Word Counts

A lot of writers who keep blogs or a Facebook page have daily writing goals and share their word counts. I never got into the habit of counting words for creative writing. There can be days when I write 1003 new words and other days when I cut 297, and cutting the 297 feels like I made more progress than writing the 1003.

I used to count words for my academic writing because often times a word count was assigned. Write 1000 words on the effects of mass media on culture. One hundred too few or too many and the teacher rejected it. The first fiction writing class I took had word count goals too, but the words could come in any form: novel excerpts, short stories, vignettes…. We didn’t write for publication, we wrote for creative clarity with the idea that we could find a place for a piece later or keep it for our own personal collection.

I know of writers who take the assignment approach to all their fiction writing, assigning themselves short stories and novels sometime months or years in advance. They look at what other writers did as if that is a path to follow. This writer put out short stories and then a novel, so that’s what I am going to do. I could never take that approach. There are times when a story hits me and I write it, and other times when I feel I should write, but nothing is there to go on the page. If I force it out, it usually hangs around blocking what I really want to write until I cut it out of my way, so I don’t try to force any words out before they are ready.

I spent years writing my first novel, ThunderBird Walking, with the vague idea that it needed to be ‘first novel length’ of 80-100,000 words. At one point I edited the source material down to about 65,000 words and that felt about right, but then I added to the ending and fleshed out some other parts. It ended up being 80,000 words, which feels a little long for a first person book like mine, and I later learned that many first person novels are a little shorter than average. Maybe some day I’ll create a tighter version, closer to 65,000 words, but I needed to let this version fly.

It seems to me that counting words is an ego thing, and good creative writing does not feed the ego. If anything, it destroys the ego or at least challenges it to change. Dutifully writing a specific number of words everyday will create a work that has predictable or laboured breaths. And shooting for a specific number of words in a creative work might end up leaving the story feeling like it’s either long-winded or not given life to its fullest. I think the story knows how long it needs to be, and the writer’s job is to do the story justice—not count words till the assignment is done.


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