Why word count is essential but not an end goal for writers

I am always intrigued by the way writing is often perceived as word count. You can get widgets to broadcast progress to the internet. Contests such as National Novel Writing Month pivot on it – 50,000 words in a month.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...
Cyber Katherine Mansfield…I think…

Being able to write to speed and volume is a fundamental skill for writers, and the only way to get good is to do it. NaNoWriMo is fantastic for that. Good stuff.

But for me at least the deeper reality of writing is that it’s not just about the words or their number. It’s about the shapes, patterns of concepts, and the way ideas intersect. The meanings that flow from those intersections create the emotions a writer feels when writing, and which the reader feels when reading. Words are a flawed vehicle for expressing these.

Unfortunately, words are also the only vehicle writers have. Writing using anything else becomes music, painting or movies. All of which is good, but that isn’t a book.

Of course, writers have tried to stretch the limits. If you check out some of the experimental writings of the twentieth century – I’m thinking Franz Kafka with his omission of commas, or Jack Kerouac with the “flow of thought” format he used for On The Road – you’ll get a handle on it. They were trying to break clear of the limits created by words.

The point being that word count, alone, is NOT an end in itself.

That’s not to say we have to ignore word count. On the contrary. It’s a tool for defining scale, which editors and publishers need because scale is money in the business. For authors, it is also a tool for defining structure. A book with length X will always have components of particular lengths, and a particular pace of text, and can be planned accordingly. For professional writers, word count is certainly a tool to measure productivity – and yes, return on time is a practical issue.

What I’m getting at is that word count is a vital tool for writers – but has to be used correctly. Even in a quick-fire contest like National November Writing Month. Even when pushing to meet publisher deadlines. And quality is all the more essential these days.

Do you use word count as a tool this way?

Oh, one other thing. Does anybody ‘get’ what I’m on about when I talk about shapes, patterns and the intersections that give meaning? Just asking…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, and other stuff – watch this space.


5 thoughts on “Why word count is essential but not an end goal for writers

  1. I think I ‘get’ what you’re on about, though I don’t think I’m quite able to explain it yet. It’s not just the events being described, but the words used to describe them, their place in the greater scheme of the story, the words and images used to describe it, the relationship the reader has already formed with the characters involved. All these work together to evoke the eventual response. Am I close?

    1. That’s basically it; all these things count. We have a meaning in our heads which the words express, but they don’t express it very well because they’re flawed vehicles for the purpose. Same’s true of all the arts, I suspect. And the reader puts their own meaning into that.

      1. And that, after all, is why we each like different authors and why even Twilight and 50 Shades have their fans – art only really happens where the artist and the viewer/reader/listener connects. Perhaps the authors who have a more universal popularity were able to create an experience to which more people could relate.

        Goodness. It’s too early on a Monday morning for such philosophical thoughts 😉

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