Writing again

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.

Writing again

A compendium of grumbles

Disclaimer: most of the following material does not apply to my circle of acquaintance. I have some great supporters. If you recognize yourself in any of the following paragraphs, however, if you feel a wee twinge of guilt…well, then. Good. Begin Rant:

 Does your heart sink when a buddy mentions that he spent his weekend glued to a word processor instead of bellied up to a bar or attached to a game console? Do you quiver in fear of being asked to read someone’s fan fiction or offer an opinion on a drawing? Are there awkward silences when a fictional character is mentioned in conversation? Do you wish that the amateur or semi-pro creators(s) in your life would just shut up already?

Tough shit. Put on your grown-up hat, pull up your panties, and stuff your hypocrisy in a nice tight hole somewhere. You aren’t a sparkling font of excitement 24/7/365 either. You, too,  have at least one cherished activity that your friends tolerantly support. You show off baby pictures and recent purchases, vent about work horrors,  talk about sports, or relate celebrity gossip with the full and reasonable expectation that your friends will enthuse along with you, at least vicariously.

That’s what friends and family do, right? They encourage each other in their passions. Right. Unless there’s an artist in the room. Then people make with the mumbles and the squirms, and the “oh, gawd, please change the subject” sweats. This is the death of a thousand cuts, for a creator.

You’ve probably ego-slashed someone in your life more times than you know. You may even inflict  bloody havoc on their self-confidence with the  best of intentions. Painful injuries don’t care about intentions. Scars are scars. Let’s analyze a couple of classic damaging admissions and look at some field-tested alternatives.

1. “I say I like the art because I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but she sucks.”
Oh, please. Do you think you’re fooling anyone? A generic “That’s great!” followed by a hurried change in subject is like a needle to the heart. The technical term is “damning with faint praise.”
Support score: D- You suck like a vacuum.

Try this instead: “Not my style, but it looks like you worked hard. How long did it take?” 
2. “It sucks/I’m too busy/I don’t read/ I don’t like that kind of story/art/craft.”
Aw, poor baby. If your friend ever listens to you bitch about anything, ever, (and you know he does) if you’ve ever asked for help moving, or needed help choosing an outfit while shopping (and you know you have) then you can suck it up and spend a little time with his avocation.  Unless you’re a jerk.
Support score: D- You’re a jerk.
Try any one of these instead:
Pre-emptive strike: “Gee, if I read dinosaur porn, I would read yours first…but I don’t. Who’s the market for that, anyway?”
Wellness check: Encourage the creator to tell you all about the work. And by encourage, I mean, “bring it up in conversation independently, and ask follow-up questions.” Repeat regularly. Creative types tend to introversion, and if they’re over age 12, they already carry the scars of damaging lukewarm interest. They’ll either gush or be clams who need tickling open. Respond as needed. 
Warm Fuzzies: Become superficially knowledgeable and discuss the work. This takes real effort (see clams vs geysers.) Not for the weak of heart, but criticism isn’t rocket science. If someone made cookies that tasted like crap, would you lie and say they were tasty? You’d get stuck with those cookies every Christmas for decades. Be direct but gentle. Worst case/best case, you’ll never have to critique again.
The point in common with these alternatives is the gift of your time. Your interest. Your affectionate indulgence, even. Think about whose passion you’re slicing to ribbons with the edge of your silence. You might be squirming. Someone else is bleeding.
3. “I bought his work didn’t I? I support my friends/family with their artistic endeavors. I just don’t want to talk about it.” (see #1 and 2 above for the usual reasons)
Newsflash: a purchase without a personal commitment is not support, not when you know the artist. It’s the consumer equivalent of a pity-fuck. One participant walks away feeling smug and self-righteous, but the other one got screwed out of any genuine connection. You may think you’re saying, “Look, I spent money on you. Isn’t that nice?” The real message is: “I’m sure your work will never sell to anyone who doesn’t know you, but I’ll give you a few dollars so that we need never speak of this again.”
Support score: F- Everyone loses. You’re out cash for art you don’t want, the artist is stripped of all dignity and left dangling in the wind.
Try this instead: If you don’t like an artist’s work, don’t buy it. Do tell others about it. Even if you think it sucks. Different strokes for different folks. Brag, big-time, at every opportunity,, about your cousin the potter or your bestie the purveyer of dinosaur porn. Whatever. Spread the word. Silence kills art. Word of mouth is the breath of life.

If you do buy someone’s work, read it or display it, and offer your freaking opinion to the creator at the first opportunity. Don’t make people beg for feedback, for frick’s sake. And speaking of feedback…

Do you lose that feeling of freshness when you think about writing a few words of praise about the creators in your life? Tough titty-cakes. Get your ass up to DeviantART, Wattpad, Smashwords or Amazon, wherever their work is posted, log in and start typing and sharing.  If you have trouble with the technical side, enlist a bright nephew or a neighbor child–or better yet, invite your starving artists to lunch and ask for help. If they’re online, they know the ropes. Bonus point: the flattery and attention will make them squirm. Fair retaliation for your past discomforts, and productive, too!

Stop being an ego- slasher. Start being a true supporter. That’s all I’m saying. Here endeth the Rant.

Now, in gratitude for your reading, here’s an anarchist punk penguin from a talented artist on Pixabay:

Writing again

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?


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.

Writing again

Writer’s Banes Episode 1: Procrastination and Inspiration

A recent discussion about procrastination on a Facebook board (of all places) got my dander up about the Great Art Versus Boring Grind debate. It’s a false argument that permeates articles about creativity too, and it toasts my temper, it really does.

People, procrastination is normal. It’s inevitable. and it’s avoidable. The one thing that WON’T help you get back in front of your writing is avoiding the keyboard or the journal or the notebook.

Here’s my take on getting successfully to the end of a project despite lack of motivation, based on my experience completing five novels, two novelettes, a novella and a bunch of shorts. I’ll be mixing my metaphors with abandon and sprinkling in similes like a hipster putting cinnamon on a latte, so brace yourself.

My advice: write. Just that. If you’re having trouble getting going or keeping going, start doing it on a schedule. Start with five minutes. Time yourself. Resolve to sit with your tools of choice for five minutes every day (or every other, or on your days off, whatever) and WRITE. Write anything, up to and including five-minute rambling stream-of-consciousness rants about how stupid the whole idea is.  If you can’t get your project to gel, be water around a rock and flow in a different way, but keep moving. That’s all it will take.

“Oh, noes!” you say, all internet-speaky and full of tips and tricks gleaned from  lists and blogs and articles written by Real Professionals. “But I’ll start resenting the writing process if I force myself to sit down and write! I’ll stifle my Art! I’ll smother my creativity! I couldn’t possibly. Ooo, scary! I should stay away from writing if the ideas aren’t coming. Avoiding writing gets the juices flowing.”


Forcing yourself to do anything can make it a chore. That’s a matter of attitude, not action.  Discipline generates transcendence like rubbing your shoes across the rug generates electricity. There is no art whose construction will always be enjoyable or easy, without periods of resentment, angst and sometimes even loathing. One thing and one thing only will make you a better writer: writing.  To believe that discipline will poison your drive to create with such a petty emotion as resentment insults the power of your own imagination and sells your

To forbid yourself release of words and vision in hopes of inspiring motivation is like holding one’s breath in hopes of gaining oxygen. It’s self-defeating, however heady the temporary rush may feel. Treating creativity  as a commodity that must be stored up — as if it will eventually run out if you don’t husband it and deny it release — is a mental trap. Don’t fall into it. Procrastination lives at the bottom.

Ideas are much more like living things that need attention and nurturing. Yes, there’s a real need to step back at times, to get some distance from a given project to relax your mind, but that’s not the same as waiting passively for inspiration to strike or holding yourself aloof from it.

Inspiration doesn’t strike, it grows, down in the dark parts of your mind where you can’t see it, until it burst out in bloom when you least expect it. You’ll get no glorious blooms of genius without first putting down roots deep in the stinky, boring soil of constant practice. To believe otherwise is to cripple yourself before you even start the artistic journey.

Discipline is a choice. Not an easy one, no, but no one questions the value of forcing yourself to take a shower so that your body does not offend, or forcing yourself to do unfulfilling work to get money to live. How can you give your art any less effort?  And yes, I sometimes resent having to shower and go to work too. Don’t we all? Yet those acts have lasting value that make them worth doing despite an occasional bout of resentment.

Regularly challenge and stimulate and IMPROVE your writing by…writing. It really is that simple.

Simple isn’t easy. It’s hard, even sometimes immensely painful. Anything worth doing is worth doing even when you don’t want to do it. Especially then.

It could be worse. Imagine writing on paper when paper looked like this: