Word Counts, and Why I Hate Them

I hate word counts. No, not the counts themselves. I like to know how much time I’m about to invest. When I’m looking at a physical book, I can tell at a glance. (Thick? Thin? Tons of photos? None at all?)  When “pages” don’t exist as a physical limit, then counting the words is the only way to measure what’s between the beginning and The End.  This trick doesn’t work well, mind you — poetry and graphic story-telling take far more time to ingest and digest than basic narrative, for example — but it’s better to have a rough idea than none at all.

So, word counts aren’t inherently evil.  They have their uses.  Measuring artistic achievement is not one of them.

If you’re a writer who uses your word count as an ego boost, if you take solace or find cheer in the number of sentences completed, if you regard output as the goal of your creative endeavors, then I implore you to please stop reading now. The exit is right there. If it works for you, then I won’t judge you. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of storytelling, it’s that no one trick, technique or system works for everyone. If counting words helps you keep your fingers on your keyboard and your mind in the creative groove, good for you. Count on.

I will plug my ears, avert my eyes, and grit my teeth. Word counts make me ranty.

For me, it sends the wrong message. How on earth has prose fiction wandered so far afield from the basic concept of wringing the most out of every single word that people feel that they need to produce words for words’ sake? Think about it. Did  e e cummings ever write a piece longer than 500 words? Some of his poems are worth hours of contemplation. The Sandman volumes by Neil Gaiman clock in under 5K words per story. Each one deserves an extended episode of existential pondering. Words are not the point. GOOD words are.

I hate this recent trend that characterizes volume production as a sign of artistic achievement. I loathe it. What is — at best — a raw test of text size is now regularly presented as a precision measurement of productive worthiness. I hate the way word counts have become an obligatory social media mention for authors, as if quantity alone could be a compass guide to progress towards completion, a bragging right, and a point of pride all rolled into one.

“Oh, just write!” That’s what so many guides and experts say. “Don’t over-think it. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t edit as you write, your creative juices will dry up. You can fix errors in the next draft. Get to the finish line. Go-go-go!”

The common wisdom holds that more writers crash on the shoals of self-doubt than drown in a sea of words. Let the font of inspiration flow, and filter it later. There’s a huge problem with this analogy. Creativity isn’t a fountain or a river or a sea. The whole reason for honing wordcraft with intense discipline and dedication is that ideas won’t hit in a steady current. Creativity is a weather system. You want to be ready to capture plenty of water in your cisterns when a gullywasher hits, but without control, you’ll have ooze in the basement and the house will smell like sewage.

There is a difference between “let the story flow” and “clog the page with words.” There is a happy medium.  Focusing on quantity over quality leads to another current trend I like to call Long-string Redundancy. If a description is worth giving, it will be repeated, often with twice as many adjectives as needed, because they all sound good, and word count rules.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not a word-count producer. I can go weeks without generating a single worthwhile page of storyline. I will tackle it every day, I will work at it…and I will throw 99% of it in my discards file, over and over. Clunky descriptions, bad dialogue tags, awkward transitions –they’re all like screaming death traps on the page. I cannot move past them. Every session starts with unraveling and reweaving prior progress.

So, for days at a time, no counts worth admitting. It gets aggravating. It’s painful. I know the mantra, “One Should never compare Self to Others,”  but let’s face it, that’s bullshit advice because it’s human and we all do it. Yes, you do. Liar.

Despite my Inability to Produce, I’ve written 10,000 words of publication-worthy prose in the last month. (Okay, actually, someone told me it was fucking brilliant, but that’s another story.) 3 weeks at zero. Smash. 7K. A week at zilch. Bam. 3K. Plus blog posts, editing, and correspondence, a part-time job and volunteering work.

Blarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. That’s the gibbering sound I make while mentally running around in circles pulling out my figurative hair, because word counts DONT MATTER.

Do you know the song called “I Don’t Like Mondays?” It’s by the Boomtown Rats, aka Bob Geldof’s backup band, and once you’ve heard the earworm melody and the unhinged lyrics that go with it, you never forget them. It came out in 1979, which is practically the Stone Age.

The song is a catchy pop masterpiece based on a horrific event. If you aren’t familiar with it, go absorb some story here. Yes, there is a Wikipedia entry, but I like Mental Floss. There’s even a link to the Youtube video at the top of the article, so you can infect/reinfect yourself with the earworm.

It’s all about going crazy, about mental switches flipping to overload, and wanting to commit violence just to liven things up. “Tell me why I don’t like Mondays,” the song demands, and then admits, “I want to shoot the whole thing down.”

That’s how much I hate the use of word counts as a measure of writing success. When I see them posted, usually with exclamation points and emoji attached, then  “Tell me why I don’t like word counts” runs through my brain.


Maybe I’m the only writer in the world who feels this way, but I doubt it.

I’m relieved that I developed my writing style before this trend started, because it would’ve crushed my confidence. If I didn’t already know that I could finish a 100K novel and edit it to a decent standard in less than a year, then my lack of forward progress during the early stages might have dissuaded me from trying. They made me crazy now. They would’ve been lethal then. I hate knowing that there are probably good writers out there who have the potential to become great, but who think they’re bad simply because they aren’t prolific.

This is my manifesto and my reminder to myself and the world: do not judge yourself or anyone else by output alone. Here’s a reminder that quality cannot be weighed in a scale or counted on a ruler.

One response to “Word Counts, and Why I Hate Them”

  1. trailerdiva Avatar

    word counts….arrrrggghhhooo, and I love Mental Floss