POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
Every writer is told (either by contract or by reading publishers' guidelines) approximately how many words they need to write. That number, for some, sits out at the end of the journey with a large beacon shining up into the sky. "Here I am!" it says, "Come closer. Come to the light...". Some writers fixate on that magic number and worry only about getting closer and not about the quality of the words that are getting them there. Other writers tend to ignore the beacon and concentrate more on the quality of their steps, even if they're baby-sized.
The questions that many of us get constantly asked play into this fixation. Right after we get asked "Did you write today?" will often-times be the question "How much?". These are times I want to throw something heavy at the well-meaning questioner. Bless their hearts, but I'll tell you if I want. I'll give details if I want. Saying "I wrote 3,000 words today" to a non-writer is somewhat pointless; they don't know how long it took or if that number is significant - to you or to your manuscript.
I don't like fixating on word counts, but it seems to be unavoidable. I know where my total should be and given where I am in the plot I should be around X. Am I way over? Am I way under? At the end of every writing session I check to see how many words I've written. Some days the total is small; but they're good words. Some days the total is larger and I'm not as pleased with them.
I've tried to let the word count leave the front of my brain and just let my characters move through their plot lines; but it's tricky. For the sake of my sanity ( and the feeling I have some control) I like to incorporate as much logic as possible into my writing process and I'm afraid if I just let it go then my story will careen out of control and I'll end up not only with a tome that makes Gone With the Wind look like a light afternoon read; but also a manuscript that will demand months of editing and purging. The other fear is that I'll finish and realize I need to add countless chapters to make the manuscript the length its plots and subplots demand.
How often do you look at your word count? Do you think (like me) by this point I should be at this number, by this point I should be at that number? Or do you just let the words fly and worry about the actual count once you've come to the end?