Small Word Count Goals

Given that NaNoWriMo is almost upon us I thought I’d share a little writing trick that’s helped me heaps. I know you’re supposed to write 1,667 words a day for NaNoWriMo but for many of us that’s just not possible. I wanted to reassure those of us who struggle to hit such high daily word targets.

Plus when I discussed this method on Twitter quite a few people seemed to find it useful. So here it is:

For the last few years I have gone from attempting to write 1,000 words every day to a much smaller daily target of around 300 words a day.

Here’s why. In 2009 I wrote a lot less than I had previously1. 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. It began to turn around in 2011, which was when I realised that aiming at 1,000 words or more was doing my head in and I needed to change.

At the end of every day that I did not write 1,000 words, which in the lean writing years of 2009-2010 was most of them, I would feel like I had failed. I would also feel that I had to write 2,000 words the next day to make up for the failure, which I would also fail at. It would snowball. I began each day feeling like I had failed which left me not feeling particularly thrilled about writing. Before long I was looking at a daily target of 8,000 words. I think I’ve managed to write 8,000 words in a day maybe once in my entire life.

Not good. I used to be a relatively fast writer. It was part of my sense of myself as a writer. That made me very slow to recognise that I had to rethink what kind of writer I was. In the olden days a daily goal of 1,000 words was a doddle. I had days when I wrote as many as 3,000 or 4,000 words without breaking into a sweat. The 1,000 word target had been a very low minimum. It did not compute that such a low goal was now insurmountable.

But then I remembered Nalo Hopkinson‘s words of wisdom, which she shared with me early in our friendship, which I shall now paraphrase: writing as little as 300 words a day will result in just under a 80,000 word novel even if you don’t write on 100 days of the year.

At the time, young and stupid as I was, I thought to myself: so if you wrote 1,000 words a day you’d be looking at a huge novel of more than 250,000 or more than one novel a year. That’s what I’ll do! (I have never written more than one whole novel in a year.)

On my first day with a 300 word target I nailed it and I felt so fabulous about this success I wound up writing quite a bit more than 300. Same thing happened the next day and the next and the next and so on. Positive feedback at last! Turns out I quite like writing after all.

The next stage in my new small word count regime was to switch to a daily recalculated target which was even more helpful.

At the beginning of every new novel I now set myself a due date, usually six months away, and a target amount of words, usually 65,000 because2. That gives you a target of around 350 words. But every day that you write more than 350 words it means the next day your target is lower. So you’re getting two sources of positive feedback: meeting your daily target and seeing your daily target get smaller.

What can I say? I like positive reinforcement.

Since I initiated this program of lower targets I always meet my target.3 Often I hit my target without noticing. It’s easy to write 350 words in half an hour or less without realising how much you’ve written. Once I hit my target I relax and enjoy writing and stop worrying about how many words I’m writing. I stopped looking at my word count.

The switch has made me more productive and much happier. And, surreally, I’m now averaging around 1,000 words a day. It is to laugh.

Enter Scrivener

I’m not sure exactly when I started making use of Scrivener’s excellent Project Targets but that is when I started working with a recalculated target. Because me, I’m not good with the numbers. Scrivener does the basic arithmetic for me.

If you have Scrivener here’s what you do:

Under the project menu open Project Targets, which looks like this:


The top bar shows my word count goal for the novel, 65,000 and how close I’ve gotten to it, 23,460 words, slightly more than a third of the way. As you progress the colour on the progress bar shifts from red to green.

The bottom bar shows my daily word count goal, which today was 280, of which I have already written 542 words and it’s only just after 1PM. Putting me into the green of You Have Reached Your Goal. Woo hoo!

To set the word count for the whole novel simply click where 65,000 is in the pic above and type it in.

To set your daily recalculating word target click the little option button on Project Targets. (See pic above.) That’s where you set your deadline and instruct it to calculate your target from the draft deadline.

You can also set Project Targets to notify you when you have hit your target. A box pops up saying Session Target Achieved. I love it when it does that. Makes me want to dance. If I knew how to hack it I would add after that, Dance, Little Monkey, Dance! For you are AWESOME.

Others find the notification annoying. So whatever works for you, which is the theme of this post and every other post I’ve ever written about writing. Whatever works is what you should be doing.

Back in the olden days a big daily word target worked for me. Now it doesn’t. Everyone writes differently. And even the same writers will change their methods over the years.

Good luck, NaNoWriMoers and everyone else writing novels right now!

Note: At the moment it’s not possible to set a recalculating word count goal with the Windows version of Scrivener but they say they’re working on it.

  1. Part of this was because I developed Repetitive Strain Injury []
  2. Until Liar that’s how long my published novels were. []
  3. Days I don’t write don’t count. []


  1. Jason on #

    Interesting idea, thanks for the post.

    It looks like in Scrivener for Mac, clicking options didn’t let me set the target, I had to click on the numbers (65,000 and 280 in the screen shot above) and change the target numbers there.

  2. Justine on #

    Jess: Yes, you need to go to options to set the due date and to have it calculate your target from the due date. But to set the target you simply write it in the window pictured in the post. I shall edit to make that clear.

  3. Gina on #

    This is so very helpful, Justine. Thank you for posting it. I’ve been setting my daily target too high and taking a fail on it just about every day. I also didn’t know about the “recalculate” option.

  4. Ronni on #

    Small goals make writing so much less daunting for me. I’m an aspiring author who is terrified of the craft for various reasons, but I noticed that when I set a 100 word goal, it’s very easy to pass that. Then I go for 300 words in a session. And just like you said, it’s easy to keep going once you pass that. It makes me feel excited that I accomplished the goal and even surpassed it, and inspires me to do more.

    I also use Scrivener, and that target thing is so cool.

    Also, you don’t write every day? That is also refreshing. Sometimes I take breaks but I feel guilty because of the “you must write every day” mantra that we hear all the time.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Justine on #

      Gina: So glad I could help.

      Ronni: Exactly!

      I absolutely do not write every day. I take two days off a week minimum but sometimes more. I do this to give my body a rest—writing is tough on your body—and to give my brain a rest. I’ve found I’m more productive when I take days off.

  5. Michael Carnell on #

    Wow, love this. Seems so simple but has somehow avoided me. I have been setting higher goals, not hitting them, getting discouraged, the entire downward spiral. This method seems like it will keep my spirits off the bottom a bit more – which is exactly what I need right now to keep me writing. Baby steps, just baby steps …

  6. Justine on #

    Michael Carnell: I’m all about rewards, not punishments. Here’s hoping it works for you.

  7. Steve Turner on #

    That’s great advice! And thanks for the Scrivener tip, I’ve been using it for a little while now and that was one function I hadn’t noticed yet. Glad you see you got your blog posting issues sorted as well 🙂

  8. Zeborah on #

    A goal that worked for me one NaNoWriMo was that each day I had to write at least the average of all the days before. This had two major advantages:

    1. Each day my goal grew a little.
    2. I could spend a couple of chunk of time on the first day procrastinating on the novel by setting up a spreadsheet to calculate this.

    I wouldn’t want to use this method for the long-term, though, because the focus on continual sustained growth doesn’t take into account Real Life. The especial disadvantage is that your high wordcount in the initial “Ooh, shiny book!” days gets cemented as a goal for even those mid-book “Argh, this sucks, I should write something different or maybe go and be a hermit in Antarctica” days.

  9. Isabel on #

    With NaNo mere hours away this was super helpful. After developing RSI between last year’s NaNo and this one (thank you, desk job of 8 hours constant typing, at least you pay my bills!) I’ve been far too worried about ‘failing’ this time around. This post has helped put things in perspective a bit, so thank you o wise Justine.

    Also Scriviner is the best.

  10. R. H. Kanakia on #

    This is great advice. I found the same thing. For years I tried to hit 1,000 and failed consistently. Nowadays all I do is try to write something every single day. Even 50 words counts. And I’ve found that my average word count is now well above 1000 =]

  11. Ronni on #


    I must thank you AGAIN for showing me this feature in Scrivener. It’s been amazing and super inspiring. And the recalculating thing is so cool. You’re so right about the double positive reinforcement. And like you, I like when the notification pops up saying I’ve met my goal. I especially love it when I’m in the middle of a good run because I know I’m going to surpass. This has changed my writing life for the better. You’re a rockstar!

  12. Justine on #

    Steve Turner: So pleased you found it helpful.

    Zeborah: That sounds scary. Glad it worked for you.

    Isabel: Scrivener really is the best. Good luck with nanowrimo!

    R. H. Kanakia: Low expectations are our friend. 🙂

    Ronni: You are too kind. It’s ridiculous how happy-making the notification is, isn’t it?

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