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?
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