Monday, November 16, 2009

Words, words, words...

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.

Every writer is told (either by contract or by reading publishers' guidelines) approximately how many words they need to write. That number, for some, sits out at the end of the journey with a large beacon shining up into the sky. "Here I am!" it says, "Come closer. Come to the light...". Some writers fixate on that magic number and worry only about getting closer and not about the quality of the words that are getting them there. Other writers tend to ignore the beacon and concentrate more on the quality of their steps, even if they're baby-sized.

The questions that many of us get constantly asked play into this fixation. Right after we get asked "Did you write today?" will often-times be the question "How much?". These are times I want to throw something heavy at the well-meaning questioner. Bless their hearts, but I'll tell you if I want. I'll give details if I want. Saying "I wrote 3,000 words today" to a non-writer is somewhat pointless; they don't know how long it took or if that number is significant - to you or to your manuscript.

I don't like fixating on word counts, but it seems to be unavoidable. I know where my total should be and given where I am in the plot I should be around X. Am I way over? Am I way under? At the end of every writing session I check to see how many words I've written. Some days the total is small; but they're good words. Some days the total is larger and I'm not as pleased with them.

I've tried to let the word count leave the front of my brain and just let my characters move through their plot lines; but it's tricky. For the sake of my sanity ( and the feeling I have some control) I like to incorporate as much logic as possible into my writing process and I'm afraid if I just let it go then my story will careen out of control and I'll end up not only with a tome that makes Gone With the Wind look like a light afternoon read; but also a manuscript that will demand months of editing and purging. The other fear is that I'll finish and realize I need to add countless chapters to make the manuscript the length its plots and subplots demand.

How often do you look at your word count? Do you think (like me) by this point I should be at this number, by this point I should be at that number? Or do you just let the words fly and worry about the actual count once you've come to the end?


  1. This is an interesting topic, Elspeth. I would think that ominous word count could very possibly drive one crazy! And I would also assume that finding some kind of truce with that *number* would be an ongoing challenge!

  2. I don't usually concern myself with word count until I'm what feels about half way through writing the story. Then I'll check and see how I'm doing, knowing most pubs want at least 60K words to consider it a "novel" not a novella or novellete. I DO, however, usually make it a point to write at least 2K words a day, whether it be in a WIP, or blog posts, articles, whatever - just to keep honing the craft. When I'm in the blessed "zone" where a book is jumping out of my head faster than I can key, it's more like 5-6K words a day (and night, lol)

    Marvin D Wilson

  3. From having written a few manuscripts, I know that my first drafts come in somewhere between 75,000-85,000 words. I'm comfortable with that. So I know if I'm not starting to wrap up a few minor subplots by 50,000 words I better kick it in gear. I actually have a word count goal every day I write so I do check that. For me this works, but it doesn't work for every writer. We all have our tricks for getting the words on the page.

  4. I usually just like to have a timed writing goal instead of a word count writing goal. Or else I give myself a really low word count goal that I know I will meet.

    I do keep half an eye on the word counter as I go so that I'm not waaaay off at the end of the first draft. I'm frequently 10,000 words off, though.


  5. Crystal; For me, it's negotiating the truce that's the challenge!

    Old Silly; I do wish I could write high numbers like yourself. I just don't seem to be able to; your zone must be zonier than mine.

    Carol; It does seem to be a very individual choice for each writer. I think we seem to work with similar methods.

    Elizabeth; I'm trying to stay away from timed writing or count goals and set my markers at getting to a certain point in the plot or writing a particular scene. I need the feeling of "that's done".

  6. When I'm in writing mode, I set daily word count quotas, and I'll check frequently. When I've hit my number, I've been known to get up from my computer in the middle of a sentence!


  7. I pay almost no attention to word counts with exception of the grand total…as in not to exceed. I used to be in love with 100K as a total making for a good story. That still works, but I now think that might be a bit long. So, I’m aiming for more in the 85k arena. It makes me write tighter and cleaner. But, day-to-day, where am I now??? Never pay much attention to it. I get done what I get done. Some days more, some days less.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  8. Elspeth - As always, you give us much to think about. I have to admit that I don't worry in the least bit about word count. The first thing I do is write the story. Then, as I go back and edit and so on, I pay a little attention to word count. If I see that it's low, I try to think of which characters need development, or which events I can add to, etc.. I don't let the number of words dictate my stories. I admit, that means my mysteries are not long. Still, I get too stressed if I think about word count at first. So I don't.

  9. Galen; I swear this laid-back attitude is one of the reasons you moved to New Mexico. It's a healthy one to have!

    Margot; I don't know if I'm giving anything for anyone to think about, a great deal of the times these posts are just what I'M thinking about! I'm going to see if I can take a page from you and just write the story. This will take courage...

  10. When I wrote my first draft, my goal was 1000 words per day. Most days I exceeded it handily. Other days life, etc. got in the way. Now that I am working on a total rewrite, my pace is considerably slower so far. I'm not sweating it yet. I'm happy to be writing, and I'm really working on the craft in this go round. Still, I'm hoping that I will find my stride with it.

    On a tangent, I had two other projects that both ground to a halt at 30-35K. It seems to be my wall. If I can get through that, then it isn't too long before I start to worry that I can't wrap things up quickly enough. This whole word count thing would be much easier if I wrote from beginning to end, but that doesn't fit with my creative style.

  11. I try not to look at Word's word count in the bottom left corner (any ideas how to turn it off?) but its there telling me where I am at...

  12. abouttothunder; Thanks for dropping by! I'd think if you're happy with your pace then it's the right one for you. I understand about the wall - mine seems to come much earlier.

    Carolyn; I don't write in Word, I work on a Mac. My program can have the count disappear, but I seem to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

  13. I look at word count because I know how high that count has to be by the contractual deadline. On the other hand, I am also aware that the number I have at the end of the first draft will go both up and down as I edit it many times.

    Straight From Hel

  14. Helen; That's exactly my point; it DOES matter. There has to be so many words, sometimes by a specific date. This is why I have trouble just letting the process fly, I seem to need to know how far along the road I am, even though right now I'm not working on a deadline.

  15. I spent a weekend at a writing retreat and thought a lot about word count, even to the point of documenting how long I wrote and the word count of each session. It was exactly what I needed to convince myself (and also the hubby) that I need to shut the door of my writing room and be free of interruptions for at least two hours per session. I don't track word count that obsessively day to day, although I have an overall goal of 80,000 words.

  16. I am forever looking at word count! I know what the rules of thumb are for length in my genre (mystery) and each word closer to the minimum suggested word count makes me smile a bit more.

    Cheers, Jill
    "Blood and Groom" is now available!

  17. I keep up with the word count but only because I find it encouraging that I'm making progress - whether the daily count is high or low.

  18. Patricia; I do hope your retreat was successful; I can't imagine being able to write without a closed door.

    Jill; I like your attitude, each word is one word closer.

    Jane; Anything is progress isn't it?

  19. My old laptop had an old word-pro program. It didn't do word count so I rarely checked it.

    New laptop & program. Word count is right there on the main page. Sometimes smiling at me, sometimes laughing, sometimes yelling. But... I'm usually able to ignore it. I generally look at it at the end of the writing session, but that's about it.

  20. I obsess over word count. I wish I wouldn't. But I do write every day, so I need to give myself that.

    When you get minute, Elspeth, visit me and comment on which "prize" you would like - oh and email me your address. You won 1st on my giveaway.

  21. I always have a general idea where I am in total wordcount, but don't set a word count goal in daily writing. Some days might only produce one or two effective pages, and others countless. I guess it's the nature of the craft.

  22. Jemi; I usually wait until the end of the session, but I can't seem to stop myself from looking!

    Journaling Woman; A fellow obsessor; hurrah! I won???? Hurrah again!

    Joanne; I try not to set daily word count goals. It's a tricky game to play.

  23. I go by pages more than word count...but then I calculate word count every day or two for my word count widget on my blog.

  24. Word count matters, but I like to get that first draft done before worrying about it too much, you can add, you can take away. We are the architects, after all.

  25. You can turn off the page count in Word 2007 for Windows by right-clicking on the lower left corner, where the page count appears. A list should show up where you can select what you do and don't want to display there.

    (In a previous life, I was a Word Whisperer.)


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