19 February 2013

The Tyranny of the Word Count

That title got your interest, didn't it? In fact, I'm not as anti-word-count as it implies. Indeed, I'm feeling pretty chuffed with myself right now because I clocked up 1,000 words of my new novel yesterday afternoon. But then again, I bet many of you are saying, So what? I do that and more every day. I'm not a dilettante  I'm a professional writer and achieving a body of work needs words - large quantities of them all day every day. And on time. And delivered promptly. 

Take a look at this article in The Spectator. Reading it made me wish (for the first and last time)to be Ernest Hemingway. 

Yes, I do understand the point of word-counting. But being a slave to it is not for me. Building words is mechanics. It's the opposite that is more important. There is no story/novel/essay that can't be improved by cutting, although I also believe there is a point at which the cut any more would be counter-productive. The skill is finding exactly where that point is. And that's why, although I'm not very good at it, I love the discipline of writing flash fiction. I love finding out just how much cutting enhances a piece of fiction - and when it's time to stop. And why I also prefer writing second and subsequent drafts. To me, visiting my dentist is often more alluring than writing that first raw draft.

I do think that we fiction writers can become slaves to word-count tyranny. This happens when the feeling we have to write 1,000 words or more day in, day out for months on end or we're not 'proper writers'. The again,  don't think I'm ordering you not to build up a body of work on a regular basis. If you can write 1,000 words plus every day, then do it. If your writing retains its freshness and vibrancy, then why not? And if the time you spend furiously writing passes in a blink and you don't don't feel jaded at the end of a day toiling at the screen-face, then by all means carry on. But...if it becomes a duty and a slog and the only reason you're busting a gut is because you've been told you must write every day to call yourself a writer, then it becomes an albatross around your neck. (Having said that, when an editor or anyone else who's commissioned you asks you to submit by x,y or z, then of course you must.)

I'm currently writing that raw first draft. That's the time when my words should flow quickly because I'm basically slapping them down and paying less attention to grammar and punctuation. It's when I don't check facts over-assiduously but make a note to check in the next and subsequent drafts. At this stage I am more concerned with getting the overall shape of the narrative and keeping up the momentum rather than adding richness, detail and imagery. But I refuse to beat myself up if the words don't always come. And many days my cursor sits winking at me with more than a glint of malevolence. That's when I kill it with the off-switch. (having saved first, of course.)

I tend to write novels of 100,000 words. (Historical fiction can be longer than the norm.) So far I have got 20,000 words on file. So yes, I know how many words I'm achieving. And I'm honest enough to say that some days I feel angry with myself for not getting on with it. Then again, I know there will be days when I'd rather do anything than write, when I'm tired, when I'm down or had bad news and when I'm not feeling so well. Or when those unexpected visitors 'pop' round. The word-count slaves among you will tell me that people in employment generally have to work even if they don't feel like it or they'd be out of a job and I'm not stupid enough to argue with that. I agree, too, that I'm fortunate. These days, I haven't a paid job nor have I any contract to fulfil. My family won't go without shoes if I don't get out of bed in the mornings. Nor do I have to write. It's all about me these days. Quite frankly, no-one else gives a hoot whether I write or not.

So, although I feel proud of myself when I've achieved a high word count, I don't beat myself up if I don't. After all, some days I can delete a thousand words in a day when I get to the second draft. So once that first draft is up, what does it matter how long it took me (within reason?) I will do it eventually. I always do.*ignores 3 unfinished manuscripts lurking on my hard drive*  To me, quality is more important than quantity. I'm not saying I achieve that high quality. No-one writes as well as they would like, me especially. But I would rather end up with a reasonably polished piece of work of 300 words in a week I'm reasonably happy about than 10,000 words of tedious tosh.

And don't get me started on NaNoWriMo. I'm all for an incentive to get on with it but ending up feeling a failure if you fall by the wayside and crow (and be showered with praise, for heaven's sake) when you achieve your word count on time, then no thanks.  To me, it puts too much emphasis on quantity  Take time to smell the coffee, sniff the roses and listen to the wind in the poplars.  And please stop tweeting and blogging about the blooming thing every November. Talk amongst yourselves if you must but count me out. (do you see what I did there?)


  1. I enjoy writing quality instead quantity. Yes, I write a rough draft then I work back through tightening it up before moving on to the next part. I then read through the last two chapters I've written, and tighten up again before moving on to write the next chapter. Not only am I cutting and polishing as I go, I'm improving the story too. I work the same with my short stories. I like my work to develop as new ideas come to me as I reread my work. I like to start my morning by read my work aloud into a digital recorder then play it back and listen to how it sound. While reading it aloud I changes words and make improvements.

    I may never be a fast writer, churning out large numbers of books in a short time, but that wasn't my aim when I started writing. I've always wanted my work to stand out from the crowd because of it quality.

  2. I really enjoyed this post and also the Spectator article. Many thanks for all these wise words.
    This week I have been enjoying reading a first draft and have especially relished deleting, rather than adding, words. If I were interested in calculation, which is not the case, I would have a lovely fat negative result for this week's writing. And yet I've enjoyed it as much, if not more, than the weeks in which I might have a tally of thousands of words.
    I never have any accurate idea of the amount I write, just as I have no idea of any other numbers. I've always found words more interesting. As long as I have achieved something of value with my writing every day, I'm very happy.

  3. A really interesting post and apt title! I used to measure my daily progress by my wordcount and it is easy to get obsessive. I'm more relaxed now I'm older (and write a lot more slowly!) but what I like about being able to indie publish (having been trad pubbed most of my life) is that you are not constrained by word count. You decide, and are not dictated to by "rules" (whose? where did they come from?) that a blockbuster must be 100,000 plus, a novel at least 90,000, a novella 20,000 etc. You can jiggle the numbers. Why does a short story have to be 2000 words or 4000 words? Like you, I love flash fiction and the challenge of 1000 words (my favourite and natural length) or even 100. Great topic!