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Saturday, November 20, 2010

That Controversial Topic: Word Count

From time to time I make a comment on Facebook about Word Count. 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.

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. This new WIP is looking like it's going to far pass any previous books in word count. But that doesn't matter at all. A book should be as long as it is supposed to be to tell the story properly.

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.

Another thing: It's not just society, but our churches have, sadly, become works-driven. You are a good Christian if you can write a long list of all the "things" you do to prove you are faithful. I enjoyed listening recently 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? And the very wrong answer. There is only one correct answer as to why God should allow you, me, or anyone into his kingdom, and that is this: "Jesus died for my sins and paid the entrance price. I do not, on my own merit or because of anything I did, deserve to be here."

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." 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! This 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.

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 4-5 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 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).

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. 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.


  1. Very good point! There's no need to feel like a failure if we only accomplish a little bit of good work. Well said, indeed.

  2. Wow! Thanks for these great insights. We can easily become performance oriented about anything, can't we? Including writing. I hate that, too. We need to BE who God called us to be before we DO what he calls us to do and HAVE what HE wants us to have.

  3. That "Why should I let you in heaven?" question bothers me for a whole different reason. God wouldn't ask. He'd already know. But I see the point you're making. I shudder to think how many people in Christian churches today are still so works-based in their theology.

    I agree with everything you've thoughtfully written here. Good post.

  4. a little obsessed with word counts myself, nearly up to 140,000 in my current first draft. check out my blog www.autismgadfly.blogspot.com

  5. I came over from Rachel Starr Thomson's blog - Inklings. I enjoyed reading this post - your attitude is very freeing! I've always been intimidated by articles by famous writers who say I should write so many thousand words per day, because I'm a write ten words one day and ten hundred or five thousand words another day kind of writer - depending on how the story is coming to life in my imagination. (And, honestly, what else is happening in my life!) As for aiming for, say, 100,000 words ... it squishes my imagination! As a matter of discipline, I'm trying to aim for a certain number of words in my next book, but thank you for reminding me that a book should be as long as a book IS. That it's quality, not quantity God is looking for in this work. And for this: "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."


  6. Oh, I do so agree! I have been planning my next novel for several months. When I tried to start writing "because I should get stuck into it when the last one was published" it felt like a terrible chore. I have researched and thought and planned and written notes...and soon I know I'll be ready to write! Thank you so much for this blog, it's taken lingering guilt away!!!

  7. Being a person who values authenticity of relationships and experiences, I generally agree with your point. But, there is a potential contradiction with an important idea Steven Pressfield presents in "The War of Art." The act of writing, even when you don't feel inspired, has a way of generating new ideas, new energy, and new enthusiasm. So, waiting for enthusiasm to appear can be self-defeating, because the inspiration lurks in the process of simply sitting down and beginning to write.

  8. Richard, that's a really good point. I think when you make yourself sit down and write even when you don't want to, it can be like turning on a rusty faucet and the writing will sometimes start flowing well. So I'm all for the discipline of doing that to get in the practice of writing. However, without adding to that deliberate effort to apply the craft and techniques learned, you can write for years and not really "improve." I know that's a subjective term, but I know people who journal for decades but they don't really try to "improve" their craft of writing. and there surely is a place for that kind of writing just to write and chronicle your life and thoughts. but if we, as writers, are trying to accomplish certain goals of proficiency and adeptness in crafting a novel to produce certain reactions, just sitting down and writing every day to achieve a goal of a word count is not the best way to get "there." That's why I advocate time to muse, mediate, and think unhurried about what you want to write and why, to get to the heart of your story, and perhaps write fewer words but ones that are really significant. I would just like to see more emphasis on that rather than on getting to a number of words a day.

  9. I emphasize that one should write in the style of the genre, and speed is a factor there. I wouldn't pose the question as "word count versus quality" -- you've already shot yourself down as a snob towards the longer, discursive epic fantasies and so on. Perhaps poetry is the extreme form of brevity (certain poets excepted); obviously it's not necessarily any better than a monster novel pumped out in a caffeine-fueled weekend, even if every word was delivered with the pain of childbirth. It really depends on the result.

    That said, I do happen to prefer dense, carefully worded writing *from me* though I enjoy lots more. Not so extreme as some -- I'm certainly not well-read in the likes of Joyce etc. -- but the prolix plot-driven fantasy novels my teen and tween kids prefer give me hives. But the authors writing for that market have to be productive. They do necessaily emphasize word count, they're expected to write 300,000-word books! Frankly I respect that they're making millions. It works for them and I hope they're happy. I would die trying to do that, like a turtle trying to sprint. In terms of what works for me, I'm simpatico with you: if I mange a few hundred words a day, I'm doing OK ... provided I like them. Twelve might be enough. My shot at commercial success and feeding my kids with all this, on the other hand....

    So, as in most things, balance is key. Obviously it doesn't matter how great or entertaining your ideas are if you don't get them down on paper. Meanwhile it is also possible to write huge volumes and say nothing. But the two are not exactly in tension. Some great writers were in fact paid by the word (Dickens etc.). Either way, supposing you're not just writing for yourself, you have to get your work in front of willing eyes and make them happy to be there; those readers not going to give a d**n whether you wrote slow or fast, just that you wrote at all.

  10. Good thoughts, Andrew. There's nothing wrong with writing long novels--I've written a number of them, my last being 165k words. So what I'm talking about here is how we might tend to focus on the number of words we write rather than the quality of the words. It's a trap we should want to avoid.

  11. I followed your link over from Rachel Aaron's guest post (which I needed to hear: http://bit.ly/we3IY6). I agree there needs to be a balance but I lean more toward your advice to mull over your ideas and let them gel to find the better ones that want to emerge. I tend to mull too long so I needed to hear Rachel's advice but when I tried NaNoWriMo this past Nov. to force my pace, I became hopelessly muddled. I feel that too much concern over words achieved is like running into a tunnel with Ys everywhere and quickly deciding which branch to follow until you become so hopelessly lost, you have to retrace your steps to find where you went wrong. Thanks for your blog.

  12. Cora, if you want to learn more, I'll be delving into these types of topics weekly, the entire year, with guest posts from people from all different sectors related to publishing and current stats. So be sure to subscribe to the blog and jump into the discussions at www.LiveWriteThrive.com!

  13. I too found your blog as a result of Rachel Aaron's post, and I do agree that word count can be a snare and a source of misery and insecurity, especially to those of us who are slower writers who like to edit as we go. I would like to improve my speed as I feel that I often become unnecessarily bogged down in trying to find the perfect words and lose the excitement and flow of telling the story, and I think Rachel's suggestion about quickly outlining a scene before writing it could be helpful to me. But as for actually measuring word count, I often wish I could turn it off and never see it again. It's more often a source of discouragement and despair for me than a motivational tool -- and I am writing under contract, often with a tight deadline, so that makes it even worse...

  14. Another one who found this from Rachel Aron's post! I think you both make excellent points and it works differently for everyone. I'm spending a lot of time on my novel but too often I'd get stuck on a paragraph and just give up. I like the idea of creating an outline and knowing exactly what's going on in the chapter. I also like to, after finishing a chapter or two, see how much my word count (and page count) has increased. But like R.J. Anderson above, if I see the word count while I'm in the MIDDLE of a scene, it gets discouraging. I'm going to take advice from both of you and see how it turns out. I will probably blog the results here: http://writeletsgetstarted.blogspot.ca/

  15. Add me to the list of one who found this post from Rachel Aron's post. I don't think the way we approach our daily work in front of the computer is an either/or process. I was not put off by Rachel's post because I'd like to be able to up my productivity each time I have my butt-in-chair. I wouldn't be able to hit the high numbers without doing the musing and the contemplating and the careful thought about my words that you advocate. So I took her triangle idea to heart (I'm so loosey-goosey creative that I can use a structured approach) as well as your wonderful words and between the two hope to up the quality as well as the word count I need to finish my novel, already 5-years in the making. Although I must admit I will probably not look at word count (I never do.) I know when I've had a good writing day.

  16. Thank you for this. I have been using something very much like Rachel Aron's method for years (planning out in advance not just scenes, but the entire book--I stumbled on this on my own) yet I am STILL a slow, slow writer. How slow? Some days I have a negative word count.

    I've learned that for me, focusing too much on word count is counter-productive. My goal is simply butt-in-chair, six days a week. And even on the days that my word count is minus whatever, I'm moving forward--because I am chiseling out the shape of my book, sharpening it and discarding dross. More is indeed sometimes said with less.