A lot of people count words as a way of measuring their writing progress. Although there are stages of the writing process where this is helpful, there are also points in the process where counting words could actually be damaging.
What you measure affects your process
If you measure the number of words you are going to prioritize activities which lead to more words on the page. When you are generating new words, focusing on getting more words on the page is your primary goal. Counting words is thus a reasonable measure.
The problem sets in when you confuse the target word count for an article with the number of words you need to generate initially. It is compounded when you realize that getting those initial words into publishable shape is not going to create measurable progress if your only measure of progress is more words.
Working on your writing for an hour (or a day) and having no new words will feel like a waste of time. Working on your writing and ending up with fewer words than you started with will feel like the opposite of progress. These negative feelings will make it harder to motivate yourself to sit down and write tomorrow.
Counting words feeds a dangerous myth
… that good writers don’t need to revise. Do words that will get edited out later count? Does reducing the word count as you revise constitute progress?
The writing process isn’t just a way to create writing products (like journal articles). It is also a cognitive process that makes your ideas intelligible. You often need to write a lot of words that will never be published to create a publishable product. If your measure of progress is words added to the document, you may be reluctant to write words you aren’t sure will stay in the document. You may find yourself stopping to find the exact words as your write, stopping the flow of ideas.
If you find yourself incapable of writing at all, check in with yourself about internal standards for words worthy of being counted. (Try giving yourself permission to write a “really truly awful draft”, in crayon on old newspapers if necessary.) You might also need to do things that don’t look like writing before you can put words to your ideas: drawing, talking, pacing around while you think. The fact that time spent doing those things does not create words on a page (immediately) does not mean it is not a valuable part of your writing process.
Words don’t really count
Although in the initial stages of a writing project the primary source of satisfaction is in the intellectual satisfaction of the process, at some stage you want and need to communicate your ideas to others. Publications are what communicate those ideas: journal articles, conference papers, books, blog posts, working papers, reports …
If your measure of progress is more words on the page, you may find it difficult to work on your writing project once that work is mainly revision. Without revision, you may write a lot of words but will publish few. You can write a lot of words and never get anything submitted. Or submit things that don’t get published.
That is demotivating.
Pulling up carrots on a regular basis to measure their growth does not help you grow bigger carrots.
What you need is a writing practice that builds your confidence and trust, and ensures that you work on writing projects through all the stages from the intellectually satisfying development of ideas, through several rounds of revision, to publication.
Measurement may be unnecessary. You can write. You are a writer.
An earlier version of this post was published March 26, 2013 and edited September 30, 2013. Most recent edit: March 15, 2016.