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Thoughts on Counting Words

You know what I see most of in the writers’ blogs that I read? Posts about word-count, that’s what. And recently, I’ve found myself wondering if people aren’t getting a little too hung-up on counting their words and using them as a means of tracking their novel’s progress, or as a marker of achievement.  

Now, before you go shouting and throwing things at me, let me ‘splain. 

I know that word-count can be useful for all sorts of reasons, like: 

  1. It makes us feel productive, or not, as the case may be.
  2. It can be useful as a goal.
  3. It reassures us that we are X percent of our way through writing our WIP. 


While I’m just like everyone else in using word-count to reassure me that I’m a productive, worthwhile person, and that I’m Making Progress on my WIP, the further along this writerly road I travel, the more I’m using the counting of the words for different purposes. 


Well, for starters, going back to the points on the above list: 

  1. We might have written so many thousand words at any given point, but equally, they might be so many thousand words of utter crap written just for the sake of seeing the wc meter jump, and what’s the point in that? The words we write need to be useful. They might not be the final perfect version – hell, when are they ever? – but they need to be moving the story along in a way that is useful to us, whether it’s crafting the perfect one liner, or free-writing to find out more about a character.

Also, a whole day spent perfecting one line is just as productive as a day spend writing 10,000 words; it’s all a matter of what you need at any given time, and how your writing process works. 

  1. You might have achieved your day’s/week’s goal, but, well ... see a) above.

Also, how about setting a different goal? Something like – “polish the scene I wrote yesterday until I’m happy with it,” or, “work up a scene to show the relationship between characters,” or “complete the chapter I began last time.” And yes, you might still end up with a craptastic chapter or scene, but it seems a more sensible goal to me than simply chasing word-count as you’ve shaped your writing session to a purpose. 

  1. See a) and b) above.

Also, how about thinking of your WIP in terms of scenes instead of number of words, so you know that by the time you reach this big kissy scene, or that big battle, you should be about half way through, for example? 

Now, before you say anything, yes, I do still do a word-count check from time to time, but these days, it’s mainly for these reasons: 

  • To ensure that my chapter lengths aren’t varying too widely from one another. 
  • For keeping an eye on the pacing of my novel arc. Which is to say, I know that by around the 20-25% mark, broadly speaking, I need to have a Significant Event that changes things in a big way for the MC(s); that around the 75% mark, I’ll need a big switch-on-a-switch which makes everything look very bleak for the MC(s). If I have a good idea of the total word-count I’m aiming for, then I can check that I’m on track in terms of the plot arc.
  • To rein myself in from being too wordy. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from reading Young Adult fiction is economy with words. As a writer with a tendency toward pretty, flowery prose, I’m constantly checking myself and ensuring I’m not wasting word-count on fluff and purple prose. 

Speaking for myself, I know I feel a whole lot better about a writing session that has produced a scene I’m happy with than I am about one spent producing a gazillion words so that my wc rockets, but that I know (if I’m honest) are going to be horrible when I look at them again.  

Besides, I may have written 37,000 words (or whatever) to date, but when I come to revise this draft of my WIP, those 37,000 words will be hacked and slashed, sometimes worked up, and sometimes deleted wholesale.  

What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s a mistake to get too hung up on counting words for counting words’ sake. There are more constructive writing targets to set yourself, and more useful ways of looking at the words you’ve set down. 

You can shout at me and throw things now, if you like ..... 


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 25th, 2012 01:46 pm (UTC)
Shout and throw things at you? Never! ;)

I must admit, I enjoy keeping track of word counts, but I'm not the type who relies on them like a crutch. My writing progress journal is just as likely to list when I revise and type as well as when I write words. Although I hope to write more this year than I did the previous one, and keep track of how much I write daily as a result--both the words that stay and the words that end up trashed--needing to write "x" amount of words is not what's typically seen in my planner. (For example, today's slot says, "Finish chapter 20.")

Which doesn't mean I never have goals that say, "Write 'x' amount of words." I do. But that's usually when I need to kick myself back into gear after a writing slump. Having something more tangible to reach like a word count than something more nebulous like a scene-ender seems to make it easier to motivate me, in those cases. I may not reach the planned word count, and the words I do manage to write could very easily be trashed, but trying to reach it helps make writing a habit again, and that's the most important thing to me.

Plus, blogging about word counts is just plain fun, so while I agree with your points, I think there's a chance that a lot of writers who seem to be "hung up" on words counts are, in fact, not. :)
Jan. 25th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC)
Phew! I'm so very glad you don't want to throw things at me!

And can I just say "Wow!" ? You have a writing progress journal! That's so organised!

I do definitely agree with you that whatever motivates us to get those words written is what's most important. Whether it's watching the wc jump, or bribes of chocolate or episodes of "Buffy"!

Hmmm ... I can see too that using wc as a goal when you need digging out of a writing slump could be useful, and also make more sense than a scene goal if you're not actually in the middle of something at the time, or if the 'something' you were working on has sagged.

It would be interesting to know if your suspicion is right and a lot of writers aren't actually "hung up" on the old word-countage after all.

Chatting about writing process is always fun :O)

Good luck with finishing chapter 20 today, btw ;O)
Jan. 25th, 2012 05:45 pm (UTC)
I've been keeping a writing progress journal for a few years now. It's a great way to keep track of my projects and see exactly how productive I am each day!

Chatting about the writing process is definitely fun...and too easy of a way to procrastinate from actual writing, which I should be doing right now, haha!

Thanks for the luck, btw! Good luck yourself with whatever goals you have today. :)
Jan. 25th, 2012 03:16 pm (UTC)
I agree with you Jenny--a word count isn't worth a hill of beans during the actual creation process. If I've ended a day with a 3K word count, you can be sure that I actually wrote about 4K and slashed. And sometimes I spend a whole day writing only to end up with fewer words than I had when I started. THIS is a good thing, for me anyway. I tend to run long*.

For me, word count only really counts after I'm fininshed with draft one. I need to know how much I will need to cut to make it a publishable length (see * above!) So my word counts days usually entain how much I've cut, not added.
Jan. 26th, 2012 08:01 am (UTC)
Lol! I love your expression "not worth a hill of beans". And yes, minus counts certainly can reflect a healthy day's work! And somnetimes a really satisfying one.

Like you, I tend to run long (i.e. waffle), so I have to keep an eye on the w/c as one of the ways of reining myself in.

Jan. 25th, 2012 04:56 pm (UTC)
I do keep a note of wordcount (it's important to know how long the book is, after all), but I don't set goals for it.

I set myself scene completion goals instead, which seems to work much better for me.
Jan. 26th, 2012 08:04 am (UTC)
I agree on both counts. I do keep an overall check on my w/c for a number of reasons, but one is certainly to make sure I'm not getting carried away with myself.

I set scene goals more often than not. It's SO frustrating if I have to break off for the day without reaching the end of the scene when it's comeplte in my head, as I like to get it all down in one go.
Jan. 25th, 2012 05:29 pm (UTC)
I find I rely on page count much more than word count... which may prove this is all just a highly subjective way to tell ourselves we've made progress, as a "page" isn't an official measure of length anywhere as far as I know ;)
Jan. 26th, 2012 08:04 am (UTC)
Whatever keeps us motivated and writing, I reckon.
Jan. 25th, 2012 05:51 pm (UTC)
I don't set daily word count goals. The only time I did it was for NANO and I HATED it. It made me anxious to always check my word count. I set scene goals: write two to three scenes a week. And those scenes are as long as I think they should be. I've always wondered how people can say, "I'm writing a 1500 word scene today." I write until I think the scene is complete. Same with my story. I use however many words I need to tell the story. Again, it perplexes me when people say, "I'm going to write a 75,000 novel." Really? Hmmm? What if the story only needs 60,000 words...or it needs 85,000 words? Then what?

I report my weekly word count, so I know something happened that week...but I'm more interested in WHAT I wrote, now HOW MANY words I wrote.
Jan. 26th, 2012 08:10 am (UTC)
I completely agree on all counts.

A couple of summers ago, I wrote the first draft of a novel in 5 weeks and HATED it! I haven't looked at it since. I was using w/c as one of my measures of progress, as I only had a finite number of weeks in which to get the draft done. It proved to me absolutely that NANO wouldn't work for me. Like you, I'm more concerned with the quality of what I'm writing than the quantity.

I find it useful to have a loose total w/c goal in mind for the complete draft, as a means of keeping myself on track and of checking my pacing, but it's always negotiable. As you say, whatever the book requires (within reason!)
Jan. 26th, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
Exactly. I aim for 50,000-60,000 words for a story. Having an idea in mind is good, it keeps you on track. Absolutes, though? Eeeeh.
Jan. 25th, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC)
I would never throw things at you. I'm more about scenes than word count. But at the end word count is also important.

I think that for goals I will always prefer the scene planning.
Jan. 26th, 2012 08:12 am (UTC)
Thank you, I'm so relieved you don't want to throw things!

It seems more people commenting here use scene goals over w/c goals, though I agree that w/c is important for some things, like making sure I'm not getting too waffly (as I'm inclined to).
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Jan. 26th, 2012 08:16 am (UTC)
Ha! Yes, sometimes chopping words out can be as constructive and satisfying as writing them.

I tend to have in mind the total w/c length I'm shooting for (though it's always negotiable depending what the story requires, within reason). It's a useful way of keeping an eye on my pacing, and of reining in my tendancy to waffle.

One of the main things I've learned from reading YA fiction is economy of words. Even now, a part of me quakes at the thought of only having 45-60K words to use to tell the story. Then I remember bow powerful some of the shorter books I've read have been. I've always marvelled at Francesca Lia Block's ability to tell an entire, complex, lyrical story in a tiny number of words.
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Jan. 30th, 2012 11:35 am (UTC)
Absolutely! And I know what you mean about books that could do with a damn good hack and slash! In the adult market as well as YA. I wonder if the authors themselves ever go back to them once they're in print and think the same ...
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )