Wordcount – an overrated measure of progress?

As writers it is natural that we look for some measure of our progress, day to day, when it comes to the work of writing. And make no mistake, writing is work. Yes, it’s inspiration also. But in truth, most things worth doing require some element of inspiration. And they also all require work, the uninspired, often mundane act of placing one brick on top of another until the wall is built, and the great palace of the imagination completed.

So it seems like common sense to use a wordcount as a measure of work done on a piece of writing. From one perspective the word is the basic building block of writing, the brick from which we build our walls. It’s a common sense assumption popularised by the pulp writing ethos where words written literaly equated to pennies earned, and by participatory writing programmes like NaNoWriMo where just getting the words down on paper is the goal. I’ve grown up as a writer with the pulp ethos, and will continue to fail at NaNoWriMo as long as my fingers are able to type, but increasingly I wonder if wordcount is a counterproductive way of measuring our progress as writers.

In fiction at least, it is not the word that is the basic building block, but the scene. When I’m writing well, I’m not thinking about how many words I’m putting down on paper, any more than a draughtsman counts the number of strokes in a drawing. I’m thinking about what I need to do to make the scene at hand live and breathe. What do I need to say about the location? What narrative information do I need leading in to and out of the scene? What do the characters want, and what is going to change for them as the scene turns? Beat by beat the scene plays out on paper, and scene by scene the story is built.

Now I can sit down and write two thousand words and not write a single scene. Alternatively, I might spend the same amount of time and only write two lines of dialogue, but if they are two lines that turn a pivotal scene and bring the sory to life, I’ve made more progress. Or in the time taken to write that two thousand words, I might just sit and let my imagination flow and discover a wonderful new level of depth in one of my characters which I then capture in two hundred words and again, though the wordcount is less, the progress is greater.

Wordcount satisfies our most literal need to feel we have made progress with the work of writing fiction. But in satisfying that need, in pushing through to some arbitrary wordcount it is easy to neglect the space that the imagination needs to do the real work of creating a rich and meaningful story.

As alternatives to a wordcount I use two things. The first is a scene count. If I write a full scene in a sitting, including dialogue, description etc ec then I am happy. Alternatively, I like to put aside a block of time, usualy two hours, during whch I will work on the story. I might write three thousand words, or I might find the deep motivation of a character, or might just draw a little doodle. Its amazing how many times the doodle ends up as something more important than the three thousand words!

The imagination works in mysterious ways, and it’s wonders are not always best measured by counting words.

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4 thoughts on “Wordcount – an overrated measure of progress?”

  1. I agree with you, Damien. It’s all too easy to be a slave to the word count. That said, I do count words myself. It’s an easy way to track progress … but I think the key word here is ‘track’. When I’m rewriting, the word count frequently goes down. This is as satisfying as seeing it go up when I’m composing. Fewer words means (I hope) a sharper, tighter MS. Counting can have a purely practical, commercial function too. If you’re ghost-writing a novel to a detailed outline, with a specified final word-count in mind and a really tight deadline, it’s imperative you keep tabs on things. That said, when the creative juices are flowing, I do believe word count should be the last thing on your mind!

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  2. I find it interesting that I have just read this. I am engaged in an exercise with a friend where we mimic NaNoWriMo in Feb – I’ve been calling it FebWri. What I’ve discovered is that a deadline target of X has been a certain way of killing off my imagination. Having said that when I am not focused on word count then writing is that much easier and I can easily set down a few thousand words in an evening.

    I’ve been listening to authors speak about the craft and, on this topic, it appears there are two camps: those that are happy with a high word count and those that aren’t bothered. I think it boils down to what works for you.

    It’s interesting that the most strident advocates of word-count appear to be those people who are quite prolific and I wonder what aspects of their own psychology play a part in that.

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