Writing is quality-to-time, not word-count

I am often bemused at the way we measure writing, these days, on word count.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medSoftware rates us on it. Contests pivot on it. You can get widgets that graph word-count on a progress bar. It has become a goal of itself.

All of which, to me, stands against what writing is all about.

When I see someone announce – let’s say on Twitter – that they’ve just written 2000 words, I often say to myself ‘great, but were they the right words?’

And how much more time will be needed to get the finished words?

Let me explain.

To me, the goal of writing is to evoke emotion in a reader. That happens not through word count, but through content. The actual number of words is almost irrelevant in this sense – what we have to look for, instead, is the right words. Do they convey the message? Do they do so with proper structure.

So where does word count come in? It has two places. Structurally, word count is important, because the word count tells you the scale of the work – and from that, you can work out the scale of the relevant components. But it is not a goal. Writing isn’t about words; they are simply the vehicle for ideas, concepts and thoughts.

At professional level it is also a standard measure on which everything from books to  features can be commissioned and paid for. It means publishers can budget production to known scales, and it means authors can budget time, based on how long it will take to complete a piece with x-number of words.

That’s the other issue. Completing a piece to length is a very different matter from writing that number of words.

If I draft a book of 70,000 words, that’s great – but I know there’s a lot of work yet, even on those 70,000 words, before I can submit the MS to my publishers. Even when a complete manuscript goes to a publisher, there may yet be 100 hours spent going through it on my part, checking editorial changes and publisher proofs, or answering queries. All of which is essential to completing the book – and none of which adds word count.

What are your thoughts on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: more writing tips, ‘write it now’, geekery and more.


20 thoughts on “Writing is quality-to-time, not word-count

  1. I only started writing seriously last October when I attended a creative writing course and then signed up for the NaNoWriMo challenge (50,000 words in 30 days) I completed the challenge using the SOS technique. Setting myself a minimum daily word count at least meant I completed my first novel. Okay, only a draft but the whole story is down on paper. However, I do agree as an inexperienced writer the quality is not brilliant (and would even give EL James a run for her money 🙂 but it’s a start.

    1. Early days then – and it’s a wonderful field to get into! Quality takes time & it comes along in due course. I think NaNo acknowledges that word count and quality are two different things – but it’s important to have a target. Actually, that 50k in 30 day target is daunting even for a professional writer. I’ve had days where I’ve blown 5000 words through, first draft, but that exhausts my research material and I have to go out and accumulate more.Oh, and then I have to go and re-write the 5000 words. 🙂

  2. I’ve just completed my 75000 word WIP – but now the hard work starts. I’m halfway through the editing, reviewing, adding, deleting and changing sentences, paragraphs and sometimes whole pages to make the words flow coherently and with emotion. The word count offers you a sense of the size of the task but in the end I agree, it is the way the words are put together and their emotive impact that makes a book worth reading. I don’t enter competitions, or try to write to a controlled word count – that doesn’t work for me. I write as many words as it takes.

    1. The revisions are definitely the hard part. I suspect for many writers the hardest part is throwing away stuff that doesn’t quite work, after all, and maybe can’t be rescued. But it comes out fine in the end.

  3. The only time word count has been successful for me is in what I call my “daily writing,” which is 1000 words for anything I want. The substance is usually trying out ideas for blog posts or manuscripts or to work through any issue, writing or personal. I began with 250 words and have found the 1000 words works well for me. In doing this, I have noticed my structured writing is tighter.

    Great topic and wonderful post, Matthew.

    1. Thank you. I think targets like that are one of the positives of word count – because they force focus. For myself, I find it’s often hard to write short – harder than it is to write long, in fact.

  4. Here, here! Cranking out a first draft is important, but like you said, that is merely the beginning. When the real writing starts. “…what we have to look for instead, is the right words.” I could not agree with you more about the over emphasis on word count as measure of writing success. Well said.

    1. Thank you! As I mentioned to Karen, above, it’s often harder to write short than it is long (certainly for me). One of the down sides of word-length-as-target is the tendency to pad, whereas quality writing actually demands sharpness, even brevity. I always hold up “The Old Man And The Sea”, which is more of an extended short story than a novel – and yet, won Hemingway the Nobel Prize for literature, and is probably one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. But it wouldn’t win prizes for word count!

  5. All that being said, word count can provide an incentive to get on with a project instead of endlessly polishing what’s already been done. If you sit down every day with a specific word target and don’t allow yourself to be distracted until you’ve reached it, you’ll make significant progress and get into good writing habits. (I’m sad to have several writer friends who have been working on their books for six or seven years and failing to finish anything.) On the other hand the pressure of a month-long word target like Nanowrimo can really produce some drivel if you become enslaved by the daily total and tap out anything that will fill the pages.

    Disclaimer – I’m particularly smug about word count at present as I set myself a challenge last weekend, sitting alone in a Hamilton hotel room, so see how many words I could produce if I kept at it. In a nine hour day I achieved just over 6000 words – and they’re actually not too bad!

    1. Pushing through 6000 words is impressive by any measure! And the alternative, sight-seeing in Hamilton, seems a fair incentive to write 🙂

      (Though I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on Hamilton. It could be worse. It could be Waipukurau! :-))

  6. I use a word count goal simply as a tool to keep me writing daily. I may or may not hit my goal daily. However, it helps to motivate me to write. I saw a tweet yesterday that the writer was going to sit down and crank out 4,000 words in two hours. Really? I can’t talk that fast, let alone type it. All of this hype about word count is beginning to make me jaded to the conversation. My mindset is leaning toward, “Just tell the damn story. When the story is done, the words will be there.”

    1. Well said! I completely agree! For me, the word count becomes a planning tool – I’ll envisage the argument of a chapter, for instance, and then figure out the word count needed to make that fit the structure of the book. So I have a target goal in mind which gives a pace for the text. But I’m not concerned about the time it takes me to write it, other than where it starts to impose into the general schedule of the book – and if I’m stuck in one place I can usually jump to another. I admit non-fiction’s probably easier in that sense than fiction.

  7. Great topic here and addressed well. Thanks to modern technology it’s now easy to measure effort in words (or even characters if you so desire). I suppose that’s more honest than time measurement. After all, you might spend half your measured time playing with the cat or looking out the window. Still, I agree that what matters most is quality over quantity. On many occasions I’ve felt satisfaction because I’ve added 1000 or 2000 words to a first draft only to scrap most of it the next day. At the same time, I’ve slaved over a critical paragraph containing fewer than 100 words because its content was critical and I was having difficulty turning my vision into reality. The satisfaction in that case was extraordinary.

    1. It’s the quality that counts – and as you say, when you get there, the sense of achievement is wonderful. I often, consciously, think ‘is this wording serving the purpose?’ when I write – to me, a much more important issue than ‘how many words – and, indeed, scrapping a dud paragraph can be just as satisfying.

      1. I’m learning that external motivational tools like word count and time measurement are substitutes for internal determination and devotion. Eventually we move beyond external motivators and instead rely upon that which comes from within. At that point we realize taking a step back (removing a paragraph) is as productive as adding one.

  8. Good post. I totally agree. Putting a set amount of words on the page does not a writer make. However, as other commenters have suggested, I do think a daily word count is a good tool for beginning writers. It helps break the gargantuan task of completing a novel into daily bite-sized chunks. So long as that word count is refined into gold through an exhaustive editing process, they can still be useful (what’s left of them anyway). 🙂

    1. Yes, the word count is important in that sense. I use it as a planning tool in that I’ll figure out chapter content, and because I have a target word count for the book as a whole (defined by publishers) that tells me the scale of wording I need for any given chapter – in turn, giving me the pace of the text. For me that word count becomes a guide to structure, though often the draft will be a different length from the finished form.

  9. I agree with your view–words need to be more than just words. Like the others have said, It’s a start. Once I get the basic idea down I can go back and edit it. I have yet to write a novel in 3 months which seems to be the standard writing time. I keep polishing what I’ve written instead of moving on. I know what I should do, but doing it is a whole ‘nother animal.

Comments are closed.