Count Words but Make Words Count

That'll cost extra, OK?

That’ll cost extra, OK?

Writers hear a lot about producing word count. The more the better, most writing resources admonish. It’s wonderful to be able to state, “I wrote 2000 words today” or “I’m up to 90k!” Yet so many new writers try to make their words count too soon.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s define the difference between counting words and making your words count, and why writers need both disciplines in their writing lives.

Counting Words

Producing word count is a writer’s core discipline. Consistent word count says so much about you as a writer. You are serious about learning your craft. You treat writing not as an end-of-the-list hobby but as a vocation. You show up, get your BIC and write on a regular basis. Understandably, at different life seasons, most of us produce to match whatever life is handing out at the time. When I had four small children underfoot, I tried to write during naptime (if I didn’t fall asleep myself) or get up early in the morning. I had to accept I wasn’t able to crank out record word count when my life was so hectic. But I knew I also couldn’t use my mothering as an excuse. I found a book by a medical doctor who had twelve children and used her example to keep from procrastinating. I put writing on every day’s To Do list. I reminded myself that I have the same twenty-four hours as the rest of us. In other words, I encouraged myself and held myself accountable to do as much writing as I could with the time available.

Words that Count

By the next writing session, however, many if not most of those words were not what I wanted. I’d produce a thousand words and end up keeping less than half—even fewer if I tried to write while a kid was whining or I was staying up late. Some of my students complain that they can get the word count all right, only to see their critique partners or editors cross out most of them. To these writers, it feels futile to get the words down only to jettison most of them at a later time. It’s true that we must revise, revise, revise if we ever hope to produce a polished, publishable work. One student said, “What’s the point of getting word count if I delete most of it?” I answer that words are like Doritos—we can always make more. And you should make as many words as you can. The problem lies in thinking that these same words are valuable only because of the time it took to get them down. How do you get from generating word count to ensuring your words count (in serving your topic, style and readability)?

Why Both Matter

One sure way to understand your writing life is to stop giving drafted words a lot of weight. They may be brilliant, but chances are many of the words you produce when you’re drafting will be superfluous, purple prose or off-topic. Spend at least as much time revising as creating. And resist the urge to edit yourself as you create. The more you try to make words perfect during the creation or draft phase, the more you’ll be investing in those words. Then, during revision, you are likely to view them as being more important to keep by virtue of the time it took to get them “just right.” When you create, or draft, lock your editor in a closet. Then produce word count with abandon—and try to keep that internal critic quiet. On a different writing session, revise with that same abandon, unattached to anything you wrote before. The ability to be objective as you revise will increase your skills much more rapidly than if you try to control them during the drafting phase. Take a look this week at your ratio of creating (drafting) to editing (revising). If these two elements aren’t balanced, try to schedule in more of the missing component. It’ll make your word count easier and make it easier for your words to count.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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