Writing tip: it’s not word count, it’s quality

These days I worry, occasionally, that writing seems to be measured solely by word-count – that blasting out a certain number of words in a given time is an end point of the process or a measure of achievement.

It’s a huge misconstruct. The real arbiter of writing is quality-to-time. Measures of quality certainly include hitting the planned length, which is where word count comes in – but the word count of the first draft, alone, is only a small part of the process.

Let’s look at it this way. You’ve just written 2000 words in an hour. But you may have to spend another three hours revising them, thus reducing your average word count to 500 an hour. Or maybe have to toss them away altogether, reducing the count to zero.

If you look at a book as a project – from blank-to-final text, word count alone becomes increasingly irrelevant. Other than, as I say, a way of controlling scale.

Look at it this way. What’s the better book, as literature – Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea, which is basically a novella and which won him a Nobel Prize for literature – or E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which has many more words?

HMS Rodney (public domain)

HMS Rodney. Weird looks highlighted innovative ways to make use of displacement.  (Crown Copyright expired/public domain)

I’ve got an analogy. In the twentieth century, warship power was popularly gauged by displacement. And at around 41,700 tons (standard), the KM Bismarck of 1940 was  always portrayed as an unsinkable, invincible super-battleship. She was heavier than the 33,750 ton (standard) HMS Rodney of 1927.  Yet when they met, one blustery Atlantic morning in May 1941, Rodney pulverised the Bismarck in 23 minutes, at times effectively solo because the flagship King George V was suffering gun breakdowns. Rodney made better use of displacement. (As a naval engineering geek, I’ll explain the technical reasons, if anybody asks).

That adage is true of writing, too. The number of words is important for gauging the scale of the writing – it’s how publishers commission material, and one of the skills is being able to produce work to that count – just like one of the skills of ship designing is being able to build a vessel to displacement. But the writing has to have the right content. What ultimately counts is what you do with those words, not the number of them. The way I make it work is this:

1. Identify the final word count. This determines the scale of the material.

2. What are the beginning and end points? In a novel, this will be the plot and character arcs; in non-fiction – my history books, for instance – it is the argument.

3. Now content can be planned for spanning across the expected word length. This gives a handle on the pace of the content – the level of detail that can be worked in.

4. What you should end up with is a chapter list with the expected content of each chapter, and a word count for each.

5. Now go and write it, revising the plan as needed if new ideas come along. (Yes, I know this last one is like saying ‘Now go and build the Firth of Forth Bridge’).

Do these ideas work for you? How do you match word count with content? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

10 comments on “Writing tip: it’s not word count, it’s quality

  1. Well said. Writing something fast doesn’t make it good.And planning the structure of and book, fiction or nonfiction, is imperative for me to produce anything cohesive. There are writers who don’t plan their structure and produce wonderful books. I’m not one of them.

    • Planning works for me, too. And for a lot of authors. I think it IS possible to produce something of high quality very quickly – look at Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, which he drafted pretty much complete in 3 weeks. But I think he had most of that in his head already before he did that, and he had already had several false starts at the book.

  2. Oh, boy. I WISH I could do things that way! It must be so much more comfortable.

    You couldn’t be more correct about quantity vs. quality. I think it’s important to set a goal and word count is a good way to do that, but as you point out above, that’s only the beginning of the task of writing. Nevil Shute claimed that the only thing he ever rewrote in his novels might be the first chapter or two; must be nice to have the idea that thoroughly in your head beforehand.

    Me? I’ve tried outlining and all the things you suggest above, but when I sit down and actually begin writing, all that goes out the window and the work takes on a life of its own, sometimes only moderately related to what I’d envisioned. I’ve come to think that the best use of those techniques is to winnow out historical details that require further research so I have the info available already when I start writing. Or just to gain familiarity with the “ground” so to speak of the novel.

    I hit 73,000 words last week and figured out, considering what I still needed to write with my current novel (a raid on Palembang in Sumatra, a dogfight over Surabaja, an awards ceremony, and a near-disastrous photo-recon mission over Balikpapan), that I might be somewhere between 67% and 75% done. I had NO idea this thing would turn into such a monster!

    Is this a good way to write? Probably not. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to others. It just seems to be the way it works out for me. One of the members of my writers’ group is a psychiatrist…maybe I’ll see if it reveals something about my personality! ;)

    • There’s no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about writing – I think it’s a personal matter & the key is doing what works for you. Some people (lucky so-and-so’s) can blast out virtually finished material straight off. Others, and I’m thinking Tolkien in particular, have to tinker, re-write and re-structure as they go. What counts at the end is whether the finished material does what it’s intended to do.

  3. I write/type slowly so, word count is always rearing its ugly head. However, I am using a base of 2,500 words per chapter. That works out to around 35 chapters. These are my targets for now.

  4. Leslie says:

    You always have such interesting analogies. Warships, writing, and word count…who knew? Good points, all of them.

  5. KM Huber says:

    For a while, I took part in some writing challenges that really emphasized word count. I just wanted to get back into regular writing and thought that a daily word count with some accountability was worth a try, and it was for awhile.

    I could not agree more with you about quality over quantity. For fun, I started keeping track and was actually very surprised to have produced over 200,000 for a couple of projects. Initially settling on the word count did get me back to writing every day but it has never been a way that I write or approach a story.

    Oh, and the analogies? Always a favorite here.

    Karen

    • I quite like thinking up lateral analogies – not least because, I hope, it might help throw these things into a different light and context, which to me is always a good way of making new discoveries.

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