The Tyranny of Word Counts

The Tyranny of Word Counts

Many authors have just finished up the slog that is National Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Every year, thousands of people sign up to challenge themselves to write a full-fledged novel—defined as 50,000 words—in thirty days. NaNoWriMo bills itself as a fun experience and a huge challenge.

Yet there’s mixed reaction to the very idea of this challenge in writing circles. Some people love it. Others find it too stressful. Almost as many writers fail at it as succeed. So what’s the big problem?


Why NaNoWriMo Rocks

To start, we should discuss the positive aspects of NaNoWriMo. Participation is completely voluntary. Writers sign up based on their own desire and their own schedule. They can challenge friends and others to work toward the 50,000 goal with them.

The NaNoWriMo logo.

This will induce cheers in some, shudders in others.

NaNoWriMo is also a social phenomenon. Writers are asked to give their location, and they’re signed up to their local “teams.” Accomplished authors send out prewrit encouragement notes to writers doing the challenge. You can connect with friends and other writers participating in the challenge.

NaNoWriMo also offers the sense of challenge. Writing 50,000 words isn’t easy. One of the reasons people sign up is to force themselves to work toward that goal. Some people want to write a novel. They have a great idea. But a lack of time and a lack of motivation—a lack of incentive—can cause them to poke away at the goal for years on end without ever making true progress. The 50,000-word novel mark may seem eons away if you’re only getting a sentence or two down on most days.

NaNoWriMo aims to blast away excuses. You’re given a challenge: to write 50,000 words in thirty days. It’s a timeline; you have a deadline. Encouragement and social support is offered, but so are badges. Those who complete their novel are called “winners” and get access to swag and a certificate declaring them a winner. These sorts of things can provide otherwise unmotivated and time-strapped writers with the incentive to buckle down and do.

Why NaNoWriMo Sucks

As mentioned, some writers choose not to participate in NaNo because they find it far too stressful. That’s fine: Writing 50,000 words in a month isn’t a task that should be taken lightly. Even professional writers may have trouble reaching that goal. And writing 50,000 words on a single subject can be a tall task as well. I myself churn out in excess of 65,000 words in articles a month, but most of my articles are short and on varied subjects.

A typewriter.

You can probably hear me clicking from there.

Writing a 650-word article is not the same as writing a novel. The two acts are scarcely comparable, unless you look solely at the final word counts.

The other factor is, of course, time. Some writers recognize from the get-go they won’t have time. November can be a busy time for people. The end of the month has Americans look at Thanksgiving and Black Friday, which kicks off the holiday shopping season. December is particularly busy, but November can also feature holiday parties. Students are in the midst of writing midterms and finals. Many people I know with jobs are actually buckling down in November, nose to the grindstone before the holidays hit.

In short, it’s often just not a great time of year for people to be writing.

Others simply find the time pressures too much. Trying to hit a particular word count every day, trying to find the time to write those words, trying to get caught up, trying to be creative—can all end up feeling rather forced. Writers can feel rushed.

In short, it can suck the life out of writing.

Why Writing to Word Count Sucks

NaNoWriMo is part of a larger movement toward measuring word counts as a way of measuring “success.” Writers use word count tracking software to see how many words they’ve written today and set writing goals for themselves. They live and die by the idea that a novel is 50,000 words. Writers working toward self-publishing in particular don’t want to write a word more: it’s 50,000 and it’s done, because they need to move onto the next book project.

It’s quantity over quality, and we’re using word counts to quantify our work. We’re not necessarily measuring quality. A writer working toward a 50,000-word goal on a thirty-day turnaround generally cares relatively little for the quality or artistry of the words they’re putting to the page. Maybe you say, “It’s okay, I’ll edit it later.” You spend less time thinking about the words, about the construction, and more time just slapping words down on the page.

For some writers, it’s easy to write that many words. Some writers rarely experience writer’s block. The words just flow. Other writers must struggle and wrestle with their words much more.

Giving that latter group a goal and a deadline doesn’t motivate them. It freaks them out. It’s the equivalent of saying, “You have an 8,000-word research paper due in two weeks.”

Getting Words Down

There’s certainly some advantage of the idea of word counts and challenges like NaNo. They encourage you to stop worrying so much about what you’re writing and just get it down on the page. Who cares if it’s beautiful? Writing is rarely true art in the first draft. First drafts are meant to be bumpy, full of ruts and rocks. Editing is where you’ll smooth things out and spend more time massaging the language or even the construction of your novel.

You can’t edit if the book is still in your head. Writing to word count encourages writers to jump in feet-first and just do. Stop worrying if it will be perfect and start getting it down. Once it’s out of your head, on the page, you can work on molding it until it is perfect.

Half the battle in writing is getting the ideas down. That’s the beauty of NaNo and word count goals. You can’t stare at the blank page, daydreaming about how to string the words together. You must act.

When Word Counts Take Over

The biggest problem I see in this is the absolute fanatical obsession with word counts. Writers bemoan missing their word count goals. They ponder how they can expand a 25,000-word story into 50,000 words because novels sell better and they need sales. Everyone applauds the writer who effortlessly slapped down 10,000 words in a day, because damn! That is an impressive number of words.

A word count goal.

If word counts are the only things you’re measuring, take a step back.

I can write 10,000 words a day. I write nearly 8,000 for work, then another 3,000 for this blog, another 1,200 for another blog, and yet 3,000 more for another blog. On a very, very good day, I also put 5,000 words into a creative story project.

Yet we’re losing sight of what really matters. Yes, I put down a ridiculous number of words—up to 20,000 in a single day (although I’m not doing much else and, as I said, that’s a really good day). Were any of those words good?

Worse, when I chose to write 650 words in a blog post, or 1,500 in another, or even 5,000 in a chapter or short story, one has to ponder if those words were really needed. Did the topic I covered in the blog deserve those words, or could I have said the same thing in fewer words? I write 1,500-words blogs because those are proven to be the “sweet spot” for blog content.

When I turn a 25,000-word story into a 50,000-word story, because longer sells better, did I lose my artistry? If the story could be told in 25,000 words, are the other 25,000 just weighing it down, bloating it?

Worse, when I miss my word count goals or totals, do I berate myself? Do I begin to equate “success” with number of words written, and “failure” with missing those goals? A good story can be told in six words. If they’re good words, chosen wisely, I don’t need more. So why should I bemoan that I didn’t write 60 or 600 or 6,000 words?

A Fine Balance

Writers obviously have incentive to use word counts. It’s true that 50,000-word stories sell more than 25,000-word ones. It’s also true that, in a crowded indie market, releasing more books and increasing your market saturation (as well as creating a deep backlist) help authors build their readership. Using word count goals can motivate writers to do more.

Yet they can also shoot writers in the foot, creating unrealistic or untenable goals and creating pressure and stress on what should, in many ways, be a fun activity. Moreover, it certainly zaps the artistry, creativity, and yes, fun out of activities like writing when we feel we have to tell stories in 50,000-word installments or risk economic ruin.

If the story needs 25,000 words? Give it 25,000 words. If it needs 100,000? Give it 100,000. If you need to spend minutes or hours agonizing over the perfect turn of phrase? Allow yourself the luxury. Not every sentence should take you so long to construct, but indulging every once in a while allows you to focus less on the little word counter at the bottom of the page and more on the actual art of writing.

Not focusing so much on word counts may actually make writing more fun for you. If writing has become a chore or a numbers game, take a step back. Log out of Pacemaker, turn off the word-count feature, and just write as it comes to you.

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