Oh, Shut Up About Wordcount!

I often wonder what non-writers think about their writer friends’ preoccupations over wordcount.

As in, “Today’s wordcount was 1,150, and every one was like pulling teeth.” If you have friends who are writers (and if you’re looking at my page, you likely do), you’ll see this all the time on their social media pages. What does it mean? And why do so many writers obsess over it?

Wordcount is just a measure of progress. Most of us, particularly when working on a long work such as a novel, try to set and meet daily wordage goals. My own is 1,500. Most writers I know like to try for between 500 and 2,000 words a day. Any less, and you beat yourself up; any more, and you’re a happy camper. Hitting your wordcount is also–as two friends pointed out to me–an excellent motivator to the writer. Writing, friends, is Work.

So what does 1,500 words look like? Well, it’s around four (possibly five) regular paperback pages, or perhaps three pages of single-spaced 12pt type. When you figure the average 300-page novel at somewhere close to 100,000 words, you can see that at 1,500 words/day, I’ll get a novel finished in 67 days. Piece of cake, right?

Not quite. First of all, we’re talking about a first draft. Add in rewrites and revisions and you could easily triple or quadruple the work, depending how you write. And that introduces the second wrinkle: not all words are created equal.

I write slowly—600 words an hour if I’m hot, maybe 700 if I’m on fire. My average is probably closer to 500. Now that sounds incredibly slow, just 10 or 12 words a minute. But in the words of the immortal Douglas Adams, a novel is actually “a hundred thousand words in a cunning order”.  That’s right: you have to think about how you arrange those words, what information they convey, whether they match the voice of your character or narrator,  how they sound to the  reader, and how the sentence you just wrote meshes with those around it.

Of course, since it’s a first draft, you get to revise and revise, and you can fix stuff. But there’s no right way to write, and how we each work is entirely personal.  My first drafts are pretty polished, especially at the prose level: they read nicely. I know I’m going to have fix structural and character issues in smoothing rewrites, add in or take out description, and so on, but the prose is good enough that probably 75% of my sentences won’t need to be touched.  I know other writers who can get 4,000-5,000 words a day down, but their first drafts are barely legible. I know one who doesn’t even include punctuation other than periods in her first draft.

For those of you who aren’t writers, here’s a fun exercise: type a four-page letter to someone, single-spaced in 12pt type . Then go through it and revise till it’s polished enough that you could print it in a book or newspaper. Repeat sixty or seventy times.

Of course, you might just prefer to read a book. If so, send some good vibes to the author who probably spent upwards of seven hundred hours to bring you that story. And next time your writer friend posts a wordcount on their Facebook page, give them a big, “like”!

This post was around 550 words. 😉  And the title, of course, is jokingly intended.

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