the word-count remedy

I was in a funk earlier this week. It'd be easy to blame the news for my mood, but I've never found blocking websites or shutting off social media to be much help. (Believe me, I've tried.) In fact, I lean into depressing news the most when I'm feeling down, which suggests that my news "diet" is more a symptom than a cause.

Books like The Barbell Prescription and Lifting Heavy Things make the case (in very different ways) that lifting weights can cure the blues (along with a host of other mental and emotional benefits). They're right: I've been at the gym like clockwork since cases came down in our area and it's made a difference in my overall well-being. But exercise is only part of the pep me up.

What turned things around this week was a day with an exceptionally heavy word count, a couple thousand words over multiple sessions. What a relief! When I'm not intentional enough in planning my work, it's easy to spend a long stretch of days researching, revising, or otherwise moving words around without actually adding a lot of new ones.

Word-moving work is important—"writing is rewriting"—but there is no substitute for putting up big numbers on the board.  (For the board itself, I use Pacemaker, a word count tracker and goal planner that's come a long way in functionality over the last few years.) You have to keep putting more wood on the fire to keep it burning.

As with hard exercise and everything else that boosts mood—cold showers, fresh air, meditation, etc.—putting new words down is the last thing I feel like doing when I don't feel like doing anything. It's so much easier to re-read something I've written or dig through research. The best I can do in the moment is remind myself that writing always works and yet it never feels like it's going to work. Sometimes, I'm smart enough to take my own advice.

Feel like crap? Write five hundred words. Feel too crappy to write that many? Write a thousand. No researching. No reviewing. No revising. Just keep getting new words down until you've hit your stated word count. Sweat the mistakes later. (I find just as many problems with what I write cautiously, so why not throw caution to the wind?)

If you can't resist the urge to correct yourself as you go, use The Most Dangerous Writing App, which deletes everything you've written if you stop for more than a moment. Whatever it takes, keep on going until you've hit your target because, as with running, momentum is your friend. The faster you go, the smoother the ride.

Word count works. I don't know why it works, but it does, sweeping away the malaise and putting a spring back in my step. A big writing day also clears away the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that creeps into every long-term writing project, that nagging sense that I'm writing the wrong thing in the wrong way and for all the wrong reasons.

The fear, uncertainty, and doubt return, of course. So does the malaise. But life is a chronic condition and a terminal one. All you can do is take your medicine and hope for the best.

p.s. Jenny Blake had me on her Free Time podcast and published our delightful conversation in two volumes:

The "pod links" in the parentheses make it easy to listen to each episode in the podcast app of your choice. I use Castro for podcasts nowadays, but I got in early enough to remember iPodder. If you used iPodder, too, write back and we'll reminisce about the good old days of ARPANET, ENIAC, and those round cuneiform tablets people used to hurl like a discus before e-mail was invented.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.