The Word Count Myth

I’ve noticed a trend lately that emphasizes using word count as a means of indicating that a person is a truly dedicated writer.  The higher the word count, the more dedicated.  The lower the word count, the less.  No word count?  Proof of the poseur.

Shake It Off

According to my computer, the paragraph above is forty-five words long.  By my estimate, I typed at least two hundred words as I sought the right terms, the right cadence, the best way to get my point across.

There was an entirely false start, where I talked about how last week my hands actually ached for days because I’d done so much typing as I both finished off a short story and continued writing on Wolf’s Search (aka Firekeeper Seven), my latest novel-length project —  not to mention typing e-mail, blog posts, and keeping a presence on social media.

High word count is not an indication of a better writer, a more dedicated writer, or a more inspired writer.  It can be all of those, but it can also be an indication of a weaker writer who doesn’t care about the quality of the prose being produced, of a wordy writer who uses ten “meh” words rather than searching for the two with more punch, or of the uninspired writer who describes a banquet, or an item of clothing, or a bit of landscape just to be doing something.

Do I keep track of my word count?  Absolutely, but daily, not each session and certainly not, as one enthusiast on Twitter encouraged writers to do, every half hour — checking back in at the end of that time to share their success as proof of their commitment to the craft.

At the end of each writing day, I mark down the word count for that day.  At the end of the week, I subtract the total from the total of the previous week, giving me a sense of what I completed.  However, I do this with the awareness that word count is only a very general measure.  The next week I might cut numerous paragraphs because I’ve found a better, stronger approach.  Or tighten down sentences.

Yes.  Horror upon horror.  I might lose words.

If keeping track of your word count encourages you, by all means, do it.  However, don’t let the current fad for equating high word count with “winning” make you feel like a loser.  Writing isn’t a competition.  It’s an art.

Leonardo da Vinci completed very few paintings, but no one would ever say he wasn’t a “real” painter.  Think about it!

6 Responses to “The Word Count Myth”

  1. James Mendur Says:

    The “many ways up the mountain” analogy works well here. Some need the spirit of competition to push ahead. Some craft their words slowly. Some follow one path, realize the other path is better, and backtrack to take the better path. As long as you get to a finished story in the end, it’s all good.

    One author, who described his process WHILE he was writing a book, finished the book, read it through, then cut an entire section of several thousand words because it was an unnecessary loop that accomplished nothing useful in the story. (Characters went somewhere, didn’t find anything to help them solve the mystery, and came back.)

    Another author writes about meals in great detail, and it’s become a sort of hallmark in his writing. (I tihnk he overdoes it, sometimes, and at least one of his novels could have been a novella, but it’s always interesting to see those little touches.)

    As a hobby writer, I’m still learning how to write. I tend to write too lean (a habit I picked up from years of flash fiction writing), so I’ve been paying attention to descriptive paragraphs in the books I’ve been reading, figuring out how to add that to my work. To use the mountain analogy, I think I’m a person who races up the mountain, planting surveyor stakes until I find the top … then I go back to the bottom of the mountain and walk up it more slowly, enjoying the view and building the path that the reader can follow.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Interesting comparison. The only thing I find unsettling is the desire to make other writers feel inadequate. There is a “my mountain, my path only” mindset that, as an experienced writer who knows that no two writers have the same work habits I find makes me sad.

      • Forest Wells Says:

        Those actually just make me straight up mad. I get tired of “oh it works for me, so it’ll work for you.” Uhm, no. I could just imagine all the NFL Quarterbacks looking at how Philip Rivers holds the ball, and thinking that just based on that, he’d never make it in the NFL.

        Few who have seen him play would question his skill. (His team is another question that could take weeks to argue).

        I do suggest writers try multiple methods, and even retry them at times just to make sure things haven’t changed. But in the end, what matters is that each one find their own way. So I’ll admit, my lips start curling any time someone says their method is the best way to write.

  2. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    As a reader, more words definitely does not equal better. I’ll skip over paragraphs or whole pages if the writer is going on and on about something that doesn’t feel important to the story.
    I think if a writer wants to challenge themselves, see how *few* words they can use to get the point across.
    Of course, the only writing I do is my blog and that winds up being whatever falls out of my head through my fingers. I’m honestly (and happily) surprised when I read old posts and they make sense.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I once admitted to a writer friend who prided himself on detailed fight scenes that I skimmed because all I cared about was 1) who won and who lost 2) whether there was any injury or other development that might shape further action. I couldn’t care less about the fine details of swordplay.

      However, some readers love that stuff!

      • James Mendur Says:

        I do nearly the same thing with skimming sex scenes.
        1. Have they finished yet?
        2. Did either of them say anything important along the way?
        No? Let’s skip the voyeurism and move on, then.

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