The tyranny of word count?

Does your writing heart shrivel when you read on Facebook something along the lines of ‘Giving myself extra chocolate because I wrote 5,000 words today’? And it’s only 3pm… Praise piles on from others with the ‘Wow’ icon splattered everywhere. Then one or two brave souls, possibly including you, confess apologetically they’ve ‘only’ written 500.

Only?  What’s wrong with that?

Of course, 500 words are a lot fewer than 5000 words, but why should anyone apologise for writing any amount on any specific day?

Undoubtedly, there are other people who won’t post at all in response because they feel truly embarrassed. Perhaps they weren’t able to get beyond a double-spaced page that day.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire such a high output but posting about it may seem a tad triumphalist and have the unintended consequence of agonising and demoralising people who are blocked, write slowly, or who don’t write every day.  These could be writers just starting out, who’ve suffered multiple rejections of their work, were dropped by their publishers, or who for any number of reasons just don’t produce a lot, or write fast, possibly both. Or Real Life may be intervening…

Does a high word count mean high productivity, let alone high quality?

Writing fast may not be a guarantee of anything. Even taking into account it was probably for the first draft which is always a bit rough and ready, those 5,000 words may be complete rubbish. Writing that much and that quickly only proves the person can type fast.

It’s a pity some parts of the writing community are so obsessed with churning out words every single day, day after day – and tons of them. If you have a contract and you’re under deadline, I’d suggest the work schedule wasn’t too well planned in the first place. But measuring yourself as a writer by the number of words you write per day isn’t necessarily the best way.

Serious face of a cat

Serious face

Non-writing as part of the book process

Experienced authors know how important revision and editing are to a finished work. At that stage, it’s not about how much you get done but about what you get done, how you re-shape your work  A revised paragraph could involve few words but make a huge difference.

And let’s consider our old friend research; not the research you do before you type Chapter 1, but the checking facts and dates, products and weather that arise as you go along. I’ve spent half a day tracking down details of arable crops grown in Roman times and that changes significantly over all 1229 years!

Revision is also about introducing layers, honing dialogue, deepening character traits or motivations. You may only write fifty new words that day, but they could make a substantial impact on the overall narrative.

The positives of counting your words

When I’m deeply into my writing I do track my progress with word counts, but in a general way. My goal is 500-1,000 words a day. Some days I reach nearly 2,000, but usually it’s around 800-1,000. I have a back problem that prevents me sitting down for hours. I’m also a mental fidget. When writing that first draft, noting how many words you’ve written can be very encouraging. A little preen does nobody any harm, but obsessing can be bad for your mental health. It can also result in bad habits.

You won’t, I’m sure do any of these:

  • Write over complicated and rambling sentences just because they entail more words.
  • Use two words in description or scene setting when one will do.
  • Pad dialogue with eight lines of speech when two would do.
  • Introduce a scene that doesn’t take the story forward or develop the character

Would you?

Staying regular

Writing every day should not feel like a compulsion. You are allowed to have a normal life, or at least a semblance of it. But if you dread sitting at the desk every morning and are scared to write the first word, you may not be in the right job. Yes, writing is a job as well as a creative art.

Logging word count gives you something to look back on when you think you can’t get going; it reminds you that you have written something on a regular basis, even if it’s for three evenings a week only after the children’s bedtime.

Regular writing is like regular exercise, the more you do it the fitter you get and the less strenuous it becomes. I don’t use the word ‘easy’ as creative writing isn’t, although it’s extremely satisfying.

Regular writing will become habit-forming and your productivity will increase. I’ve noticed this every time I’ve finished marketing a book and I get back to serious writing. Noting words written can act as a springboard to get into the regular writing mode. As you see the total mounting up, you realise you might not be such a bad writer after all.

Don’t make it a tyranny, and don’t compare yourself to others; they may actually be telling fibs.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, will be out on 12 September 2019.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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