The Pitfalls of Counting Words
One of the most common things you will see a writer commenting on during the time they are working on their book is to announce how many words they’ve written for the day. Facebook and Twitter are constantly abuzz with this seemingly important information, and yes—there is a hashtag for #wordcount for all those eager and needing to both post their own word count and compare with others.
From time to time I make a comment on Facebook about word count; I just can’t help myself. Granted—and I need to get this out of the way first—some authors 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, even though I’m currently under contract to write three new novels by February 2013.
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 75k words to 130k words. My last novel I wrote—a family saga spanning forty years—came in at 165,000 words. I wouldn’t recommend writing a novel at that length due to the difficulty of selling it, but I knew this was going to be my “epic” story, and I really didn’t pay much attention at all to the word count along the way.
In Donald Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” week-long intensive I took last April, the topic of word length for novels came up, since many of us have been taught that writers have to keep a novel within a specific word-count range for the book to be accepted, but he noted that the truth of the matter is: word length for a novel really doesn’t matter at all—what matters is the book itself. A book should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. It needs to tell a complete, well-developed, gripping story without being too sparse and without dragging anywhere along the way.
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. Just as we compare our figures, our salaries, our hairstyles, and our clothing, we compare word count in order to either validate ourselves, justify our time spent writing, or feel productive (or better than that other writer who didn’t get as many words written today). Do you really need to write a certain number of words in a day before you can pat yourself on the back and say “well done”?
Another thing: It’s not just society but our churches have, sadly, become works-driven. For example, you are a good Christian if you can write a long list of all the “things” you do to prove you are faithful. I recently enjoyed listening to a CD on this topic. The speaker asked a number of old-time, very faithful believers what they would say to God when they got to heaven when he asked this question: “Why should I let you in?” Believe it or not, yes, these people all answered with variations of the same answer: “Oh, well, I’ve been attending church faithfully for sixty years. I led Bible study for decades. I supported missionaries and donated to xxx causes…”
Horrors! Do you see the problem here? How can we ever think that a compilation of all the good things we’ve done in life will equate to worthiness to enter heaven? What does this have to do with word count? I am not going to stand at heaven’s gate and say to God: “Well, I wrote an average of 3,000 words a day to prove I was faithful to my calling as a writer.” Do you really think God 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 (National Novel Writing Month, where you commit to writing an entire novel in the month of November), although a good exercise in discipline, is only more grist for the grinding mill—the mill that grinds your soul and creativity into a million little pieces. A lot of writers seem to enjoy the challenge of pumping out a complete novel in four weeks—regardless if it’s any good. They can post with pride that they did it—kinda like making it to the top of Mt. Everest. Sure, it’s an accomplishment, and a good effort at discipline, but again the whole focus is quantity not quality. For those who want to crank out six quickie genre novels a year to make some money and put food on the table, there’s nothing wrong with that. Many writers out there do that, and some I’ve talked to care little about what they write, rarely ever read any of their books once they’re written, and sometimes don’t even much remember one book from the next. Is that a bad thing? No, not at all, for some people write solely to earn a living, and that is completely honorable. And I bet many of them count words too. I just don’t want to be that kind of writer myself, so maybe my comments here are all very biased. But my main concern is the underlying, sometimes subconscious, messages that are coming through in these announcements and concerns over word count.
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-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.
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 5,000 boring, nothing words that don’t reach a reader’s heart.
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 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 just talking out loud to myself somewhere secluded where no one but my dog hears me (and he doesn’t mind). Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison in an interview indicated that she did most of her “writing” throughout the day as she went about her life, so that when she sat down at the computer to put down her scenes, she had already spent quality time thinking and mulling over what she planned to write.
I would like to encourage all the 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. My high school English teacher used to say, “Say what you mean. Don’t say what you don’t mean.” I still remember that line forty years later. 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.
A really interesting article. Thank you, Susanne!
C. S. Lakin is the author of the fantasy series, “The Gates of Heaven,” with the first three books now out in stores. She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, with her Zondervan contest winner, Someone to Blame, having been released last October. You can find some of her other novels online as Ebooks. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach on the craft of writing. Her new websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction (www.CritiqueMyManuscript.com) and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life (www.LiveWriteThrive.com). Come join in! You can read more about her and her novels at www.cslakin.com.
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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.