Why word count?

Someone linked to this blog this morning, which was sorta weird, since I don’t think of the blog as being particularly public. We’ve only been writing here for a little while, so it’s tough to see how we could be in search engines already. But the gist of the link questioned word count as a valuable measure of writing. I’m not going to link back to it, because frankly, I think it was just link-bait, a basic SEO technique, and after glancing at the blog, I didn’t find it interesting enough that I care to promote it. (For non-web folks, SEO refers to Search Engine Optimization, a way to get a higher ranking on search engine results.)

But I did think about it for a few minutes (in, I admit, a patronizing, pat-on-the-head, poor-boy-doesn’t-get-it kind of way.) The fact is, word count is a measure of practice. Writing is a craft, a learned skill, and the more you practice, the better you should get. That’s not necessarily true, of course–you can spew words indefinitely without ever improving if you’re not actually working on trying to get better. But mostly, the more you write, the better you’ll get. 

So why measure word count instead of time spent? Because writing the words is how you get better. And it’s really, really easy as a writer to say, “oh, I worked for three hours yesterday,” when what you actually did was spend two hours researching (aka browsing the web) and another hour plotting (aka daydreaming). And those hours may be important, but they’re not how you improve the skill of building sentences and paragraphs and pages and chapters.

An artist might spend an hour mixing paints. Is that useful? Sure. But it doesn’t improve their drawing skill. A musician might spend an hour messing around with the buttons on their recording software. A necessary job? Maybe. But it’s not practicing chords, it’s not learning how to play. Word count measures an accomplishment. It measures the fact that you sat down and did the job, built the sentences, shaped them into paragraphs.

And the idea that the word count doesn’t matter if the words aren’t good is like a musician thinking her time spent is only valuable when she’s playing a symphony. Musicians know better than that. Practicing chords is useful. Noodling around is useful. Learning new music, useful. Time spent practicing matters, because that’s how our skill grows. And in writing, that’s time spent actually producing words. Polishing the words, perfecting them, that’s a job for after you’ve actually written them.

So, word count yesterday: 1033. And if that sounds to you like I hit 1000 with a sigh of relief and quit for the day, you’d be quite right. But 1000 words written when it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy is more of an accomplishment than 10 beautiful, perfect stellar words. (Except, I guess, if I was writing poetry!)

 

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4 thoughts on “Why word count?

  1. I can sum up my agreement with you in one word (albeit prefaced by eleven words) – AMEN!

    I haven’t gone to look up this potential link-baiter myself yet, but from what you described of his response I’m thinking he is not a current member of the writing industry. Word count is the prevailing method of “measurement” in our industry. In fiction, certain types of stories have an inherent word count expectation:
    Flash fiction – 1,000 words
    Short story – up to 7,500 words
    Novelette – 7,500 to 17,500 words
    Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
    Novel – over 40,000 words
    (Note: these words counts are according to the SFFWA)

    And that’s just the stories themselves. We could go into the word count requirements of submission packets, of the perfect synopsis, of contest entries…yada yada yada.

    It is simply a form of measurement. It gives us a concrete measure of progress in the same way that a swimmer knows how far they swam by the number of laps they completed in a pool. (And believe me – during 13 years as a swimmer, my coach never once fell for the quality vs quantity argument.) 🙂

  2. Ooh, swimming laps — perfect analogy. Does it matter that each lap be as fast as possible? Nope — it matters that you just keep swimming! And now I like our tag line even more. 🙂

    • All of the big goals — I want to write a book, I want to write a book good enough to be published, I want to write a book that people will love — start with the little goal of, “I want to write 500 words today.” Or 50 or 1000 or whatever is realistic for you. During my bleakest period, I reduced my goal to “I want to open the file and look at it and write a sentence” and here it is, nine months later, and I do expect that I’ll be finishing A Gift of Time this month. Well, the first draft anyway!

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