Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 18 October 2012

Words: To Count or Not To Count?

Several years ago the husband was asked about his output. He often says that he wishes he hadn’t answered that question. He often feels that the answer came back to haunt him... that, sometimes, it comes back to haunt him still.

There’s nothing wrong with having goals; if anything, it’s probably useful. We all need tools; we all need something to aim for, somewhere to head. We all need a reason to get up in the morning, and we all need something to sustain us through the day... Perhaps this is true of creative types more than other people. Honestly? I don’t know.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I do not think that a word count is a useful yardstick by which to measure the progress of a piece of writing.

Writing two thousand words a day, or even four thousand is not the same thing as writing two thousand usable words that advance the story, whether it’s a novel or a complete little short. 

I can type at about ninety words a minute, its a skill I picked up as an eight year old with chicken pox, and I’m damned glad that I did, because, when I’m in the zone, I’m like a great racing driver: I can go faster than everyone else without crashing and burning, because I have mad skills. I can, theoretically, win the race. On the other hand, I’m not actually Jane Austen. 

Think about it: ninety words a minute. Even if I only worked for forty-six minutes an hour that’d be my four thousand words, and even if I only worked four hours a day, that’d be sixteen thousand words. Look at what I’m telling you, people!  I’m telling you that my typing speed would allow me to write an average length novel in a single, part-time, working week with time to drink a cup of coffee every other hour and pee in the hours in-between.

Yes, you’re right... That’s utter madness!

What about rewrites? How many drafts might a novel go through before it’s published? Do they count? If by the end of a long working day I have two fewer words in a novel than when I began, does that mean I achieved nothing? Of course it doesn’t. I might well have achieved a good deal more than I did on a day when I put two or three thousand words on the page. 

I have been looking for a way to explain just what nonsense it is for me to use a word count as some sort of badge of honour, and one arrived, yesterday, by way of Peter Jeal (@redziller), who gave me this on Twitter, “You wouldn’t count notes writing music!” 

It’s perfect, isn’t it?

You wouldn’t count notes writing music!

You wouldn’t count steps choreographing dance!

You wouldn’t count brushstrokes painting a picture!

I’m not about to compare myself to Bach or Balanchine, or Auerbach; what I am going to say is that writers write, and that it’s not that hard to motivate them to write. OK, we all have good days and bad days, because we, too, are human, but, in the end, writing is what we do, and we will produce words and we will meet deadlines, and making a daily record of just how we meet those deadlines isn’t necessarily something that we all need, and it really, really isn’t something we need to share and compare. Writing is not a competition.

So, to count or not to count is entirely up to you. I’m not above glancing at the little number at the bottom left of my screen, myself. I’d just much rather let the words run my life than the numbers, because, you know what? There’s much more fun to be had in the words... Much, much more fun.


  1. When you said: 'I'd just much rather let the words run my life than the numbers.' That completely resonated with me! What you said after I totally knew was coming: we're words people, we weave stories and fiction out of words and letters, not numbers.

    Numbers are like tools. Something to be manipulated to get an end result; like painting a house. Words though... Words are like strokes on a canvas, each one subjective, each one different. That old saying: the sum is greater than the parts, perfectly describes words. Whereas the whole point of numbers is that the parts you put in will equal an exact sum, which will not change no matter how often you do that sum.

    Hmm, thanks for a lovely blog post Nik. This actually brightened up my day by making me think about why I am a words, not a numver person :)