Why Counting Words May Be Hazardous to Your Health

From time to time I make a comment on Facebook about word count or I guest post or comment on another blog about it. I’m always  astonished at the emotional reaction to this topic and to my less-than-approved views on the subject.

I am pretty opinionated about word counting, and when I post (as I’m sure this will happen today as well), I’ll get comments that range from irritation to scathing anger over my view. Which fascinates me–why so many authors get their shorts all bunched up over this topic.

I Get the Need for a Disciplined Approach

Granted–and I need to get this out of the way first–some authors (like me) are under contract. Some very much need to schedule themselves to write a certain amount of words each day in order to meet a pressing deadline.

I get that.

Although I will still argue that’s a skewed way to look at writing a novel. Why not make it a goal to complete one scene or chapter a day? That’s how I set my writing goals, but I will now explain why I don’t worry too much about sticking to them.

I try very hard to steer as far away from word count observances as possible. Sure, from time to time I check my word count. It helps me to see, when I think I’m halfway through a novel, just how many words I may end up with.

My novels range from 76k words to 160k words. At the time I wrote this original post, my new WIP is looked like it was going to far pass any previous books in word count. It did–came in at 165,000 words.

But that doesn’t matter at all. A book should be as long as it is supposed to be to tell the story properly (and that’s another topic for discussion, but we’ll leave that until another time).

 Why More Is Not Better

I have some strong sentiments about the whole word count issue, and they are pretty negative. Why? Because we live in a world that puts emphasis always on quantity, not quality. More is better. And even more is even “more better.” Writers tend to brag and compete. “I wrote five thousand words today.” “I wrote five thousand words today standing on my head and cooking a gourmet dinner for eighteen people.” And so it goes. How does it make most normal non-superman-type writers feel? Just plain lousy.

Works in our society are the measure of worthiness, but it’s an illusion. Works only prove you’ve been working, and that’s about it.

 Who Cares How Many Words You’ve Written Today?

Do you really think anyone cares about your word count? What if you feel called to write, but it takes you a lifetime to pull together a short little story that burns on your heart to write? That must mean you have failed!

Nanowrimo month, although a good exercise in discipline (National Novel Writing Month, where you commit to writing an entire novel in the month of November), is only more grist for the grinding mill–the mill that grinds your soul and creativity into a million little pieces.

Think about this: Who are you really trying to impress when you constantly post how many words you’ve written in a day?

I’ve never seen any highly regarded Pulitzer Award-winning authors post their word count. It seems to me they are just focused on writing a great novel. Maybe if you are obsessed with advertising your word count, you might want to step back and think about why you are telling this to the world.

Does it mean you are looking for a pat on the back or some measure of justification proving you really are a writer? Can you just write and enjoy the journey, whether you put out one great paragraph a day, or have you set some harsh arbitrary quota upon yourself in order to feel worthy? Some things to think about.

I can’t tell you how relieved I felt when listening to two hugely successful best-selling Pulitzer-prize-winning authors at the Book Expo in New York who said that they took four to five years to write each book. That made me feel good.

I had been writing a very difficult novel and it was stretching into a full year to complete. I felt like I was slipping. But I needed a lot of time to think and plot out the story.

And this is my last beef about word count.

 Gushing Does Not Quality Make

I have heard many writers say that the important thing is just to write. Make yourself sit down each day and push yourself to write something. That if you just keep writing thousands and thousands of words, inspiration will follow.

I completely disagree. I’ve noticed that writers who pump out thousands of words end up having very little of interest to say. Again, it’s quantity over quality. I will say again for the thousandth time: I would rather write one beautiful, powerful, moving sentence than five thousand boring, nothing words that don’t reach a reader’s heart. Gushing is . . . well, just gushing.

Ever heard someone gush a bunch of nonsense? Does that ever morph into exquisite poetry or prose?

It would be nice to believe that inspiration and beautiful, powerful writing can be accessed like a water pump–just turn it on full bore and let it gush, and at some point something good will spill out. Then you can throw out most of the other stuff and keep the good stuff.

I rarely hear anyone talk about mulling, thinking, musing, ideating. I remember reading how Tony Hillerman will often lay on his couch for hours with his eyes closed. That was the bulk of his work. I am much the same way, but instead of lying on the couch I take long walks, talk out my plots and ideas and characters, sometimes in prayer with God, other times just talking out loud to myself somewhere secluded where no one but my dog hears me (and he doesn’t mind).

Toni Morrison has written about doing much the same, saying by the time she sits down to write, she’s done the hard work of writing in her head. This is not to say exercises that involve freewriting are useless. To the contrary, they are great to get creative juices flowing–but just don’t count those words!

The Great End Goal

I would like to encourage all you writers out there to stop and think. Yes, spend more time thinking. Avoid using those distasteful words (word count) and focus more on quality, on planning, on letting ideas simmer. And when you sit down and write, don’t set some arbitrary goal of how many words you should stuff in your document.

Aim to write with passion and concentration, with sincerity and significance, slowly, deliberately. And if all that comes out of the effort is one great sentence or paragraph, allow yourself to see that it a great end goal.

Sometimes more is said with less. In fact, I truly believe absolutely: more is better said with less words. The right words. Take time to chew your words, taste them, spit out the ones that aren’t just right and only settle for a sentence that says exactly what you want it to say.

You may not get it first time around, in a first draft, but don’t zoom through, typing away. Stop and ponder what you are trying to say, how you want it to sound. Let the spirit fill and lift you as you write, for if you zoom ahead mindlessly, you leave the spirit behind. And it will show.

So, that’s my long spiel. Are you bristling and ready to spew forth your reasons for defending your need to tell the world how many words you wrote today?

Feel free to share your thoughts on this, but I hope–before you post your word count on your Facebook page or wherever–you will stop and think about two things: 1) how that newbie or slow writer will feel when they read your post and 2) consider maybe choosing to share some neat insight or a beautiful line you came up with instead–that will inspire and draw readers to your writing.

Just a thought . . .

 

47 Responses to “Why Counting Words May Be Hazardous to Your Health”

  1. Warren Henderson July 30, 2012 at 12:40 am #

    I must say I have to agree with you. If I tried to write a set amount of words a day then it would become too much of a chore and not enjoyable. Writing for me has to be enjoyable,(maybe that’s why I’ve not been published yet haha).
    I can only write when the mood takes me to the places I need to go, and that doesn’t happen every day. Life has a habit of getting in the way.
    Maybe that means it takes longer to write what I want, but I would hope it means a better, unforced and less predictable story.

  2. James Scott Bell July 30, 2012 at 5:07 am #

    Because we live in a world that puts emphasis always on quantity, not quality

    I dunno, Susanne. Quality is what rises to the top and gets rewarded over time, all things being equal. And if you can produce quality at a steady pace, you increase your chances of success tremendously.

    The discipline of the quota is about that steady trendline, and it’s different for each writer. My counsel is always to find what you can do comfortably and up it by 10%. That’s not “harsh.” It’s a rule of thumb for becoming productive. And it doesn’t matter to me at all if one person does 1000 words a day, and another does 100. As long as it’s a discipline, it will work.

    That is, if you really want to be a professional. You have to produce. A publishing house is not going to buy your first novel and then wait for you to “enjoy the journey.” They will have paid you and want the journey to have a timetable. Better that you have established the ability to run the trains on time BEFORE you sign the contract. Otherwise, it could get ugly. As in “career over” before it starts.

    Sure, if you are one of the 1% of authors who can write a Pulitzer quality book, and it takes you several years, you can be the exception. And if that’s what you feel called to, fine.

    But here’s the ironic thing: more often than not, faster writing is better. Getting your inner Proust out of the way and letting go when you write brings you better ideas and ultimately better prose, SO LONG AS (and this is the key) you are learning, getting feedback and studying the craft as you go. You write, you learn, you revise, you keep writing. That’s the only formula for success I know. The rest is chance and hoping that a unicorn steps into your garden.

    There’s no reason to “feel” in competition with another writer on this, BTW. If someone writes 5000 words in a day, and tweets about that, I congratulate them! I know how hard that is, and I can salute them because it has nothing to do with my own production. In fact, it may inspire me.

    Writing should be a joy, not a burden. If you write to a quota, you feel great when you hit it. Just like any worker feels satisfaction at a project well done. If your quota’s too high, lower it. But don’t give it up altogether. It’s the first and still most important rule I ever learned in this game, and what has enabled me to make a living at this for almost 20 years.

    • cslakin July 30, 2012 at 5:27 am #

      Thanks, Jim, for sharing this. My next post on the need to put in 10,000 hours to become an “expert” in anything (according to Malcomb Gladwell) explaines the need to do the work, and put into practice writing. My conern as expressed in this article is that too many writers are obsessed with how many words they write a day rather than on what they are writing and why. I see it all the time and hear it from author friends and to me it’s a refalceion of our neurotic work-ethic society. Being a crazy overachiever, I am so aware of that! Your points are valid!

    • Dina Santorelli July 31, 2012 at 8:21 am #

      I totally agree with Mr. Bell. Whatever gets the words on the page in a way that makes you happy is what counts. I tend to be a word count girl. That works for me. Pushing 1,000 words a day — and, trust me, it’s a push many days. I disagree with you when you say that having a word count means the emphasis is on quantity over quality. For me, quantity forces me to dig deep down sometimes when all I want to do is stop writing. In essence, quantity produces quality. It doesn’t supplant it.

    • Simon August 1, 2012 at 12:28 am #

      I agree absolutely. Some days I write a paragraph. Some days I write 2000 words, but sometimes that paragraph takes as much effort if not more if I have struggled to convey perfectly what I wanted to say, and I will be just as pleased with that as a good day’s work as I would with the 2000 words.

  3. Pamela King Cable July 30, 2012 at 6:31 am #

    Awesome post. I’m not upset by this at all. Personally, I don’t count words until after many rewrites. I’ve got to write my heart first. Then I trim and cut, slice and dice. Every page must be tight and clear, every line rich with meaning, each word must contribute something to the story. The stakes must be raised from one scene to the next. A writer never stops learning and every book gets better. And with all that said, my novel, Televenge, is 580 pages in length. Pub date, Oct. 2012. I just happen to write longer novels.

    It doesn’t mean that I don’t labor over my words. I do. Just a much as one who writes a novella. Televenge was ten years in the writing, although I don’t plan to take that long on susequent books. In the end, I agree with Ms. Lakin. But writing longer novels is who I am as a writer. And that’s okay, too.

  4. gaye mack July 30, 2012 at 6:38 am #

    Susanne, thanks so much for this post…I completely agree with you…I often write in my head when I wake up at 3 a.m. or am walking, driving, even talking to myself…I write to tell the story as told by the characters and those in charge of plot…I know roughly for an end product how many words each chapter should be but if it goes shorter or longer in the process, I let it be without obsessing; there’s always time for editing. It’s only at a few points along the way that I check count to see ‘roughly’ where I am–at the end I look at total word count in order to see if I’ve met the accepted genre parameters. It would make me crazy thinking every day I HAD TO crank out ‘x’ number of words…this linear thinking for me would get in the way of the creative process…

  5. Pamela King Cable July 30, 2012 at 6:48 am #

    And one more point I’d like to make. Some days the kids are sick and if you get three words written, you feel lucky. Other times, you’ve got pressure at work, or family matters that need attention. Unless you’re under a tight deadline, don’t allow yourself to get caught up in a daily word count. It can stop the story in your head. Life has a way of slowing us down. Roll with it. Some days you’ll write 5 chapters. Some days you simply won’t. Ms. Lakin is correct. In the end, it’s the quality of the story the means the most. Become the reader as you write. It’ll make a difference in your work.

  6. Alice Degan July 30, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    Hello! I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now, though I don’t believe I have commented before.

    These are very good points. In a way, I’m surprised that I don’t agree 100%. I have never been one for specific numerical goals, and I certainly do consider thinking about story problems and mulling over plot points to be “work” on the project. I also like to revise as I go (up to a point) so that forward progress isn’t always steady, and I’m okay with that. Maybe it’s because this has long been my approach that I was surprised recently when I started using Scrivener, and found that I actually like setting a modest daily goal and watching the progress meter fill up and change colour (it goes from red to a beautiful green). I find it a helpful prompt to keep working on days when I do have some time to write, and a form of encouragement for myself. I do think that it’s the visual stimulus that helps most, but it does mean that I have become more interested in word count than I used to be, albeit in a modified way that I don’t think is unhealthy. Your argument here is a good warning to make sure I don’t start paying too much attention to this sort of thing!

    I do completely agree that posting about one’s word count on social media seems like a bad idea — for all kinds of reasons.

  7. Poppy Behrens July 30, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    Thank you for saying what I have always believed in my heart. As a publisher/editor I rely on my writers sticking to the word count. When I write fiction or non-fiction, however, I write to get the full story out and then go back and trim it if I have a specific word count I need to come in at. I found years ago that worrying about the word count while writing make for a poorer end result!

  8. Suzanne Lilly July 30, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    What, you can’t write “five thousand words today standing on my head and cooking a gourmet dinner for eighteen people?” Sheesh, I thought anyone could do that.

    Seriously, I want to thank you for this post. Granted, what James Scott Bell said is true…we need to push ourselves to be productive if we want to make a living. But so many people online are focused on word count and not on the quality of the writing, some even joke about writing thousands of words of drivel. That’s not productive, that’s wasting time.

    My process is to plot, mull over, plot more, mull more, and continue playing with the writing ideas before I write thousands of words. I work on it every day. Once the planning and plotting is done, the writing part goes fast, and then I go back to revise and polish. I do set a goal for myself, but rather than words, it’s usually time related. Such as “finish two scenes today,” or “get to the first turning point by such and such date.”

    Like any art form, writing can be learned, but to master it takes time. Spewing out words won’t lead to mastery, only reflection and focused practice will do that.

    • cslakin July 30, 2012 at 8:44 am #

      Thanks for those thoughts. As I said, I like to set a more relevant goal for myself, like write one scene a day. I know one author who always figured out her exact word count needed to complete her book by a deadline, then only wrote that exact amount of words each day–which meant she really did stop right in the middle of a sentence when she reached that count. I picture her spending a lot of time checking her word count as she writes and all her focus on getting to that magic number instead of enjoying the writing process and the story she is telling.

  9. Dianne Price July 30, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    I agree completely. James W. Hall, writer of the Thorn series of novels, once told me that he goes over every sentence, sometimes many times, to see if it resonates, flows, sparks something emotional in the reader, and moves the story forward. (He was a best-selling poet before he became a novelist). That is why I enjoy his books so much, sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty of his words or the twist he has put on a phrase. I call it writing that sings. That is what I concentrate on, not my word count. I spend hours every night in bed (lights out), going over dialogue, character development, and sometimes I even get into arguments with my characters. The word count comes after the novel is finished and my editing begins. There are times I think the publisher’s restraints put on writers about word count in a particular genre quash creativity. What do you think?

    • cslakin July 30, 2012 at 9:44 am #

      Dianne, few publishers now are real sticklers for word count. Unless you are writing for a very specific type of series, like Harlequin romantic suspense, where they have a set word and chapter count, you can usually submit anything that is at least 75k words or longer (from my experience) for a full-length novel. The average across the genres these days is 80-100k words, but as agent Donald Maass says word count doesn’t matter–the book should be as long as it needs to be. A long book is fine as long as that is just the right length to tell the story needing to be told.

  10. Nicholas Gettig July 30, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Thank you for this post! I spent most of my youth dreaming up stories, and barely writing anyting. Sometimes I wonder if I wasted those years, maybe I’d be farther ahead if I published four years ago, rather than just beginning to put words to my ideas now. If I had done that, than many changes I’ve made in the past few years wouldn’t have happened, changes that I feel will increase the quality my future stories.

    I found this incredibly encouraging, as well as the comments. Thanks again!

  11. Feather Stone July 30, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I agree our goals, whatever they are, must reflect quality, rather than quantity. It is my impression writing is an art form, not a race. And yet, I read dozens of posts wherein the author is agonizing in having been unable to write 5,000 words every day.

    Then I see groups in a write-a-thon. Now I understand there is some underlying rationale to authors participating in group writing blitzes. I’ve been in one that simply encourages fellow authors to write something that day. However, there are groups that boast being able to produce a book a month. Frankly, I don’t believe that kind of novel will have depth.

    Don’t laugh, but I visualize the creation of a fiction novel in the same light as lovers building their relationship. It takes time, moving from introduction, through a mine field risking hurt, to the climax of surrendering the self to the other. Speed kills.

    I track my word count only for the purpose to get an idea how long my novel will be. When I’m reading a book, I’m not thinking about if the author spent hours each day hunched over the keyboard. If anything, I’m appreciating the author’s talent, carefully crafting scenes and dialogue that seduces me into caring about the lives of the characters and their dilemma.

  12. Chris July 30, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Thanks for sharing what I see as the minority viewpoint, Susanne. I’m all for quality over quantity, but I think this is just another way to express the art vs. craft debate: “Artists” who create “masterpieces”, vs. “Craftsmen” who churn out numerous competent but not terribly memorable offerings. Both have their purpose, and a writer must decide eventually if they want to focus one writing that magnum opus, or make a viable living writing numerous works that produce steady paychecks.

    Seeing as how I don’t know yet whether I have a masterpiece in me or not, I’m on the fence regarding that debate, but I don’t worry about word counts. When I’m in a writing mood, I write. When I’m not, I try to come up with new ideas, do research, or just daydream in hopes of finding inspiration that way.

  13. Kenna McKinnon July 30, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    I receive regular LiveWriteThrive updates on my email and love them. They are well worth reading. Susanne thinks clearly, realistically, and logically. Quite amazing in a writer, but that’s not all she does! I admit to liking word counts but I also confess to chopping whole chapters out of the finished work. Whatever works, right, Susanne? Quality rises to the top every time, like cream, and like cream, it takes time to separate from the skim. I’ve been writing most of my life. Only recently in the past 2 1/2 years been published, and I’m 67. Add to that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978 and ill since 1975/76, and mentors like Susanne are worth their weight in drums of oil. It’s because of clear thinking that anyone is able to produce anything viable at all. Fuzzy thinking is linked to quantity, although not always, and writers who can’t take advice or guidance will sink to the bottom. Except for Faulkner, who was a genius, and others of that ilk, who work for a living otherwise. There’s a difference between hobby and vocation. If one is a journalist or reporter, there is a specific wordcount. But it’s certainly not 4,000 a day, and there are editors and publishers to please. Please, authors, don’t sit and contemplate your own navels.

    • cslakin July 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

      Thanks, Kenna, for the very kind words! I love helping writers and I’ve learned a lot on my 25+ years to getting published. Most of it was learning trial by error and my aim is to spare newer writers all the mistakes I made and get them right to the heart of writing what counts. I am a very fuzzy thinker and I am big on lists and notes. And e-mail. I am so glad I can go back and reread correspondence from clients and have my to-do list or I too would be sitting around contemplating my navel!

  14. Cindy Camp July 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Thank you for this. I’m a teacher and getting ready to delve back into teaching AP Literature and it takes its toll on my ability to write. This has been my summer to write and write and write. Blogging provided a perfect venue because I feel compelled to write and keep things fresh. It sharpens my skills and helps me define my voice. I have a former student who participated in this last year (Nanowrite) and I really didn’t get it. I’m too stingy with my sentences. I need to craft them and then rewrite them until they say something reflecting my voice and style. I’m putting this article in my notebook as a bit of encouragement. Thank you, Cindy Camp

  15. Lyn Hawks July 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    Hi,

    Thanks for this post. I just quoted you in today’s blog post–the wisdom about other authors’ practice and how dreaming/ruminating is so crucial to creativity.

    http://tinyurl.com/csr2426

    I also really responded to this line you wrote:

    “Let the spirit fill and lift you as you write, for if you zoom ahead mindlessly, you leave the spirit behind. And it will show.”

    If the intention we rise with every day is a passion for productivity rather than a passion for spirit, beauty, and craft, then the only thing that matters is word count. We get lost in the tangible and caring too much what others think of our process, as well as where we are with regard to other writers’ success.

    I think the problem with Facebook and other social networking sites is that it’s a big self-love fest (and I’m guilty of it as well) where we love to see ourselves in the mirror and share our best side. Crowing about word count is right up there with crowing about kids, our latest blog post, whatever we’re “networking” about. So I think the latest tech has driven a certain amount of behavior that’s new for writers. We’ve moved out of the cave and into the light where we chatter along with a billion other voices and no one’s listening too hard. So, this is said to myself more than anyone else: Let’s keep it real–it’s all about spirit, all the time, and when we forget that, the soul releases from our writing and leaves behind a corpse.

    Lyn

    • Marlena Baraf July 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

      Lyn (and Susan), you are so right. Writing is about the spirit lifting. This post is particularly meaningful to me right now. I am a very frugal writer. Every word carries meaning and a good sentence leads me to another and to the idea that is ripening within. The advice that I hear too often lately is that of letting yourself “write garbage,”to free yourself. While this may work for many, I still haven’t seen it work for me. Many thanks Susan for this post and for your post about motifs. (have just discovered your blog). Re motifs I have several that I could develop in my near finished memoir. It seems to me that the more likely time in which to do this is in revision (while keeping it in mind as you complete your first draft).
      I love your blog.

  16. Melissa Maygrove July 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    I don’t really *get* things like Nanowrite either. I’m a busy, working mom; I’ll get done what I get done. And I’d rather get 500 quality words written than 2k that I’ll have to spend hours revising. But I’m not so averse to the word count thing that people talking about it, or even boasting about it, upsets me. I’ll give them a Woot! right along with everyone else.

    I have word count bars on my blog, and I find they’re not only a nice visual of my WIPs for my visitors, but an incentive for me as well. I get excited when I get to adjust the numbers up. (I only allow myself to do it in increments of 500.) And, like you, keeping an eye on the count while I’m writing helps me gauge how long my novel is going to be.

    I guess it all depends on the person. For writers who have trouble making themselves sit and write, word count goals might be just what they need. For me, drive is not the issue. Having quiet, uninterrupted time with my laptop is. 😉

  17. cslakin July 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    Thanks for all those insightful thoughts. I know for many NaNoWriMo has really helped them learned to get the butt glue out and be productive. There are good aspects to that. I hate the thought of rushing to put out a novel in a month. I often write a novel in two months, but I am not watching the clock and an imaginary finish line. Some books just seem to whiz along and others take a lot more thought, or take a lot out of me emotionally, since my books tend to deal with heavy subjects, so I can end up in a world of hurt if I drag my emotions through the gutter and don’t take time to replenish my spirit and fill back up after gushing out. That’s just me.

  18. Owen July 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Writing is an art. Did Leonardo da Vinci count the the total number of dabs he applied while working on the Mona Lisa? I don’t think so. Had he done so, his focus might not have been there to capture that hint of a smile, and the world would have been the poorer for it. Thank you, Susanne, for putting quality before quantity.

  19. cslakin July 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    Owen, that’s a great analogy–thanks for sharing.

  20. LK Watts July 31, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    For me I place more value on the time I take to write each day rather than the amount of words I type. Although it can be helpful to know how many words I have written because it helps my brain to push forward.

  21. J. Cameron McClain July 31, 2012 at 7:15 am #

    “when you sit down and write, don’t set some arbitrary goal of how many words you should stuff in your document.”

    Now THAT would be an exercise in futility. If someone is working to reach a certain number of words, I think they’re missing the point.

    As I mentioned on LinkedIn, there are a whole lot of periodicals that specify short story word counts, and they tend to be in the 3000-4000 word or less corner of reality, so focusing on telling a story within that word-count frame is just one of those things you either accept, or you go find the few that will accept a higher count. I have done this myself, since my short stories end up about 6000 words long without me even focusing on the counts. A word limit also focuses you more on your editing, something that’s more needed in today’s non-paper world than ever before.

    As always, interesting and thought-provoking commentary, thanks!

  22. Nancy Popovich July 31, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    It puzzles me why folks would be upset because you have an opinion – everyone is entitled to one. I happen to agree with your thoughts. Well said.

  23. Jessica July 31, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Very much agree with the main point here. I like using word counts for myself, because I work better with a quantitative challenge to shoot for. But whether or not I make those goals doesn’t matter so long as I HAVE them, and I see absolutely no point in word counts (or any other progress marker) to the world.

  24. Deborah Jay July 31, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    I think there must be as many different opinions on word counting as there are on plotting vs pantsing.
    When I have a commissioned book (I write technical books on horse training) my publisher is generous with the deadline because they understand people in my business are very busy working in the industry as well as writing. Phew!
    So I make a goal of a minimum of 2.5K words a week. That brings my books in 2 months under deadline (14 months).
    Imagine my surprse then, when I started to take notice of the fiction publishing world and saw the amazing word counts bandied around.
    I can’t and won’t try to pressurise myself with word counts now I’m writing fiction. I find if I think and plot and come up with scenes and dialogue when I’m either driving between clients or out hacking a horse (and walking the dog to boot), I take a verbal note of it on my phone, and transfer it when I get home.
    My novels so far are coming out with minimum need for editing, and I’m able to produce one in 6-8 months.
    That’s what’s right for me and that’s what I’m sticking to.
    While I’m here, I’d like to say thanks for all your advice – yours is the most useful blog I follow for writing info 🙂

    • cslakin July 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      Thanks so much for the kind words! I really like what you said about what works for you. Each writer needs to find what works best for her and not compare. Writers tend to have a lot of insecurities. We all have days where we feel like failures and wonder how we can think we have any talent. I have always been a fast writer, and now that I have deadlines, I feel the pressure. I know I could allocate a certain number of words to write each week to make my deadline, but just the thought freezes me up. In order to stay in the flow of creativity, I can’t have that pressure riding on my back. I site down to write intending to write the best scene I can. Sometimes I can write all day and put down thousands of great words and the perfect scenes. other days I get a few pages done and I’m not all that happy but I did something. I try not to be hard on myself, but I have very high standards and will only write books I feel are the very best possible for me. I am proud of every single one of my novels and would not change a thing in them. Some books took a year to write; others just a few months. But I never want to lose the joy of writing, which for me will happen if i let the word count thing hang over my head.

  25. Melanie Macek July 31, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Like several have said, it’s a matter of what works for each individual. I’ve tried writing when the mood or inspiration hit. Sometimes months would pass before I wrote a single word, simply because life was too hectic. I’ve tried crafting my sentences until they sing, as one poster phrased it. Being a total pantser, This doesn’t work either because my characters, no matter how outlined or fleshed out, always do something that makes the beautifully crafted sentence irrelevant in the end.

    My goal is 100 words a day. Do I always make it? No. But it’s enough to get my backside in the chair and at least attempt to progress the story. Some days I can get 2000, others, I’m lucky if I get 2. What the word count goal has accomplished for me is keeping the story fresh in the back of my mind while I deal with the craziness that is life. When I sit, it is so much easier to get back into the story than if I waited for inspiration to strike, like I used to.

    If anything, what I’ve learned from studying the craft of writing is that NO one method works for everyone. Find what works for you. If anything, those people posting that they wrote 5000 words just motivate me to make sure I get my 100 in for the day.

    Great post! 🙂

  26. Jeri August 1, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    This is my first time commenting on your blog, although I’ve been lurking for a couple of months now. While working on my first novel, I set a goal of 1,000 words a day. Modest and managable. Yet, I’ve rarely met that goal. Distractions abound and how to find balance is key. Indeed, I’ve just scrapped 45k words and will be starting over. As a novel-writing novice, I had to learn the hard way to not obsess and nit-pick as I draft (despite teaching writing and having particpated in countless writing workshops). I also learned that I write best with a solid, but brief, outline in place. I too agree with the comment above that fast writing does often tend to be one’s better writing. So now that I have an outline and better grasp of the POV I’m using, my new goal is to write 2k a day and have a complete draft in two months. Then a round of substantive revision can beging. The creative process varies greatly, and despite all my degrees and teaching experience, I too look forward to the day when I can say I have 10,000 hours experience at being a “real” writer. Word counts are only a goal that help all of us learn to be in tune with our own creative rhythms and output.

    • cslakin August 1, 2012 at 8:01 am #

      Thanks, Jeri, for chiming in! The first novel is the hardest, and the best advice I can give is learn how to really plot and plan out a novel–it will save you months of wasted effort. Sure, learning the process and experimenting is all good, but there are ways to avoid a lot of pain and frustration. One book I regularly recommend to my editing clients is James Bell’s Plot and Structure. He makes it all clear. I also teach my clients some great methods to lay out all the scenes and visually see the whole story. You may at some point want to get a full manuscript critique to see how on track you are and to help you step back and see your story from different angles.

  27. Edward Curley August 1, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Excellent,

    I agree with you 100 percent. Spending many hours thinking, making notes about ideas you want to put into your plot and then sitting and writing them is the way to go. Who hasn’t written5,000 lousy words in one day? 500 “good” words a day would give you a 91,250 word novel in six months.

    I have a novel I began and wrote the first 10,000 words in two days because you are “supposed” to crank out words every day. I set it aside. It’s not bad but I didn’t do any planning and ended up with a one tenth, or less, written novel that has been sitting there for a few years. I’ve had people read it and laugh, think it’s funny, good. But I don’t know where to go with it now, because I just spewed a lot of sarcastic words that are funny, but have no middle or ending for it.

    I did not have a story goal. I just let my fingers do the walking. I touch type pretty fast so it’s easy to write sentence after meaningless sentence.

    Ed.

  28. Nancy DeMarco August 2, 2012 at 4:26 am #

    Word count is always there, because MS-Word tells me how many words I’ve written, and I can’t help but glance down and take note. And I do feel a sense of accomplishment when I reach 1500 or more words in a day. Since my process is to rework as I write, often scrolling back to previous chapters and making sweeping changes, deleting passages, agonizing over one sentence, or one word, those 1500ish words are likely to be keepers.

    The thinking, ruminating – this doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve had Lyme disease for more than 2 decades, and I have virtually no short-term memory. So no matter how brilliant my thoughts seem to be, they vanish within minutes if I don’t manage to put them to page.

    Writing becomes my thinking and planning and ruminating. I just do it on the page rather than on a couch with my eyes closed, revising, sorting, slashing and burning as I go. Call it gushing if you will, but I suspect a certain amount of gushing takes place in your head, does it not? Mine takes place on the page.

  29. Rebecca August 2, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    I totally agree with you, as far as writing for your own benefit goes! Gosh, I have been doing free lance this Summer (I am a teacher by trade)and those word count deals can get crazy.I shudder to think about mile-stoning my very own novel (which I am light years away from doing yet) by a word count. Yikes!

  30. Mark Landen August 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    I just found your blog today, and I’m a fan!

    I’m unsure whether it’s a person’s temperament, a process difference, or a cultural influence of frantic output; but I didn’t read anything in this article I didn’t agree with. Perhaps another viewpoint is, by nature, people have a need for a measurement to track themselves against their peers. And with writing, how to do that? Enter wordcounts.

    Mind you, I’m a firm believer that an organic writer who has learned the skills of plotting _before_ they write is the most dangerous writer out there. Not only can this person produce words as fast as a mosquito in a hurricane, but they are disciplined enough to batten down the hatches and prepare for the storm before it arrives. No back catalog? No problem.

    But most writers can’t put down this many quality words in a day, yet they still seek out the measurement (wordcounts). I liken it to the magic weight loss pill: take it and you’ll lose weight without changing your diet. Not working? Take more. But the magic pill in storytelling is imagination, so allowing time for it to cook until done is the correct prescription.

    A scene a day is a healthy regiment for me. To accomplish this I’ve spent months planning the story ahead of time. Even before sitting down to put words to digital page, I imagine the scene in my head. Occasionally I’ll go into a scene organically, but ahead of time I know the cast, the goal, and desired outcome. I acknowledge my temperament is analytical, so thinking before doing is intrinsic. For many, dare I say most, they accomplish goals by an iterative modification process, writing purely organically and measuring their success with wordcounts.

    Great post, I’m subscribed to your blog.

    • cslakin August 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

      Thanks, Mark, for the comments and for subscribing. Glad for you to join the crowd hanging out here!

  31. andrew toynbee August 4, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    Hello everyone.

    It’s a fascinating debate and as has been said, rivals the ‘plotter vs pantser’ debate.
    I monitored my word count merely for progress as I built my (first) novel and it granted me a sense of achievement, but I always felt somewhat constrained writing within such parameters – to the extent that I axed 15,000 words from the ending and rewrote the climax, just to keep the count down to 150k.

    Reading the comments above, I began to wonder if the word count’s time is over. After all, many writers are now publishing on-line, something that means that there are no editors/publishers constraints. 250k (or larger) novels are now possible in the electronic world because this won’t result in a tome so heavy, it requires wheels. The only reason word count remains relevant is to differentiate a short story from a novella from a novel.
    For those still publishing in the ‘real’ world, naturally, the count is still an issue as setting (are pages still ‘set’ these days?) printing and binding costs.

    Writing a good book is like making a good stew or curry; it takes time to marinate and get all the flavours working together. If you simply chuck all the ingredients together and give it a quick stir with a NaNoWriMo spoon, it will be bland. Filling yet tasteless.

  32. Alejandro De La Garza August 5, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Thanks for clarifying this endless issue over word count! I’ve heard of so many writers who say they churn out x-number of pages or words; if they don’t, they feel like failures and believe that applies to every other writer. But, you said it best: quality, not quantity.

  33. Teresa Thompson August 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    As I read your words, my soul said ‘yes’…. and smiled.

  34. Pamela August 23, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    I love what Theresa has said above me. Much has been already discussed on the topic, so I’ll just add that your points resonated deeply with my writing ethic.

    I was also surprised to read a comment above that mentioned that you are a clear, realistic and logical thinker–and indicated that was unusual for a writer. I fully believe that solid writers must have ALL these attributes. Writing is structured (albeit sometimes subconsciously) in much the same way that music is, IMO. Without the discipline of craft, logic (if we decide to be “illogical” it had better have a reason) and realism (again, departure from realism must have some point of realistic reference or it will be uneven and unrelatable). I don’t believe that scattered or undisciplined thinkers can write well. ee cummings had specificity in his choices, and he understood language impeccably, as did Gertrude Stein. I find these qualities to be the scaffolding for good writing, rather than the exceptions.

  35. Ryan Urie May 27, 2013 at 7:19 am #

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been trying to do my own May version of NaNoWriMo and while it has pushed me to actually sit down and write on a daily basis, the pressure to output has made the novel-writing experience very stressful.

    I think tracking word counts is appealing because it’s something other people, esp. non-writers, can easily grasp. If I come out of my office after eight hours and only have 500 words to show for it, I feel a little embarrassed. If I have 5,000, then I really have something to show for my day! So I guess it all comes down to worrying too much about what other people think of me as a person instead of worrying about the needs of my novel.

  36. Pascal Inard February 12, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    Hi Susanne,

    Very interesting article as always and I would like to add something from a slightly different viewpoint.
    First, I have noticed an increase over the time I have been a reader (40 years) of the average length of novels, but there are readers out there who are turned off by novels that are more than 300 pages – it’s true that these days we tend to be time poor and the increase in the length of novels seems contradictory.
    Some published writers seem to repeat things over and over to “pad out” their novels – are they paid by the word count?
    In my case, the problem I have is this: it’s a requirement in my job to write things succinctly and get to the point as quickly as possible – the attention span of senior managers I deal with is very short!
    So when I write, I have to get out of this habit and my fear is that my writing is not “long enough” – I am working on this but obviously I want to strike the right balance.
    Do this resonate with anyone?

    • cslakin February 12, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

      Interesting. A lot of best-selling novels in all genres are very long. I haven’t noticed a trend toward shorter lengths. There are stories and novellas out there as well, but always have been. Authors are not paid by the word count. But I would imagine some authors under tight deadlines/contracts rush to get a novel written and instead of taking the time to write a well-developed story rush through and end up writing sloppily. Sage words from Donald Maass: don’t worry about word count. A novel should be as long as it needs to be. No more, no less, in order to tell the story well and properly. I agree.

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