Why Count Words

It’s been about two weeks since the QWC Rabbit Hole, and you’re still reading blog posts that I drafted during the manic two-and-bit days of writing. This, it should be noted, is quite by design – I knew I was heading down to Melbourne, knew that the Continuum weekend wouldn’t give me enough time to write anything for the week that followed, and I knew that one of these days I wanted to get sufficiently ahead of the blog that I could have some posts in reserve.

One of the more interesting conversations I had during the rabbit hole was with a participant who didn’t quite understand why we counted words. She was writing…well, to be honest, I don’t really know, but I’m guessing it was memoir…and the concept of hitting a set number of words every hour/day, even the concept of writing 30,000 words in a weekend, was utterly alien to her. We ended up discussing it during a tea break, after expressing our mutual distrust of the instant coffee on offer.

“Why do it?” she said. “What’s the point? Surely they need to be good words.”

Me, I’m all about the word-count as a metric. It comes with the territory when you’re writing short stories, and there are limits to how many words you can write before things become, well, difficult to sell. Also, short fiction writers tend to get paid by the word, so you can do all sorts of interesting “can I buy food with this story when it sells” mathematics when you’re tracking the number of words.

Further, I like the way in which word-counts render things far less complicated. A novel of a hundred thousand words is far more daunting than the knowledge that I’ve got to write a chapter of five thousand, even if that chapter ends up being a little over or under. Planning for scenes of a thousand words to two-thousand words gives me something to plan for every day.

But the real reason I like word-count as a metric is even simpler than all that: it forces me to keep moving forward.

I’m a rewrite as a I go kind of writer, which has its advantages and drawbacks, and there’s plenty of times when the desire to finish 2,000 words a day is the only thing that keeps me producing the next paragraph rather than editing. It may be an arbitrary measure, but the 2k goal means I have a benchmark for I’ve done a good day’s work and I’m sufficiently ahead that the manuscript can handle a little revision. The desire to hit 2K keeps me from deleting a thousand-word scene just ’cause I think of something better. It forces me to live with the words for a while, to see whether they’re really as bad as I think.

I’ll admit it’s kind of arbitrary. As a metric, wordcount means nothing, which is why I frequently used other metrics as a back-up. You know, in the old days, when I spent more time writing and panicking about writing than I do now.

I understand people who a baffled by word-count, just as I understand that there are people in the world who enjoy football. I don’t share their preferences and I’m utterly baffled by their affection for the game, but I don’t really hold it against them. Nor, to be honest, do I spend that much time pondering what causes them to go out and watch people they don’t know run up and down a field.

Writing is a weird thing. Idiosyncratic, personal, and utterly without rules. There’s no point where you really look at something and say “right, done.” There’s no measure that will tell you you’ve done a good days work, ’cause a good day’s work is so variable that such a measure would be useless.

This used to drive me crazy. Really, really crazy. I used to beat myself up constantly for not getting enough done.

Word-count was the thing that let me know how to stop. It’s the thing that lets me think, yeah, I’ve done good today.

‘Cause the quality of the words may vary, and it may take me longer than I think to get to the end of a story, but in the end it’ll all work out as long as I keep showing up and piling words on top of each other.

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