By the Numbers?

I can tell you I wrote well yesterday morning, that my characters pushed the scene forward with little help from me.

I can tell you that the switch I blogged about a couple of weeks ago in “Course Correction” — setting aside the novel I was working on in favor of one on the back burner — is working out really well.

Beans

Beans

I can tell you that when I knocked off at 8:50 p.m. I was drifty to the point of disoriented. This is a sure-fire good sign: when I’m absorbed in what I’m writing, it takes a few minutes to come back to earth.

What I can’t tell you is how many words I wrote. This is partly because I was writing in longhand. Reading my scrawly handwriting is hard enough; no way am I going to count the words.

Actually I may have that backwards: I write in longhand so the internal editor can’t second-guess what I’m writing, and so the internal bean-counter can’t count the words. The internal bean-counter wishes I’d stick to Word, which oh-so-helpfully counts the words as I type them. Then the internal bean-counter could rest assured that I was really writing.

When someone crows that she wrote 893 words this morning, or 1,125, or 1,499, my internal bean-counter gets worried. Maybe I haven’t done enough? Maybe I’m not doing it right?

Dear Internal Bean-Counter:

Take a break. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how many words I wrote this morning, or yesterday morning, or in the middle of tomorrow night. If I wrote 893 words yesterday, I may jettison 878 of them today. So how many words did I really write yesterday?

Yours truly,

The Writer

Spilled beans

Spilled beans

Our society loves to quantify. It loves to count and then compare the numbers. I get it: numbers are precise and, well, quantifiable. Real life is messy and hard to pin down. Numbers can be useful. Right now WordPress is telling me I’ve got 313 words on the screen — 320, 321, 322 . . . This is good to know. When the word-counter hits 800, I know it’s time to wrap it up. (Don’t worry: we’re not going there today.)

But numbers are deceptive. They don’t tell us as much as we like to think they do. Polls don’t tell us what people think. The number on the scale doesn’t tell you how you feel. Your word count for yesterday doesn’t mention the breakthrough you had in that floundering scene, or how many words it took to get there.

Creative beans

Creative beans

Don’t worry about the numbers. Get your hand moving across the page, or your fingers moving on the keyboard. See what happens. Your writing will teach you what you need to know. Numbers are dumb in comparison.

(Word count: 443.)

 

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12 thoughts on “By the Numbers?

  1. Though I agree with the over all statement, I think there’s a place for word counts. Mainly in written exercise. When you give your self a word count you force your self to reword things. To take a look at the way you write and change habits. I think as writers some times this can be a great way to challenge ones self.

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  2. Sometimes that is difficult when an editor says, “Keep it under 900 words” or write an essay in 300 words about the first day of school.” 🙂

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    • Right. And if you’re writing fiction, you’ve got to be mindful of the maximum and minimum length for short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels (which can be different from journal to journal, press to press). If you often work on assignment, you develop a sense for what subjects can be fully developed within a given length limit. Or how deeply you can go into a subject and still stay under the maximum word count. But that’s editing as much as writing. When you’re writing, the number of words you crank out may not be as important as the fact that you managed to write for 10 minutes.

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  3. Great post! While I agree that we shouldn’t feel beholden to our internal bean-counters, I do like having a quantifiable number that I can look at at the end of the day and feel like I made good progress towards my end goal. For me having a daily goal helps to keep me motivated and push through any sections that may be giving me trouble. Generally I fly right on by my goals with no problems, but there are days that I’m all too happy to put my pen down/step away from my computer as soon as I hit word 1,000. In the end though, all that really matters is that we’re writing 🙂

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  4. Susanna, great post as always, and a good illustration that what works for one writer doesn’t always for another. I find setting a word count goal very helpful. I suffer a lot from “if I were truly a. . .” fill in the blank. If the word is “writer”, then the rest of the internal monologue would be that I need to write all day. Write more. And more. And I need to be smarter and better read and how on earth can I even pretend to aspire to be a writer, etc.

    For some years, the sheer burden of that made me not want to write at all. Now, when I’ve met my goal, I’m done for the day–oh, I still think about the book and often make great breakthroughs–but I don’t feel that nagging guilt. Sometimes I meet my goal in a few hours and sometimes it takes all day, but when I’m done I can move on. And it doesn’t matter if the words will remain or will be significantly revised or thrown out. The discipline of writing them, day in and out, leads to progress on the book.

    YMMV. 🙂

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  5. Strangely enough, when I tried to enter a comment this morning, the comment option was not there at all, now it is!! (I had sent a private message enquiring). What I wanted to say is that writers must ignore the “QVC-approach” to value (I shall never forget a well-sold author of non-fiction standing in QVC telling spectators just how many hundreds of thousands of words they were getting for the dollars they were paying, and going through the trouble of doing the math all the way to showing them just how many words they’re getting per dollar/cent, and what an unbelievable bargain that was–I’m not kidding!) Please remember that it’s what you’re saying, not how much…please remember that “open sesame” is just two words….

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  6. I am very much trying to get away from word count goals, too, and get back to the very different kind of focus I had back when I wrote more poetry. I’ve been in the bean-counting brain for too long — those numbers can be addictive!

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  7. I like the analogy of the bean-counter. If we count every one of them, we end up going crazy but if we step back and look at the whole jar, we see the bigger picture. We really are a numbers society but in some cases like creative writing, numbers are less important. It’s very encouraging to know you feel the same way about word counts, especially during NaNoWriMo.

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