What ‘word count’ really means for writers

I have often railed about the misuse of ‘word count’ as a single measure of result for writers. I see the misconception all the time in word-o-meters on blog sites, on Facebook posts where people ask each other how much they’ve written, and so on.

Wright_Typewriter2To me it’s like actors going around comparing the number of lines they’ve learned that day. See what I mean?

The thing is, yes, word count is important – but it’s a tool, not a target. It’s used by editors as a device to scale the work they commission. It’s used by professional authors as a mechanism to plan structure.

The real skill when it comes to word count isn’t an ability to blurt out words – it’s being able to write specific content to a specific target length, usually in a specific time. That’s what editors are getting at when they issue a job by word-length, for instance.

It’s also what NaNoWriMo is all about – a contest to write 50,000 ‘first draft’ words in 30 days, which implies a target-to-time. That’s just like the real world of professional writing. And believe me, that sort of figure is tough even for experienced writers, particularly when you realise that the process of first-draft word assembly is usually only about half the total time and effort, or less, required to bring any piece of writing from idea to reader.

Just to give you a quick handle on that, before you start there’s the pre-planning (which also counts as writing), then there’s that draft assembly (x-words in y-time) which gives the basic material to work with, and then there’s working that draft into something that closely approximates the idea you had in your head – a process that is certainly writing even though it probably won’t add or subtract much in the way of word count.

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The implication is that the author has to have full control over what they are doing. Being able to assemble the words is part of the skill, but it’s not the sole definition of result.

If you want a quick-start into this and other writing skills, check out my short guide How to Get Writing …Fast, available now on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

5 thoughts on “What ‘word count’ really means for writers

  1. Read and reviewed this book on Amazon and Goodreads, Matthew. Good resource for authors! Thank you for your suggestions. I plan to put them into practice. Best wishes for success with this book and all others!

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    1. Thank you! I much appreciate your kind thoughts on my book – as you know, it’s always a slightly nerve-racking moment for writers when their work is finally ‘out there’ for the public to read and comment on. All the best for your writing, and I hope the methods and ways of breaking the task down that I’ve outlined are helpful. They work for me (though I keep having to remind myself to do them!).

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  2. Ideally, one shouldn’t be governed by word count, beyond setting an approximate initial goal — a 5,000 word story, an 80,000 word novel. But it’s hard to ignore, when Word shows you the number in the lower left corner. Even writing in longhand, as I do my first drafts, I’m always reminded that a page of my scribble is about 500 words, so if I’m shooting for 5,000, I have to come up with another five pages. If the story ends up being told in only 3,500 words, there’s no point in inflating it to 5,000, only to cut it back down to 3,500 as I revise and rewrite. And yet, not making the self-imposed word count feels like falling short of the goal.

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    1. Word count certainly can’t be ignored – it’s an essential measure for structure and progress. I use Word myself and keep a close eye on the figure. Between that and where the ‘slider’ is on the right hand menu bar, I can usually get a rough-and-ready estimate of structure and whether the writing I’m doing is correct to target. One of the ways I make sure it is involves what I call ‘density’ of content, which I haven’t explained in this blog (or my book on writing) but is a key method I use for maintaining pace of content and intimately entwined with structure. If the ‘density’ changes, it usually means I’ll miss the word count. I should explain that, but it’ll take a blog post (and maybe more than one) to go through the concept.

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