What “Counts” as Writing?

In my Called to Write community, we primarily keep track of writing minutes, not word or page counts. 

We do this because when we’re plotting, outlining, revising, or editing, for instance, our word and page counts won’t necessarily increase, but we are moving our books and screenplays closer to completion. 

Pros and Cons of Focusing on Word Count

Many writers chastise themselves for not writing New Words when they’re doing such work, and therefore undervalue the time they’re putting in on development and revision, two critically important stages of a writing project.

Or they put the focus on writing New Words and increasing word counts and page counts … but sometimes end up writing purposeless prose, simply to stay in action with writing. I know this can come up for writers during NaNoWriMo, where the concern is often keeping the writing going to meet one’s daily word count.

On the up side, keeping words flowing is a powerful way to build a habit of writing. A big obstacle for writers is getting into the practice of getting words out and onto the page. Having a “keep writing and don’t stop” mantra helps that flow get established. 

On the downside, I know there are many writers who struggle with what they’re left with at the end of a writing session (or a writing month, as in the case of NaNo). There are just that many more words to cull, manage, organize, and edit. 

How to Approach Writing During Writing Sprints

What I recommend is using writing sprints (you can do your own or join us in my Called to Write community) for any kind of writing-centered work that moves your project forward. I still use a “keep working and don’t stop” approach, but I don’t put my attention on more words; I instead immerse myself in whatever stage of the project I’m working on that day. So if I’m in the outlining stage, I concentrate working on the outline for the full 60 minutes I’ve set aside to write, and I don’t stop or do other things until my timer dings.

And yes, I write with a timer, which I highly recommend. It’s a great way to jumpstart a writing session, and it really helps a writer keep their attention on the work, rather than slipping away to other things. This works particularly well when said writer is tracking and recording their writing minutes so they know every minute counts.

As an added boost of writing energy, participating in writing sprints with others super-charges the writing energy and help writers stay on track. You still have to come into the writing session or sprint with a clear intention, but the good news is that if you’re writing every day or near daily and working on one main project at a time, that’s pretty easy to do because you tend to stay clearer about what your next steps are. You can do writing sprints online or in person.

Two Caveats About What Counts As Writing Time

I have two caveats when it comes to what counts as writing time.

  • Caveat #1: I recommend tracking research time separately from writing time. Research can become a black hole, so it’s important to make sure you’re not endlessly researching as a form of procrastination or perfectionism disguised as procrastination (this is where you’re so worried that you’ll get it wrong that you try to read everything in your field to make sure you’re not leaving anything out). I like what Steven Pressfield recommends in Do The Work* — a “research diet” of no more than three books on your topic before you begin writing, and permission to do more research later once you’ve written your first draft and truly know what else is needed to flesh out the story. 
  • Caveat #2: Be clear on what you’re doing for development and know when to call it done so that you’re not endlessly perfecting the story before you start writing. This isn’t exactly a counting issue but it’s an important one to pay attention to. It’s easier for me to write “be clear” than it is to actually achieve that, I realize! It’s a very iterative process and knowing when you’re done requires a full-on gut check.

    YOU know deep down if you’re procrastinating on starting pages or if you still need to work on your deeper structure and meta work for the story. And there’s a real spectrum here too: Many of us are so nervous about spending overly long on development and self-monitoring for procrastination that we’re constantly and internally pushing ourselves to rush into pages, while others of us get stuck in perfecting mode.

    A good clue is this: What’s driving you to keep working? Is the story working for you, but you’re telling yourself it’s not good enough or thinking that other people won’t like it? You may be trapped in perfectionism. Take a good hard look at your work and see if there are any key issues you can work on elevating and then move forward.

    Alternatively, if you’re thinking to yourself something like, “I don’t quite feel good about this yet but I really need to start pages,” you may want to give yourself permission to spend a little more time on the development work. Ultimately even story development and actual page writing become an iterative process themselves, so it’s true that some working out happens on the page.

    There’s no one right answer here (with writing, there rarely is) but tuning into your own inner knowing about what’s really going on can be illuminating.

Next time I’ll share my current list of the development steps I’m using with my screenplays (and novels, it looks like!). In the meantime, if you’re holding a limited definition of what counts as writing in your own mind, I invite you to expand it. Here’s the list of everything I can think of that “counts” as writing. Hopefully it will free you up to relax a bit more into your writing process.

What Counts as Writing

  • Concept brainstorming
  • Writing loglines
  • Writing premise lines
  • Developing character profiles
  • Structuring
  • Plotting
  • Outlining
  • Writing a synopsis or treatment
  • Brainstorming and mind mapping
  • Writing scene cards
  • Writing actual New Words
  • Revising
  • Editing
  • Wordsmithing and polishing

What else would you include on this list? Have I forgotten anything? Let me know in the comments.



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