Words Don’t Count Like That

I’ve read my fair share of writing guides. I’ve attended writing classes. I’ve studied tropes, themes, and character types, the 3/7/20/36 basic plots and the four types of storyline.  I know the three-act structure and the Hero’s Journey. Over the years I’ve absorbed tons of advice aimed at improving my wordcraft and at making my work more appealing to readers.

Yet the more I know, the more I read, the more I find myself snarling, rolling my eyes and arguing with my computer screen. Fighting with the Internet seldom ends well. I’ll vent here instead.

It’s a rich vein of material. There is so much advice out there, half of it contradicting the rest, that I may never run out of bitch-worthy topics.

Today’s burr under my saddle: word counts. Love ’em, hate ’em, or don’t care at all; there’s no escaping them. Writers post them everywhere, as proud as parents relating the length and weight their newborns. I do understand the urge to shout every achievement to the skies, but when did words become the point?

Quantity has become an end in its own right, as if it was the only important measure of quality. There are reams and reams of suggestions on how to push those pixels out at all costs.  Don’t self-censor. Don’t over-edit. Write first, revise later. Don’t worry about cohesion or coherence or connection. Just get those words written!

Forward momentum! Words, ho! How many words did you write today? Did you make a goal? Did you meet your goal? Did you write-write-write-write-write? DO YOU FEEL GUILTY YET?

I always do.

My heart sinks whenever I see those counts posted. When I look at my measly hundred words…or fifty…or none…for the day, I know myself defeated. How can I possibly succeed as a professional with such minimal output? Yet at my measly pace, at that pathetically inadequate drop-drip-drip of word production, I’ve still completed two long novels, a novella and two novelettes in three years. Huh. How’d that happen?

It happened because once down, my words stay. I would rather write a single sentence twenty times in twenty different ways to get it right than to write four hundred sentences that suck like chest wounds. I can’t imagine going back and burying myself to the bloody elbows in full-text revision. Instead, I write the way I write, and it works for me.

I wonder if I would’ve had the courage to keep writing at all, if word counts had been so ubiquitous when I younger and my stubborn sense of self-worth wasn’t as hardened as it is now. To focus with such laser-precision on one tiny aspect of such a multi-tentacled beast as the writing process can bore right through the fragile membrane between ego and creativity and destroy both.

I’m all for writing even if I don’t feel like it, for the sake of discipline and practice, but not on a project that isn’t ready.  I’ll write something else. I’ll write two somethings. Forward momentum isn’t always the best. Sometimes it’s just as valid to go forward by sliding at things sideways.

When I feel really guilty, I pretend I’m a poet or a lyricist. Can you imagine Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, or Gwendolyn Brooks worrying about word counts? Bob Dylan? P!ink?

Absurd.

Language that sings, sentences that soar, words that dance…these are the true goals of quality prose, not numbers and tallies and totals.  In my not-so-very humble opinion, of course.