To Count or Not to Count (Words, that is)

Because* I’m a writer who is thisclose to completing the draft of her next novel, I was telling someone today about how many words I wrote when I went off on a writing retreat this past weekend. (I know, I know. Another writer talking about her book. You’re yawning already. But do try to stay awake, because I promise I do have a point. And a question for you.) It’s the second January in a row I ran away from home for a weekend to write, and while I can’t yet call it a tradition or habit, I think I shall make it both.

The person I was telling isn’t a writer, and so the numbers–2K words late Friday night, 9K on Saturday, and 2K Sunday morning for a total of 13K—meant nothing to him. But he did ask me a question that surprised me: “Why in the world do you keep track of the number of words you write? Are you in some kind of competition?”

I definitely did not see that coming.

One of my best friends, an enormously successful writer, has kept track of her words on spreadsheets for well over a decade. But I also know a writer who has been writing for a half-century and couldn’t tell you precisely how many stories she’s published, let alone the number of words.

The subject of word counts comes up frequently when you’re an emerging writer. Agents only want to see a certain number of pages, and competitions, magazines, and writing workshops all set limits. When you sell that novel, there will be a word count mentioned in the contract, and when it comes time for delivery, it better be close: if there aren’t enough, it won’t meet the contract; if there are too many, it could negatively impact the production schedule and projected costs. Word counts are relevant.

But should word counts have a place in your creative life? What do word counts mean to you?

This might sound a little crazy, but keeping track of my words satisfies the voice in my head that says, “use your time well.” Word counts are by nature quantifications. Proof that I’ve written. It doesn’t matter if I’ve written badly. It doesn’t matter if I throw them out later. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even like them. I’ve written. I’ve worked. It sounds a little cold, but sometimes you have to feed the voice. (Now, these are only my thoughts. If you don’t have that scary neurosis voice in your head telling you she’s watching how you use your time, good for you.)

The softer, more right-brained view is that the more words you write, the more practiced you become. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Writing begets writing.” This is so true. When I write, I work things out on the page. The more words I get down on paper, the more room there is in my brain for birthing new ideas. My brain feels larger, happier when it’s planning new words.

At the end of December, I started tracking my word counts in my daily blog. The person who asked me why I tracked words wondered if I was in some kind of competition. The answer is yes. I am in competition with myself. I like to know how much I’ve written, and it keeps me motivated—not just to improve the numbers as I go along, but to have some markers along the way.

What about you?

(Oh, and I wanted to share a bit of news with you all: I’m excited to have a story, A Paler Shade of Death, nominated in the Best Short Story category for 2017 Edgar Awards. I’m thrilled and honored and a little freaked out to be nominated alongside four of my writing heroes!)

*Yes, I opened this blog with the forbidden word, “because.” Please don’t try this at home.

(Photo by George Hodan, PublicDomainPictures.net)

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel is The Abandoned HeartVisit her at laurabenedict.com and get a free ebook when you sign up for her newsletter.

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

25 thoughts on “To Count or Not to Count (Words, that is)

  1. I’m with you. Word count does matter. It matters for piece of mind. It matters for staying on a production schedule. It matters to publishers and, frankly, it matters to readers. One of the things I hear most often, whether I offer a book of 50,000 words or 70,000 words…”It was too short”. They want more, more, more!

  2. Hey, congrats on the Edgar nom. Good company, I see!

    I’m a word count guy. I consider it the best advice I ever got, and fortunately got it early in my journey. I even did a video about it.

    I use a spreadsheet, and can tell you how many words I wrote on any given day going back to 2000.

    • 2000? That’s remarkable, Jim–a real testament to your productivity and consistency. Glad you posted the link.

      Yes, I can’t imagine more stellar company for the list!

  3. Congrats on the nomination!

    As to explaining why we track words, the first explanation that comes to mind is the same as for any business: it’s a productivity measure.

    But I also agree that I track to compete with myself.

    • Thank you, BK!

      And it’s a very simple productivity measure, now that every composition program counts automatically. Love that. I remember the 250 words/typewritten page days. It wasn’t so easy then.

  4. The prompt for The Weekly Knob (www.theweeklyknob.com) comes out on Monday. Last week I spent 10-12 hrs between Monday and Wednesday working on my story (“Divorce Anthrax Style”), all 980 words of it. The rest of the week I puttered with revising it and worked on revisions of some of my other stories. But mostly I read. Raymond Chandler this week. Who famously said it takes him about three months to finish one short story.

    I don’t really see the point of putting words on the page just for the sake of putting words on the page. If I had a contract, and the novel was due in two months, yes. But I’ve got more words of fiction in my computer than I can edit and revise already. And I’ve spent at least two hours, maybe three, working on my entry for Writer’s Digest “first sentence” competition. That’s 25 words or less.

    If I were working on an (uncontracted) novel and I knew I wanted to finish the draft, I could see myself setting some kind of target. But even then maybe not word count . Maybe a scene-a-day or every two/three days.

    Clearly different people have different situations, different needs, different personalities.

    • It sounds like you have a wonderfully full writing schedule, Eric. Interesting perspective on the target goals vs. scene goals. I often switch between them myself, depending on the project.

  5. Congratulations on your nomination!!!!!!! So exciting!

    To answer your question, I don’t keep track of word counts. I write everyday anyway, so I just keep plugging along. The days I spend marketing more than writing, however, I’m not a happy camper.

    • Thank you, Sue! I’m definitely excited.

      I’m so with you. For me, there are days when anxiety makes it hard to approach the page, so I’ll often use the energy to do marketing stuff, and it’s definitely not satisfying in the same way. The one thing I have been enjoying is designing–I could play with text and images all day. The results aren’t always professional or brilliant, but it’s fun to learn and has saved me chunks of marketing money.

  6. Wow, congrats on the nom, Laura. I will be up there as banquet chair. Will seek you out — I often hang out at the nominee badge table to greet folks, so stop and say hey!

  7. Congratulations on the Edgar nomination!

    I think word count does matter. I know I always seem to write more if I’m doing a sprint with one or more authors or if I make my count public (and therefore make myself accountable) on any given day.

    • Thank you so much, Staci. Sprints are my favorite. Even as I type this, my sprint group is getting words on the page, and I’m a little jealous. The public accountability is interesting, isn’t it? Pressure, but a good kind of pressure.

  8. I am a big opponent of counting words (I’ve written numerous posts on the topic). In a society in which many feel more is better, and quantity over quality is the order of the day, I urge writers to focus on writing well and thoughtfully instead of churning out thousands of mediocre words. I’d rather spend three hours crafting two great pages in my scene than write twenty pages not worth keeping. Readers might enjoy this post, if they’re struggling with pressure to count words (internal or external): http://www.livewritethrive.com/2012/07/30/why-counting-words-may-be-hazardous-to-your-health/

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic!

  9. Congratulations on your award! An Edgar is the pinnacle of awards and to be nominated is winning!!

    I’m under contract so I set a goal of 2000 words each day as I write my first draft and keep track of it with Scrivener’s Target Project box. It motivates me to keep writing while I’m pulling teeth. 🙂 That and the phrase above my computer that tells me I can’t edit what I haven’t written.

    • I am crazy about Scrivener’s Target Project box, too. It doesn’t stay open on my desktop, but I often set a timer for 25 minutes and check it on my 5 minute break before getting back to work. It’s a lot like tracking calories while dieting for me–keeps me honest and encouraged. Thank you for the congrats–the nomination is, indeed, the thing!

  10. First of all, congrats on the nomination. You’re one of my writing heroes. Way to go!

    I’m more goal-oriented. At the beginning of each week, I have a good idea of what scenes need to be written, etc., and plan what I’ll do each day. I keep a journal with notes and thoughts. Although I know about how many words I write on a given day, I write because it’s something I want to do (and because I’m a computer geek I do keep a spreadsheet). It’s not a horse race, though. I think more in terms of “chapter” goals than “word count” goals. Some days I spend more time thinking or editing than writing. Once I’ve decided what I want to do with a particular section, writing consumes me. I write like a runaway train. If I’m not sure how I want to handle a particular scene, I’ll skip over it. That way time is never wasted. There is always something to do, and I can work on one thing while I’m mulling over something else. I know that if I can’t envision the finish line for the story, I’m not ready to write.

    • Wow–I love how well you articulate your process. You sound like you have come to it from a place of security and confidence, and that it makes you happy. What a lovely thing. Congratulations.

      Thank you for your kind words on the nom!

  11. Congratulations on the nomination! That’s a really big deal. Way to go!

    I’m under contract to deliver a 100,000-word manuscript by September 15 of every year. Often as not, they run 110-120K. Word counts don’t matter to me on a daily basis or a weekly basis, but rather in the longer arc of the process where I know that by 75K, give or take, I need to be pivoting into the final sequence of the book, which I’ll keep pounding out until I’ve wrung as much drama out of the plot as I can.

    On a daily basis, I focus on finishing a scene. If it’s a long scene, it can go to two or three thousand words. If it’s a short scene, it can be as little as a few hundred words. When the scene is done, I give myself permission to walk away if I want.

    • That sounds like a terrific system, John. It’s interesting to be able to tell when one is close to that 75k point without even looking at the word count. You know because the book is working!

      Thanks for the congratulations!

  12. Ditto all the congrats on the Edgar~ impressive~!

    If I may, tho, the pic you picked made me think of the esteemed Mr. Bell totalling an early work’s word count~ (no disrespect intended, of course).

    🙂

    • Thanks so much, George. I haven’t seen any early photos of Mr. Bell, but I bet there’s one of him holding a TI SR-10 in his personal archives. 🙂

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