Updated Hard Writing Lesson: Word Count

I’ve run out of time to write a lengthy essay this morning about my fourth book, so I’ll resume that series of essays next week. Today I thought I’d draft a brief note about another writing matter that’s been a challenge to me for years: word count.

Like a lot of writers, once I got a steady writing gig I began to fret about my daily word count. It was always smaller than I wanted it to be. Some days I could get 4 or even 5 thousand words and occasionally much higher, but more often it was 3k or a little less. I last wrote about this in 2016, when I had realized that the overall weekly or even monthly word count was much more important than the daily word count.

That was an important realization, because it helped me stop getting frustrated every day when my words weren’t coming as fast as I thought they were supposed to arrive. I went so far as to read a number of books on writing faster to see if I could glean the secrets. I gleaned some, but I knew at that point that few writing tips are absolute. What works for one writer may not work for another — you have to be willing to try of course, but there are many different ways up the mountain.

In the last half year my thoughts on word count have evolved even further. While it is always important to keep track of your word count overall and know how much you have to complete — and its crucial you stay on a steady course — the amount of writing you get done is a false sense of security if you have to constantly revise again and again. You’re losing time either at the front or the back. Maybe you’re one of those writers who can get it mostly right in the first couple of drafts while writing fast. I have had to admit that I’m usually not that guy.

Instead, I am writing slower, and trying to get it more or less right the first time. And that means I have to be okay with a lower daily and weekly word count. When I look over a draft of a new scene and see that it mostly works just like it is, that’s fine solace. Now I probably couldn’t have done that a few years ago because I wasn’t as strong a writer, and I know I couldn’t do that if I didn’t already know my characters very well. Experience helps.

But I offer this hard lesson and state it succinctly: getting it right is much better than getting it fast. Remember that used bookstores and old magazines are stuffed full of old tales no one wants to read anymore because they were written fast and competently enough to sell. Rarely is something written fast and beautifully enough that people are still reading it decades on. You can cite me the outliers, so could I. But the odds are that you’re NOT an outlier. For your own sanity you should keep that in mind.

Whatever you do, experiment with the writing techniques and find the ones that work for you, and don’t chastise yourself if you work hard and don’t measure up to some arbitrary writing goal you’ve set. There are enough people out there who don’t want to be kind to you. Don’t let yourself be one of them.