Counting Words

So, yesterday I finished the first draft of a novel, and as I am wont to do on the last day of writing a book, I wrote a lot. A whole bloody helluva fuckbucket of a lot. It’s just a thing that happens as I get close to the end — I tend to write books that, ideally, move a bit like thrillers and by the time you round the bend on the last 10-15% of the book it’s like, whoosh. All the scree is kicked loose. It’s avalanche time. Rocks fall. Everybody dies.

I tend to publicly chart those potential final days of writing a novel — meaning, I talk about my progress on Twitter because basically I live on Twitter and basically I’m just a fictional digital construct of Twitter (seriously, ask my wife who is actually just an Apple Magic Trackpad if I’m real and she’ll say nothing because she’s just an Apple Magic Trackpad). I chart my word count as it escalates because it gives me an excuse to take a break from the story. It gives me motivation and momentum and it also serves as kind of a self-driven application of pressure born from the promise of telling the world: “Hey, holy shitkittens, I might finish this book today.”

At the end of the day, I wrote just shy of 10,000 words. Final tally: 9,826.

It was a big day.

I do not usually write that much in a given day.

In fact, after writing that much in a given day, my brain felt not unlike the long snarl of rotten hair you pull out of the shower drain after forgetting to clean it for about six years. It looked like the little girl crawling out of the TV in The Ring. By that point, it became a bedraggled, wretched thing. Dead and dripping. (And it’s why I went out afterwards and had margaritas and tacos with the family because that’s how I recharge my batteries. TACO FAMILY TEQUILA POWER. Woo!)

But here’s one of the responses I get when I announce this rather not-small word count.

I get people saying, “Wow, I only wrote [X] words today.”

And sometimes it’s accompanied by a kind of regret or self-deprecation (however jokey).

That variable, X, might be 100 words, or 1000, or 4,000.

But as long as it’s shy of 10k, there might arrive a sense of disappointment.

Horseshit. Stuff that disappointment.

Let’s realize something, shall we? I get to write 10,000 words in a day because I have a great deal of advantage. This advantage is not inborn — I did, in fact, work my buttpucker to get it. (Er, not literally. My buttpucker has no known skillset and no matter how much I demand it learn to complete even the simplest of tasks like chewing gum or using lightswitches, it fails to perform at every level.) It’s vital to realize, however that:

a) I’ve been working professionally as a writer for ~18 years, now.

b) I’ve been working on and off as a full-time professional writer, which means my (and my family’s) only money-making function in this world is to form the quantum entanglement between my ass molecules and my chair atoms in order to vurp words into the world and get paid for them. I do literally nothing else for money. Not even sex! I’ve tried!

c) I am now fortunate enough to have my own private SHEDQUARTERS / MYSTERY BOX / MYTH LAB, which means I have a writing shed (take a tour here!) in the woods where I can come and write and scream and drink and frolic about in whatever strange costume I have deemed appropriate on that given day. My productivity is in fact way, way up since moving into the shed. I moved into the shed at the end of December and I’ve already written two entire novels and edited two other entirely different novels.

There.

Did you feel that?

That twinge? That pinch?

When I said that last thing — “I wrote two novels since December” — you might’ve felt the same pang as when I said, “I wrote 10,000 words yesterday.” A twinge of jealousy, or panic, or disappointment in yourself.

Again, I say:

Horseshit!

Hog-hokum!

Baloneypants!

Flamingotrousers!

*shakes fist at you*

Word count matters to the professional writer because it’s the metric by which we measure the work. Freelancers often get paid per word. And most writing contracts stipulate not a number of pages or chapters or lines of dialogue or bad sexual metaphors but rather, those contracts demand a certain word count. (And different genres and age ranges will also require different word count targets.) Budgeting your word count and actually scheduling it out over a number of days can actually tell you (roughly) when you’ll start and finish writing a given book. Particularly once you really learn to start writing to spec — meaning, writing to meet the word count assigned.

Further, word count has value in that it measures actual effort. Sometimes, writing feels like an act of ditch-digging rather than art-making, and that means a single shovel-load of dirt, no matter how quality the dirt or shapely the hole dug, will not complete the job. You gotta dig a lot of dirt to dig up a ditch, so you measure the effort (the quantity) rather than the immediate result (the quality). Particularly since the quality of first draft word count can veer dizzily between:

THIS IS NOT TOO BAD

and

THIS IS A MISCARRIAGE OF LANGUAGE AND MAY BE AGAINST THE GENEVA CONVENTION.

But. But! But.

Be proud of the words you write, not the words you don’t or haven’t. If you write 100 words today, cool. If you write 1000 or 5000 or a whole 10k, fuck yeah. Jump up and high-five yourself. Yes, to be a writer, you have to write. But you also have to set realistic goals and be excited by whatever progress you make, big or small. Sure, you can push yourself — as long as you don’t break yourself (translation: check yourself, but don’t wreck yourself). Sometimes, writing is a game of inches. Sometimes it’s a act of great, clumsy leaps. You gotta take pride in the small steps as much as in the big jumps. (Bonus: my 350-words-a-day no-fuckery writing plan.)

Always remember:

Word count is not the most important or the most interesting thing about your story.

Writers tell stories, not word counts.

*drops mic*

*mic lands on a sleeping squirrel*

*squirrel is angry*

* * *

500 Ways To Write Harder: Coming Soon500 Ways To Write Harder aims to deliver a volley of micro-burst idea bombs and advisory missiles straight to your frontal penmonkey cortex. Want to learn more about writing, storytelling, publishing, and living the creative life? This book contains a high-voltage dose of information about outlining, plot twists, writer’s block, antagonists, writing conferences, self-publishing, and more.

All this, straight from the sticky blog pages of terribleminds.com, one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers (as named by Writer’s Digest).

Buy ($2.99) at:

Amazon

B&N

Direct from terribleminds

Or: Part of a $20 e-book bundle!

58 comments

  • As a consultant I write a shit ton. Like you, writing is my job and I totally get the need to motivate yourself. My field is disaster management, so along with writing proposals to win work, I’m writing plans, policies, detailed procedures, training programs, preparedness exercises, and reports… Lots of reports. I try to keep it creative and I enjoy my work, which helps quite a bit. Oh, I almost forgot the grad courses I’m taking, too. A bit of writing there as well.

    Keep on writing!

    • You do that for a living? You have my sympathies. I was the emergency preparedness person at my last job (other duties, as assigned, so I didn’t get paid for it). Getting accused of being Chicken Little on a regular basis, until the sky actually falls, then getting yelled at for not warning anybody that the sky was going to fall. Not fun.

      • Yeah, that’s my gig. Been doing it for about 20 years now. As a consultant my experiences are a bit better than that, since they usually have some recognition of the hazards prior to hiring me. Sometimes there are teeth to be pulled, though.

  • I was definitely one of the ones jealous of what you achieved in a single day. I’m in the middle of a challenging manuscript at the moment and way behind in my wordcount. But, I work a 40 hour week and have three small children to look after, so I know I need to cut myself some slack.

    As my wife put it, I need to stop being a douchebag and just let her know when I need an extra couple of hours alone to write.

  • While someday I’d like to say that I’ve committed a Lowell (named after Nathan Lowell, who is famous for amazing straight reads, and for writing over 10,000 words a day during NaNoWriMo), I haven’t been coming close to that lately.

    For today, I’ll be happy to get back to editing tonight.

    Doc

  • Thanks for this, Chuck – I’m at the ditch digging stage and it’s hard going… But I am going to keep digging ’til I have the neatest, most drainiest ditch EVER.

    Oh – and I’ll try to get some words in order too on the story that won’t play ball…

  • Some days I spend eight hours on one paragraph, some days I churn out three or four thousand words. I never know which type of day it will be when I sit down and start typing.

    • Exactly. Same for me – I just can’t predict how many words I will be able to put on paper this day. Anyway, I try to write every day for at least one hour to keep my mind in writing mode.

  • In summary: Don’t look at other writers as competition, and don’t use them as your own, personal measuring stick. Check, and check. Good on ya’ for the nearly-10k-day. I’ve had them, too… and when they hit, they’re great. I’ve also had stare-at-the-screen-until-drops-of-blood-form-on-my-forehead days. For what it’s worth, tacos and margaritas help on those days, too. (Blessed is our Tacopope). I’d never feel even a twinge of jealousy for your balls-out day.

    Now, your Shedquarters, on the other hand… I *NEED* one!!! LOL

  • Only made about 1000 words yesterday. Was frumpy all day because I normally write on my lunch break but work conspired to deny me that break. The writing after work was painful, not least because while I am doing a complete re-write of a book (at least the first half, as too much is changing this draft) my brain is writing a completely different book and won’t stop.

  • I wrote zero words yesterday. That’s right! Instead, I took a long nice shower and then ate a very unhealthy dinner at 9:30 PM. Then I sat on the couch. Beat that, punks!

  • I work to two pages a day. I’m protective of that time, even so far as to get up earlier to get them finished before I leave the house to go to work. It is work, for me, because I try to detach myself from the good days so I can detach myself from the bad. To paraphrase you, a shovelful of soil is a shovelful of soil, good or bad. I’ve written four books over the past four years, two are with my agent and I’m constantly applying a degree of equanimity to it. People need to hear that, despite the struggles, there is an element of pragmatism that would help them blast through their barriers.

  • I’m having a great year of writing so far, Chuck, and a lot of it I attribute to your motivational posts about just getting writing done.

    I’m engaged in a year-long 1K Words a Day, mostly to establish the routine of writing something every day, and thus far I haven’t missed a single day of writing. I know I’ll miss a day eventually, but for now it’s amazing.

    Sprint and burn out worked for me in the past, but my average words per day across the year would end up being something like 400 words a day. Which isn’t bad! It really isn’t. But it’s not what I COULD be doing, and it’s certainly not consistent enough to keep me to a publishing schedule, which is what I’m really after.

    The routine is in place now and that’s more helpful than literally anything else at keeping me engaged in the task of writing, regardless of other things in my life that demand my attention.

  • Chuck–some questions spring to mind here, I hope you can write a post on them. First of all, what is a first draft? How do you know you are done with a first draft? And second–how much of that do you keep and how much do you throw away? As an aspiring writer myself, I often have trouble trying to figure out the writing process. I know it´s not the same for everyone but could you give us a little insight on this? Your posts make my day! Thanks. Keep them coming!

    • > First of all, what is a first draft?

      Your first draft is whatever you barf up into the world.

      > How do you know you are done with a first draft?

      You know you’re done when you *think* you’re done. And this isn’t a “oh I wrote ten words to explain why I want to get into this college, alcohol tiem! *goes down to the bar*” No. This is a “okay, I fully explained everything I want to explain in this story/essay/whatever. I’m done. Time to edit.”

      > And second–how much of that do you keep and how much do you throw away?

      However much you think sounds good. You can COMPLETELY re-write the entire draft (I’m not sure how much Chuck would recommend that, chime in?) if you think the entire thing is complete crap. However if there’s nuggets of good in that crappile of the first draft, you should *gag* scoop those nuggest of gold out and put them in the next crap pile that is the second draft (and then the third, no fourth! Maybe the fifth will be ALL GOLD! Who knows!?)

    • I second most of what ‘anonymous’ says below, but thought I might add a coupla things based on my own experiences…

      A First Draft lasts from the moment you type ‘Chapter One’ (or ‘Prologue’ if that’s your bag) for the first time on your spanking new masterpiece, to the moment you type ‘The End’ on that same masterpiece. It’s your complete work, all barfed up for the very first time, still hot and gently steaming (sorry… too much imagery there?) You know you’re done with the first draft when you get to type the words ‘The End’ (and that happens a lot less often than people know.)

      How much do you keep and how much do you throw away? Well, based on my own experience…

      *laughs hysterically for a good ten minutes, until the hysterical laughter turns into sobbing and gently rocking in a corner*

      Sorry, lost myself for a moment there. The best way I can compare it is this: a first draft is your Steve Rodgers when he’s still a puny little weakling, and it’s only when you rewrite it all as a second (and more) drafts that he will start to look more like Captain America. In other words, you’ll probably still have mostly the same framework of the original story, but it will be written so completely differently as to almost look like both drafts were written by two different people (don’t worry, this is a GOOD thing.) It’s often said that the first draft is the writer telling themselves their story, and all the subsequent drafts are where that writer figures out how to tell it to other people.

      Which is why your first draft is the time to go nuts; ride that creativity wave, don’t worry about spelling and punctuation and grammar and all the bazillion-and-one Writers’ Rules, try everything and write like no-one’s watching ( to hijack a corny old phrase.)

      When it’s all done, put it away for a few weeks and LEAVE IT ALONE NO PEEKING NO NOTHIN’ – go find something else to write for a bit and pretend it doesn’t exist. Then, when you come back to it, grab yourself a notebook and a ton of pens and read it through. Trust me, you’ll hate it. It’ll read somewhere between the rantings of a mad person and the brain farts of one of those reality tv ‘celebrities.’ This is completely normal and every writer does this – even the uber-famous ones like Chuck and Stephen King. And then, after you’ve howled with embarrassment and wondered why you ever thought you were any good at this whole writing palaver anyway, you park your bum in front of your keyboard and start working on Fixing That Shizzle. And that is the start of your second draft.

      It still probably won’t be your last though. But it’s all good.

  • > I do literally nothing else for money. Not even sex! I’ve tried!

    Sounds like you didn’t try hard enough because:

    > I did, in fact, work my buttpucker to get it. (Er, not literally. My buttpucker has no known skillset and no matter how much I demand it learn to complete even the simplest of tasks like chewing gum or using lightswitches, it fails to perform at every level.)

    BUT THAT’S A BUTTPUCKER ENTRY LEVEL JOB, CHUCKIE! D:

    (Kidding)

    My major disappointment is writing about 10 words a day if I do fiction but you’re right: I should at least count that as “yay, progress” in a motivation game dealie.

  • Writing 500 words in on day, just one page of good stuff, especially when plot has painted me into a corner and I write my way out of it in a vivid, pivotal scene, is enough to make me run a victory lap around the coffee table. I’m not jealous of your word count. I’m jealous of your Death Star tweets. My kids will be playing legos based on your next 10k words. Or your next 500.

  • I write about 3k per day. Most of it is crap. I probably keep about 300 of it. 10k words would take me about three hours to complete. I would get to then keep about 100 words.

    What I am saying is at least with me quality goes down with quantity.

    Sad face.

  • April 8, 2015 at 3:24 PM // Reply

    Congrats on finishing another 1st draft! For me that’s always a giant flood of relief (‘Hey, I can actually do this!’), and I hope you feel immensely proud of your accomplishment, even though you’ve been writing for 18 years and it may seem like ‘old hat’ to you by now. And that’s an incredible rate you’re writing and editing at–good for you!

    Normally I try to shoot for high word counts in a day too, but with my next novel (which I’m currently plotting), I’ve decided it needs a ‘slow and steady’ pace, the better to luxuriate in words and ideas and tone. I’m looking forward to trying something new, even if it means my daily word count will be low and it’ll take me months to finish it. Who knows–maybe this process will reduce the time it takes to edit the piece! 🙂

  • April 8, 2015 at 3:53 PM // Reply

    No matter how big Chuck gets he never forgets about the little guy (writer).Us.This blog post is proof of that. The rotten hair down the drain analogy is one of his best. Thankyou Chuck, and trust you chose good roof insulating material for the Shed for this Winter.

  • Most helpful writing advice I ever encountered: “…make contact with the book every day.”

    “My way of satisfying myself is really simple. I try not to count anything: words, pages, hours at the work site. They vary wildly over time, anyway. Sure, if I write three pages instead of half a page, I notice it, I’m pretty excited. But I work every day. If I do that, all the other counting, all the other considerations can melt away. I just make sure I make contact with the book every day. And it gets done.” –From “How I Write: Jonathan Lethem” in The Daily Beast 9.25.13

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/25/how-i-write-jonathan-lethem.html

  • I often get screencaps of your 10K word count day tweets texted to me from my writing group. And now your name has become a verb for us. “Just hit 5K. Still have 6 hours of daylight left. I’m totally gonna Chuck Wendig it today.”

    • What? No ‘like’ button on wordpress? I am so disappointed in wordpress.

      Same seems to apply to long and short form fiction in my opinion. A story is a story, write it until it’s done.

  • 500 words a day is my aim and most days I make it. Life, however, sometimes gets in the way and when it does just go with the flow, otherwise you could drive yourself mad.

  • Very true. I’ve taken to keep track of my word count both out of interest and because I’m trying to actually get about a ton of stuff done while living a life. Tracking my word count and updating on my progress is a handy way to keep from from – SQUIRREL!

    Ahem.

    To keep me focused.

  • Chuck, having just found this blog after experiencing a near fatal bite by the writing bug this past summer, I have one thing to say: you are my people (and I feel certain in assuming every other commenter has rewritten his post more than a few times, too, in the attempt to sound as clever as possible). 🙂

  • Aw, bless you Sir Chuck Wendig, for putting on your funky psychic hat and saying exactly the right thing yet again!

    I get two hours a day, five days a week to write (and that’s mostly confined to term times.) On a good day I can rack up about 800-1000, on a bad day…. about 100-200. The only way I could ever get close to writing 10k words in those two hours would be to bounce up and down on my keyboard with my arse (and I’m guessing any ‘words’ created that way probably wouldn’t count.)

    This is probably why I’m now almost at year two-and-three-quarters (I’m not ready to call it three yet) of working on my current w-i-p (two-thirds through second draft now – woohoo!)

    Yes, a five-year-old with a pot of paint and a potato could probably produce more than me in the same timeframe, but the way I look at it, if I’m not ready to quit on it even after all this time then I aint ever gonna quit on it. I CAN’T quit on it. As long as I finish it before the future time it’s set in becomes the present (and unless someome sticks me in a cryochamber without my consent it WILL) I’m gonna keep on trucking. Wordcount Schmordcount!

  • Good advice. I’m curious, Chuck, how do you track progress on non-drafting days? When you’re editing, revising, or proofing, do you use word count, scene count, chapter count, page count, or qualitative goals of some kind? Or just say fuck it and wing it?

  • Clogged drain huh? Try writing a technical manual on computer games design and development theories, such as the section on Dimensional Transcendentalism. It felt like my brain was cooking itself from the inside. Needed to buy one of those uber-PC liquid nitrogen coolers and rig it up to my forehead. -_-

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds