the word count habit. You just never know what’s going to work for someone! I like know that when I’m finished writing for the day I have x-amount of words finished (usually 1000.) Knowing I have a goal, I can slog through the first third and find I pick up speed for the last part. I did try the timed method during a NaNo once, when I was really stuck, and found it’s a nice way to knock myself out of a rut – sort of “write or die.” That’s my emergency go-to method. I guess I haven’t helped at all! Sorry! Enjoyed the post. SGR

9 jblan April 21, 2010 at 10:22 pm

@Valerie I like that idea!! Would you ever consider writing a guest post on your method? I’m sure lots of PW readers would be interested. Let me know!

@SG Redling Thanks for sharing your experience with us. It’s nice to see that each method works for someone.

10 Elizabeth S. April 21, 2010 at 10:55 pm

@jblan at 1:48:
I guess revision can be done by word count. It doesn’t work very well (at all…) for me because of the time difference in, say, reading a scene out loud to check for infelicities in the prose vs deleting an entire scene, but I have heard of other people doing it that way. Whatever works.

11 Andrew Toynbee June 17, 2010 at 7:39 am

I’ve created a small spreadsheet that tracks how many words I’ve written and tells me how many words per day I have to write if I’m to finsh my novel within a given time (in this case, the end of 2010).
I’m currently up to 31,000 words and the computer tells me I need to write 453 words per day for me to complete on time. As I began it told me I had to write 498 per day…so I’m ahead now as the estimate is falling. My target is to keep bringing the estimate down and down by writing more than 500 per day…giving me some smal encouragement.

Another ‘Con’ to add to the ‘Word Count Method’ is the fact that it’s all very well writing 500 or 1,000 words per day – but are they GOOD words or groups of letter just taking up space?

12 jennifer blanchard June 17, 2010 at 9:50 am

@Andrew Toynbee Would you be willing to share a copy of your word count-tracking sheet with the readers of this blog? If so, please shoot me an e-mail so we can discuss (jennifer@procrastinatingwriters.com). I’ve wanted to build a document like that for awhile now, but Excel is not a strong point of mine (I cannot for the life of me figure out how to use that damn thing!). And thanks for suggesting that additional “con.” Although I just want to point out that getting some words down is better than getting nothing down, even if you’re just writing a “shitty first draft.”

13 suraj jediwal August 7, 2012 at 4:46 am

productivity is good art

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