Wardscrawl: Letting go of the Word Count

Wardscrawl is a semi-regular blog where I discuss what I’ve learned about writing over the years. Or, to be more honest, lessons I’ve learned about my writing over the years. Most writing blogs pass off subjective opinion and personal quirk as absolute fact everyone can apply. I want Wardscrawl to be a bit different – I’ll be discussing what has worked (or what hasn’t worked) for me. If it mirrors your experience, or gives you some ideas how to hone your craft, that’s fantastic. But remember, I don’t have the answer. Everyone’s path is different.

Let’s talk about word count. If you’ve spent any time at all following writers on social media, you’ll have seen the monolithic wall of #wordcount declarations sweeping by; writers congratulating themselves for hitting a word count target, or chastening themselves for missing one. We’ve all done it. I’ve done it. I thought it was a great way to motivate myself, and remind both of my fans that I was, indeed, still labouring away on my next project.

Then, towards the end of last year, I had a bit of a moment.

While prepping a sci-fi novel for submission, I made a ruthless attack on the words I’d written. Not just remembering to excise the usual unnecessary ‘he said, she said’ bits that had slipped under the radar, but making sure scenes ended and began where they should, and that conversation was as punchy as could be. All told, I think I cut about 5,000 words from a 140,000 manuscript. It felt good (and a bit bad as well). My manuscript was tighter and leaner than ever before. You know what? I thought, I should do this with my other finished drafts. So I did.

Oh boy.

Over the next week, I cut 10k from a 125k draft, 25k from a 140k draft and (most dismaying of all) 10k from a 95k book already available in digital form. This time I was definitely more appalled than pleased. Sure, I’d learnt a lot since completing those drafts – we all do, one book to the next – but losing 12% of a book? 20%? Something else was going on.

About a week later, I realised what that something was. At some point, I’d stopped writing ‘till the job was done, but until I’d reached the word count I expected to hit that morning/day. Scenes completed before lunchtime tended towards the flabby, growing extra lines of dialogue or description, as I saw the light at the end of the tunnel almost in reach. My motivational tool – hitting a daily word count – was, ironically, killing my books.

So what did I do about it? Well, to start with, I’ve stopped talking about word counts. Oh, I still have a vague idea of what I want to get done in a day, but I tend to parse this in terms of scenes or concepts, rather than strict word count. I cut myself free of the leash that tied success to a dry abstract.

The dumb thing was, I’d always known word count didn’t really matter. Sure, it’s useful as a guide for planning a piece or a story, but it’s not as if it’s any guarantor of quality. I’ve known writers who produce 500 words a day of incomparable quality, and others who rattle off 6k of editor-tormenting horror. Hell, sometimes even word count targets are downright arbitrary. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenges budding authors to write a 50,000 word novel – a word count that seems to be classed as novel length by very few publishers or agents. (Yes, I’m aware of novellas, but it’s not called National Novella Writing Month, is it?)

So, like I say in the introduction, not everyone has this problem. Some writers craft terse, evocative prose without suffering temptation from the dark side of Key Performance Indicators. To those of you with such iron will, I salute you. For some, the driver of knowing you’re persistently hitting a sustainable goal is worth the toil and heartache of sending the Delete Commandos rampaging through your draft at the end. I’m not knocking that either – motivation’s half the battle, so find it where you can. Tell yourself. Tell the world!

But if you’re like me, and hate to think you’ve wasted your time writing words that you ultimately don’t use, try cutting loose from your word count target. Don’t even think in terms of absolute word counts. Tell yourself you’re going to complete a scene, a conversation, a pivotal piece of action – anything that’ll give you that sense of satisfaction, without tricking you into writing words you don’t need. You never know – it might help.

How many words have I written today? I’m not going to tell you. I can say that I drafted everything I intended, and my protagonist’s in for a world of hurt come Monday. But word count? I have no idea.

And it feels great.



If you’ve a topic you’d like to see me tackle in Wardscrawl, let me know in the comments below.

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