Monday, February 21, 2011

How many miles to Mordor, again?

My friend Damien recently shared his thoughts on using wordcount to measure writing progress. It's a useful thing to think about, especially if you are just starting out as a writer, and aren't sure how to measure your progress by anything other than the number of words you have written that day. Obviously, wordcount is a way to measure progress, and an important one. If you are trying to write a novel, you had better know what the standard contract length is for the genre you're working in, because you don't have a salable novel until you've hit that point, and you don't have a salable novel if you are too far over it.

(When I first decided I was going to write a novel, I looked to the awards guidelines to see how long a novel was. 40K words or more is officially a novel for those purposes. I'm very glad I learned before I started writing that if I wanted to sell something, it needed 60K more words to be novel-shaped.)

I don't use wordcount as a measure of progress. The biggest reason why is that I handwrite. So while I have a general idea of how many words are on each notebook page, I don't know for sure until I move the words from notebook to computer. But another reason is that, for me, wordcount is a bad way to measure progress.

I've always had a difficult relationship to wordcount. I am naturally a very concise writer. Brevity being the soul of wit and all, my papers in high school and college always came in at the short end of the requirement. Even when I loved the topic, and thought I had a lot to say on it, I'd be on the 7 page end of the 7-10 page spread. I am in a profession where short fiction gets sold by the word, and so wordcount matters. The longest story I've sold so far is 1900 words. In fact, if you add up all the words in all four of the stories I've sold so far, the amount is still under the word limit to be considered one short story in any of the major genre awards (short story being a work of 7500 or fewer words). At some point, I would really like to sell a short story that would be long enough to use in a Clarion application portfolio (I'm still not sure how I managed to write two that were the year I applied.)

But along with my conciseness comes one of the biggest flaws I am aware of in my own writing - I leave too much in my head in first drafts. My polished drafts are never about trimming the excess, but about adding all of the things I didn't put on the page the first time, and so they are generally 20% longer than my draft zeros are. So I tend to measure my progress by "have I solved the current problem?" This means I tend to write short stories in one sitting, and longer projects by scene.

Which is all, I suppose, a rather long-winded (shockingly enough) way of saying, like anything else in writing, figure out a way of measuring your progress that works best for you. Do whatever helps you finish things on the schedule you want them finished by, whether that's counting words, or counting scenes, or not counting anything. 

Write until you get to the end. Then stop.


  1. Wise words, as usual. I attempt to get to a certain word count, but I tend to be concise, too. Whenever I had to write longer papers in college, I found myself adding fluff just to reach the word count. I always found that frustrating.

    When I write short stories, I tend to cut certain things (like unnecessarily adverbs and adjectives), but add details that I've left out. A friend read a recent short story of mine, and his only comment was: but WHERE does this take place? As in the state. Adding that did give the story another layer, surprisingly. I knew where it took place, but the reader did not, proving (yet again) that it's the words on the page that matter.

    Great post, Kat. I'll be retweeting it shortly. :-) ~Ali

  2. I really hadn't been too concerned about word count, until recently when I joined Twitter. What is certainly incredible what you can actually say in just a few words.
    I am not sure whether I equate word count as an achievement or a measure of progress.
    Some days I write two meaningful sentences, others more, to me, writing is part of my daily practice.
    Ali, I laughed when your friend asked "Where does this take place" I did something similar with a character in one of my stories, my friend asked "Who is Scott, where does he fit in?" Hum? I just assumed :)

  3. Great post! I'm similar to you in that I leave stuff in my head that first draft too. But I also have wordy phrases in the first drafts, so editing is always a mixture of adding and subtracting.

  4. Thanks everyone. I'm glad you liked the post.

  5. I only wish I could do that! My problem is that I don't know what the story is until I write it down. I use word count as a measure because it means that I am sitting down and doing the work, getting that first draft out so I can read it and see what's wrong with it.

    But even then, I really had to change my goal after I finished two first draft novels. A too-high word count goal leaves no time for editing where "editing" is not synonymous with "completely rewriting because it's crap". ^_^
    As with anything regarding writing, it's all so very individual. I envy you being able to leave most of the first draft in your head!

  6. Julia: And here's me thinking, "Grr. If only I didn't leave so much of this in my head." You are exactly right when you say that anything regarding writing is so very individual.

  7. I had the same problem when I had to write papers in college.

    But when it comes to writing fiction, word count is one of my favorite ways to keep track of my progress or to make sure I stay within the guidelines. If a short story has to be 4000 words or less, keeping a daily word count total helps me make sure I'm making progress in the story without the risk of going over the limit.