Motivation in Crisis - Word Targets to the Rescue

Anyone who’s here reading this blog is surely aware that I’m taking part in National Novel Writing Month this year. (You can add me as a writing buddy there if you like!) NaNoWriMo is a daunting task; writing 50,000 words in a month while juggling the rest of one’s life is tricky at the best of times.

Earlier this year I discovered Scrivener, which has for several years been a Mac-only writer’s first drafting tool. It’s now available for Windows, allowing me to discover the joys and pains of using it. In particular I’ve discovered a way to use it to increase motivation and get the words flowing.

Scrivener has a fantastic Targets feature. It allows you to set a word target or character target. This is nothing more and nothing less than a counter in which you say “I want to write 5000 words.” It then throws a progress bar down at the bottom of the work window. It starts in the red and gradually transitions to green as you approach your target.

This can be a double-edged sword, however. When I first started using it, I would set goals in the thousands. Usually 1,667, the daily average for NaNoWriMo, or sometimes I’d round it up to 5,000. This has the effect of letting you work for what feels like a long time, only to glance down and see that you’re still in the red on your word count.

This can be frustrating, demoralizing, and can give you a feeling of futility. “Only 300 words done? I thought I had way more than that!”

The answer I’ve come up with is so incredibly simple I’m ashamed it took me so long to come up with it. I simply set my initial target to 250 words.

250 words is a very low goal. It’s no more than a few decent-sized paragraphs. You can blow through that in no time. And when you do, you reset the target to 500 words. Only 250 more to go. And now your progress bar is already half full, because of that first 250 set you wrote. When you reach 500, set it to 750. And so on. And so on.

For me, it leaves me always feeling like I’m making good progress. The bar is almost always in the green, and that brief time at the start when you’re at 0 and just beginning, it advances out of the red so fast it’s a reward in itself.

Scrivener is by far my favorite tool, but you should be able to accomplish something similar with any writing app that supports word targets. Some other examples are FocusWriter for Windows/Mac/Linux, and Q10 for Windows. With a little work, you could even manage it in Word, though you’d have to remember to check your word counts manually once in a while, and that will get distracting and probably harm your writing flow more than it’ll help.