WORD COUNT AIN’T ALL IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE

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Now that NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month) has ended, some readers of this blog will be assessing their progress toward that goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. Make no mistake about it, that’s a whole passel of words. I’m thrilled for those of you who got even half way there!

What about me? Thanks for asking, but I have no idea how many words I wrote last month, or even yesterday.

Let me explain. Like most writers, I do have tools and I do use them to track my progress and maintain accountability. Software will happily spit out those numbers, and even plop them into a spreadsheet. Sometimes, I’ll announce to my writer buddies how many words I wrote each day, week, month, etc. Other times, I’ll keep the word totals private.

The longer I write, the more I’m aware of the limitations of word counts to measure “progress.” First of all, I tend to revise as I go, so much so that it feels arbitrary to say when one draft is done and the next draft has been started, unless there’s an interlude between them. By interlude, I mean at least a few days that is taken up with another writing project. I need those days to give me a fresh perspective on the first work in progress.

Second, word count simply doesn’t measure revisions well. Sure, I can count the number of words I took out. That’s sometimes a good practice at the end when I want to tighten up what I’ve produced at the paragraph-by-paragraph and sentence-by-sentence level. But before that point, it can be discouraging to watch one’s word count diminish. Moreover, when it comes to replacing lame, or downright dreadful, words with bright, shiny, new ones, word count fails.

So instead, I resort to one or more of these measures:

1. Amount of time I’ve spent writing each day (really writing, not checking social media)

2. Number of pages I’ve revised

3. Amount of time I’ve spent on research.

That last one can be a huge productivity-killer, in itself, when it becomes a substitute for writing. Astute readers will note that I said “when,” not “if.” Hmmm … now there’s a topic for another blog post.

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One response

  1. I agree with you completely. Measuring word counts is all fun and dandy for NaNoWriMo and even for first drafts (assuming one does not revise while writing it), but it does not give an accurate measurement of work done when it is time to edit or revise. Plus, it cannot work for other areas of a writer’s job, like research as you mentioned. For me, I’ll be taking an approach like yours and measuring in hours worked, much like a “regular” day job.

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