Fuck word counts.
There, I said it. Now let me explain.
I don’t hate word counts. Word counts are actually great. Here are a few reasons why:
- They help you keep track of progress. I have a spreadsheet for my daily writing progress and it’s working well! While I also track my progress in chapters written and plot beats reached, on a day-to-day basis, word counts excel as a simple measure across multiple stories and worldbuilding documents.
- They help you market your story. The length of your story speaks a lot about what and how much a reader can expect, so it’s naturally useful as a marketing communication tool. It’s vital for selling your story to agents, publishers, and ultimately readers.
- They’re good for measuring progress in contests. Sometimes you might want to go head-to-head with others to boost your motivation. Word counts are a natural way to measure progress in sprints, in relation to your writing friends, and in contests like NaNoWriMo and our own Six Month Novel Writing Challenge.
- “Honey, I’m working, OK?” Yeah, you got it, they are also great as proof that you did something tonight instead of doing the dishes and laundry. (“Like you should have, Roger!”) Just stick the bare numbers in your SO’s face and tell them you did something productive today. To overcome your own self-doubt, you can collect word counts to assess your monthly or even yearly progress. “Wow, I wrote 150,000 new words last year? How crazy am I?”
So where do we arrive after contemplating these positive aspects? Why would I still flip off word counters in a heartbeat?
You see, a word count is useful as a marketing and management tool. It’s useful as a comparison benchmark. It’s great for extra motivation. But it utterly fails at supporting your creative process.
First of all, during the act of writing, your word count has nothing to do with what you’re actually trying to accomplish. You’re trying to write a scene. You’re trying to write the actions, reactions, dialogues and emotions of your characters in the best way possible. You’re not trying to reach the highest word count for the day. No matter what popular writing advice might tell you.
So when you stare at your word count, you’re switching to edit mode. You’re not in the scene anymore, but thinking “Oof, only 200 words so far?” You lose the flow you’re trying to cultivate in the first place. You’re kicked out of the scene’s mental model and replace it with a shallow “How many words can I write?” game.
On a higher level, I think it’s a terrible idea to limit your first draft to a specific word count. Don’t submit your ideas to the mercy of a number. Don’t rethink chapter 5 because it’s already 6000 words. Don’t rewrite your outline because your second quarter is 40% longer than the first.
It’s about pacing, it’s about flow, it’s about putting on the page what you really want to tell. It’s not about word count. It’s not about chapter length.
Stop checking your word count. Stop editing. That’s a task for later. Finish your first draft and stop editing. Don’t worry about the word count. Stop editing.
In summary, I think it’s important to track your word count. That doesn’t mean you have to look at it incessantly. Get rid of the habit of checking your word count periodically and switch off your inner editor. Let your creative juices flow and don’t interrupt the river of inspiration with unnecessary floodgates.
Hide your word count. Thank yourself later.