Word Goals (What Are They Good For?)

…absolutely nothing? Yes and no.

In a previous post I mentioned that I’m a huge fan of Scrivener, a piece of software that was originally designed for novelists and playwrights. I have used it exclusively over the past 1.5 years of dissertation writing, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could not have written as much as I have without it.

There are many reasons to use software like Scrivener for longer writing projects. One of these is that it allows you to set a word goal and due date for your project. After you have done so, it tells you how many words you must type each day in order to reach your target on or by your deadline. If you write less one day, the daily word goal increases slightly. If you write more, it decreases. As you come closer to your goal, the status bar changes from red to orange and, finally, to a lovely shade of green. This is what popped up as I was writing yesterday:

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM

It was accompanied by a simple message: “Your project target has been reached.” I paused, overcome with joy. After 1.5 years or so, I had finally reached my goal of 65,000 words (which does not include footnotes — I’m actually closer to 90,000 if you include those). My (almost) daily diligence had paid off, and I had finally arrived. I had written a dissertation.

Then reality hit. Had I actually written a dissertation? Not really. I had written something that was as long as a dissertation, but my dissertation wasn’t finished…not by a long shot.

As I watched the status bar turn greener and greener over the past few months, I convinced myself that it was actually telling me something about my progress. That is, I came to believe that the bar would finally reach its telos as I typed the final sentence of my conclusion, and that when it did, I would be done. But this isn’t what happened. I actually hit my project target while I was in the middle of touching up a fairly insignificant paragraph in chapter 3, and I haven’t even started writing my conclusion yet. And I still have to write a section of chapter 1, not to mention go back through and edit the sucker. There is much left to be done.

But I have not lost total faith in Scrivener’s project target feature. I have simply come to think about it differently.

It is extremely helpful for those of us who have difficulty thinking in terms of page counts, and who prefer to break up larger projects into more manageable chunks. By allowing you to stipulate a word goal and deadline for your project, the target feature encourages you to see your project as something that you are going to work toward gradually.

Too often, graduate students set bad goals for themselves: “Today, I need to write 20 pages,” or “Today, I need to write.” The former is unreasonable (for most of us) and the latter is amorphous (are you just going to write until you pass out?). It’s really not all that surprising that so many of us experience writer’s block and/or burnout.

With Scrivener’s project target feature, what you get is a daily goal that (assuming you have set a reasonable deadline for yourself) is manageable and typically on the short side. Over the past 1.5 years, my daily  goal has fluctuated between 200 and 500 words, depending on the deadline I had set (this changed at several points in the process). That’s about 1-2 pages a day. Couple that with writing 3-4 days per week (every week) and you’ve easily got 300 pages in a year.

In sum, the project target is deceiving if you think of it in terms of “this many more words until I’m finished.” If you simply stop writing as soon as you hit your target, you are likely going to end up with some lacunae (maybe this is why the Gospel of Mark ends so abruptly?). But it is invaluable as a time management tool, a rough guide that will help you see how much you need to accomplish each day in order to stay more or less on track.

Now, back to work.



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