After months of outlining, planning and prep, I’m now putting words on the page for Razor Mountain, but my daily word counts are pretty low. I’m only averaging a few hundred words per day. If writing were a competitive sport, you might not want me on your fantasy team*.
Writing Twitter is full of authors posting their daily wordcounts, and with November (and NaNoWriMo) right around the corner, we’re sure to be inundated with the usual strategizing as people look for ways to get their daily 1,667. Certain authors, giving advice to newbies, suggest that you’re not a proper writer if you’re not outputting a certain number of words each day or week.
In fact, a new writer would be totally reasonable to look at all of this and come to the conclusion that word count is the best measure of a good writer. The truth, as usual, is more complicated. Sometimes, word counts can be a useful tool. Sometimes they get in the way, and there are better measures we can use.
Why Do We Obsess over Word Counts?
Writing projects, especially novels, are a ton of hard work. One of the easiest ways to get through a ton of work is by breaking it down. And the best way to break down a big task is to set lots of small goals. So really, it should come as no surprise that writers are naturally drawn to word counts.
A word count gives you an exact quantification of your writing. It’s a progress bar. Factories are often evaluated by how many widgets they can pump out per day, and writers are just word factories, right? A day where you write 1,000 words must be better than a day when you write 500.
The truth is that writing isn’t just filling up a progress bar. Each word occupies a unique place in the work (even if it is the tenth instance of “the” in the chapter). You may find that ten paragraphs in a row just flow out with little effort, but a single sentence takes hours to get exactly right. You may spend ten times more effort on your first page as any subsequent page. Word counts can be a useful measurement, but they start to become a problem when complex, creative work is reduced to a mere number.
When Are Word Counts Useful?
Let’s not completely malign word counts. They can be a powerful motivator. I’ve certainly fought the feeling of not wanting to write any more by telling myself that I just have to finish another 100 or 200 or 500 more words. Breaking down big tasks into little goals is useful, and sometimes a word count is a quick and easy goal to set. Even more important: the feeling of satisfaction when that word count goal is completed often feels better than the mere feeling of having written “some”. It’s a quirk of the human brain that measurement results in more satisfaction.
First drafts are the best time to use word count goals. This is the magical time when a story transforms from ideas into actual words. It’s the most writingful part of writing, and the time when generating lots of words is the most useful time to measure your word-making speed. For planners, it’s the time when the story takes shape. For exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”), this is the time to discover what the story is. Since exploratory writers may end up throwing away more words and rewriting more heavily once they know the shape of the story, word counts are often going to mean a little less for them. Still, words = progress at this stage.
Finally, word counts are important for publishing. Most outlets that publish short fiction have word count requirements for what they will publish. These can be hard requirements (“nothing over 5000 words”) or limitations that make it harder (“we publish fifty short stories, but only two novellas per year”).
Genres also have expected word counts. Your high fantasy novel may be 200,000 words and everyone will yell “huzzah,” but you might have a hard time selling a cozy mystery at half that length. This is especially important if you’re trying to get a literary agent and/or sell to traditional publishers. Even when self-publishing, readers of particular genres have expectations. There will always be books and stories that break these conventions, but it’s going to be a harder road, and it’s good to be aware of that.
When Are Word Counts a Problem?
While word counts can be useful as motivators, they can also be demotivating. Many prospective novelists who struggle with NaNoWriMo will know the pain of visiting the forums and seeing others posting word counts far above the curve. Authors who have spent years on a book may cringe when they notice a popular series writer putting out multiple books per year.
The problem here isn’t low wordcounts. It’s the soul-crushing pastime of comparing yourself to others. There will always be writers who are faster and more prolific. Of course, they all have their own struggles in life, but we know nothing about them, while being intimately familiar with our own. Amazingly, even in this age of social media, most of us make this mistake from time to time. We compare what we know of our own lives to what little we see of others, from the outside, looking in.
Even when we focus on our own writing, there are times in the process when word count just doesn’t mean much. For example, when doing research, or revising drafts.
Planners usually do a lot of research up-front. Exploratory writers may wait until they have a working draft and have a better idea what the story is about. Either way, a very productive research session may only produce a sentence or two in fiction output. In these cases, it may be better to write down a list of questions you’re trying to answer. This can act as a checklist, and a way to measure how much you’re getting done.
When a draft is done, and the remaining work is to revise, edit, and polish, word counts are at their most misleading. This often involves cutting words, rearranging, or adjusting a particular sentence until it sounds exactly right. Don’t rely on word counts as a measure here. Instead, consider tracking what you need to revise scene-by-scene or chapter by chapter. Many writers also gather feedback, make a checklist of things to improve, and then make a revision pass through the whole story for each one particular issue at a time.
There’s No Measure for Quality
No matter what measures you choose at different stages of the writing process, there will come a point where they fall short. There is no quantitative way to measure how good the writing is. It’s purely a matter of taste.
Quality is in the eye of the beholder. You may choose to take feedback from those you trust, but you are the arbiter of your own writing quality. You have to decide when you’re satisfied. Is it worth it to spend years writing and revising a single work? Or is it time to say “good enough” and move on to something new? There are Stephen Kings in the world, and there are Harper Lees, and a huge spectrum between.
To Count or Not to Count?
Goals are good — they help us plan and judge how well we’re executing. But goals don’t have to be word counts. Think about what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and set your goals accordingly. Use word counts for early drafts, where they’re a better indicator of progress. Use them as little motivators, and as guidelines for your chosen genre and/or publishing path.
Avoid the temptation to compare yourself to others, and don’t confuse quantity for quality. Understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
How do you feel about word counts? Do you see them as a motivator, or a demotivator? Do you use any other measures to decide how well your writing is going? Let me know in the comments.