Words count

[September 2011]If you’ve ever read an author’s blog for any length of time, or followed his or her Facebook feed, you will no doubt be familiar with the tradition of posting sporadic or daily word counts. It is, perhaps, the only metric that writers have available to measure our productivity.

My favorite anecdote comes via Stephen King in On Writing in which he recounts of a possibly apocryphal encounter between James Joyce and a friend. The friend finds Joyce in a posture of utter despair at his writing desk. Being familiar with Joyce’s issues, the friend asks, “How many words did you get written today?” Joyce answers, “Seven.” The friend is impressed. “That’s good…for you.” To which Joyce responds, “But I don’t know what order they go in!”

People comment on how prolific certain writers are, producing two or three books a year, even more. When I stop to do the math, I’m astonished that more writers aren’t that prolific. On a typical day, which for me means an uninterrupted writing window of no more than 90 minutes, I can write 1000 words. Some days it’s 750, some days it’s 1250, but 1000 is a good figure. If I did that every day for a year, I’d have the total word count of three decent-sized novels. If I were able to write longer, I could imagine writing 3-4000 words per day. I think my personal record is something on the order of 8000, which I cranked out at a beach house while on a working vacation during a NaNoWriMo marathon.

Of course, not all “writing” involves producing new words. On another sort of productive writing day, I can crank out -500 words. Yes, that’s negative five hundred, which means I’ve cut that much fat from a manuscript. I tend to write long on the first draft and it’s unusual if I can’t remove at least 10-15 percent of the total word count from a short story upon revision. How does one measure that type of productivity? It’s a different type of accomplishment, one that is at least as important as the one that created those words in the first place.

An efficiency expert might look at my process and tell me how much better off I’d be if I hadn’t written those 10-15% extra words in the first place, but I simply can’t. To do so would require editing every sentence as I wrote it and that would interrupt the flow, that mysterious gush of words that comes from a source I can’t define. I wouldn’t dare place a governor on that lest it slow to a trickle and stop. I don’t mind editing yesterday’s work before I start today’s—that’s one of my favorite ways to get that gusher going again—but I have to write things that I know deep down won’t all survive. At least not in that shape or order.

What about the days we spend on the internet doing research, or driving around a neighborhood to pick up local color, or reading a book to gather information on a particular subject, or simply sitting in a dark room or taking a walk to think about the work and where it’s headed? Our word count meters don’t record that creative homework, but it is part of the process, too, and contributes to the end product. Those words that we count don’t always just spring into our minds. We have to feed the mind with information at times.

The ritual of posting word counts is one way that we assure anyone reading our blogs—and ourselves—that we are hard at it. Doing the work. If too many days pass without anything substantial to show for them, we start feeling nervous, like a batter in a slump. At the end of the day, though, all the research and ruminating in the world is for naught if we don’t get AIC (ass in chair) and produce words. Because words count.

P.S. In case you’re interested, I wrote 2000 words today. Nearly seven hundred in this essay and a little over 1300 on my current work in progress. A very good day indeed.

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