The Density of Words

At anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 words or more the average commercially published novel might seem like a huge space to fill. I know the idea of creating that many words is often intimidating to my writing students, who may never have written more than 2-3 thousand words on one story in the past. But once you start to work at the novel length, you quickly begin to realise that even with 150,000 words to fill, you don’t have words to burn.

Once you establish the scene structure of your story, the style and structure of your chapters, and the information on character, setting and action you need to give the reader to support the story, there really should not be much dead space on any given page of your novel. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

(The last time I posted this on Twitter I got a tweet back from @Neilhimself with the addendum “or be funny” which also works for me.)

NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise. It’s a great way to demonstrate to yourself that you *can* find the time to write around all other commitments. And it’s great fun. But. Whether you achieve the 50,000 words in that month or not, I would suggest that 50,000 words a month is not a realistic writing goal for any writer.

Can you write 50,000 words in a month? Yes. But they will most likely fail Kurt Vonnegut’s and Neil Gaiman’s advice. Can some writers write 50,000 *good* words in a month? Yes. But only under exceptional circumstances, in an established style they can produce effectively at that speed. Do some professional writers produce and publish 50,000 *bad* words a month? Yes. But do you really want to be one of those writers?

I’m personally comfortable producing around 5000 words of fiction a week, or around 20,000 a month. That’s about what I’ve been doing every month for the last three years. At that speed my first draft is 80% of where I want it to be. Any faster and that dips radically to 50% or less. Any faster for me would certainly not be better.

What rate of wordage do you find most productive?

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

2 thoughts on “The Density of Words

  1. I get intimidated by novel writing. I’m more comfortable with a short story. I seem to be able to forsee and write a beginning, middle and end which makes sense easier in that constricted format. Whereas when I know I have, say 120,000 words to juggle, I easily get lost in the compiling of them.
    However, the opposite side of the coin has appeared on a novella I’m trying to finish at the moment. It should be about 40,000 words (that is what the publisher is looking for) but I’m at 44,751 at present and still not ready to conclude it. *sigh*
    Pruning it and a second draft re-write will chop some of it down but I don’t want to compromise the tale by cutting things out that are relevant.
    As you know, I’m a ‘blurter’ i.e. I might write 3-4k today but nothing over the next few days until I get the ‘urge’ again.
    The words I write aren’t dense but the writer certainly is, hehe :)


  2. I’m appalled at my own crummy word-production rate, but it’s so much better than it used to be. I spent nine years thinking of myself as a writer, but only producing 35,000 or so words a year. So, I sat down in disgust at the end of a 35,000 word year and asked what would make me happier, and how could I achieve it. Doubling my word count would make me happy, I decided. A little math showed me that I could double my word count if I did only 200 words a day, but didn’t miss any days. I haven’t missed a day since November of 1999, and, of course, most days I’m over 200.



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