Why Word Count Might Just Be Overrated
Denise D. Young
Okay, so what if word counts just don’t matter as much as we think they do? What if metrics are nice, and they give us the warm fuzzies when we meet them, and they help us meet our deadlines, but maybe they’re way too overrated?
Because I kinda think they are.
This is something I’ve been pondering for a while now. A while back I drafted a now-shelved novella called Goblins and Grimoires. The characters’ story will eventually be told, but not at all in the way I attempted it.
Don’t get me wrong. Failure isn’t always bad. Usually, failure teaches us.
But when I wrote that draft, I was obsessed with word count. I basically NaNo’d it—wrote a draft of it in a month. Fast drafting, you might say.
Yeah. It was awful.
I mean, not even salvageable. That poor story needs a page-one rewrite.
Now, there are other stories I’ve written in a matter of weeks, and they turned out to be rich, wonderful, layered stories. So, what’s the difference?
Over at Writer Unboxed, Steven James touches on this very phenomenon in his article “From 2000 to 300—Why You’re Writing Too Much.” James writes
Odds are, you’re trying to write too many words a day.
You’ve probably heard that you should write a thousand words per day. Or two thousand. Or five. Or ten.
Or maybe you signed up for a program in which you (supposedly) write a novel in a month. But for whatever reason, you’re trying to hit an arbitrary “word count” each day and if you don’t hit it you end up feeling somehow disappointed in yourself.
I tried that routine for a while.
One day in ten hours I pumped out six thousand words and I felt way ahead. Amazing! So productive! If I could do that every day…
So then the next day I spend the same amount of time writing, and wrote exactly one word.
In ten hours.
Of course, I typed in more words, and then revised, deleted, rewrote, and so on, ending the day just one word further into the book.
That was the last time I tried to hit a certain word count. It was just too depressing and the ups and downs of good days and bad days wasn’t helping motivate me.
He goes on to note that writers are the only creative folks who seem to use such arbitrary metrics to “measure” creative productivity.
I’ve written stories in a night that emerged beautiful and fully formed, needing only minor revisions.
I’ve spent months drafting a novella, each word feeling grueling, but it ended up being one of the best things I ever wrote. If I’d forced myself to meet word count goals instead of allowing the story to unfold gradually, I might’ve ended up with a mess.
I am generally in favor of what I call “slow writing,” but I think a better term for it is “organic.”
Here’s the deal. Writing is hard and uncertain work. So, we want a recipe for success. Someone tells us if we write 1,000 words a day, we’ll be prolific and therefore successful. We figure out that if we write 1,667 words a day, we can pen a novel in a month. That’s a pretty tasty carrot to dangle in front of us. Who can resist?
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with word-count goals, but I think some of us do better with a more organic approach. As in, today I wrote 300 words. Yesterday I wrote 2,000. That’s just the nature of creativity.
My goal, instead, is to show up at the page. My goal is to work hard at my craft. My goal is to write thoughtfully and push myself to grow. I am notoriously bad at meeting word-count goals with any amount of consistency anyway, which is probably why they’re lousy for me in the long run.
So, yes, I’m going slow. And it seems to be working. So, yes, I’m allowing my stories to unfold at a more natural pace, and I’m emerging with better first drafts.
I think people worry if they allow word count goals to fall by the wayside, they’ll slip into laziness, and that is a risk, to be sure.
But what if we just change the metric? What if we vow to show up at the page every day and work hard? That might take us further than writing 2,000 words in the wrong direction.
If word count goals work for you, please, stick with them. I just think we need to realize, as writers, that word counts aren’t the only measure that matters.
What about you? Do you use word counts to track your writing progress? What other ways are there of keeping track of our creative processes?