The Tyranny of Words

May 25th, 2011

Ah, word count, word count, how I love thee, how I hate thee.

When I first started writing some time in, er, 2001, I think it was, the version of Word that I was using didn’t have a visible, steadily updating word count as does the modern one, you had to click the word count from the tools menu.  And boy, did I do that a lot.  Every three or four words, sometimes.  In fact it was a pretty good bet that, the more often I checked the word count, the worse was the quality of the words I was producing.  But with later versions of Word you can usually see the count ticking over down there, just at the bottom of your vision.  Or, more often, failing to tick over.

These days, when first drafting, fearsome professional that I have become, I aim for 1,500 words a day, but I tend to settle for anything over a thousand.  It is possible of course, to smash out loads.  My best ever day is around 3,500ish, I think.  Other days getting a few hundred down is like pulling teeth.  I tend to be fastest with a big action scene, usually when I’m starting out a chapter and can dart from one bit to another, writing whatever snippets come to me, or I’ve thought about before, slapping down dialogue with broad strokes.  Later comes the more laborious work of gradually filling in the gaps between the more inspiring sections, and going over those sections to make sure they work, I haven’t frequently repeated myself or turned a sword into an axe without realising.  Often it’s the descriptive bits that I find take the most intensive effort.

Of course, counting words is in essence a pretty useless measure of progress because words can be either good or bad, and a thousand words of crap are a lot less useful than a hundred of gold.  Obsessively counting words could be said to encourage the production of crap.  Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the alchemy of editing allows crap to be turned into gold later, and you’re a lot better off with a big pile of crap after a day’s work than you are with nothing, believe me.

The irony, of course, is that when I’ve finished a first draft of a full part and start to review it, or finished the entire book and start to edit it en masse, the emphasis shifts from producing to tightening, sharpening, introducing more character and colour, and I measure my progress in the number of words I’ve cut each day.

This, of course, is just as useless a measure of progress as counting the number of words you’ve added, as it stands to reason that a really good, tight, effective chapter is a lot more difficult to cut down than a rushed, flabby, sloppy one.  You might be able to cut 1,000 words from an 8,000 word chapter and still, ahem, not have a very good chapter at the end of it, while you could slave all day to cut 100 words from a 1,000 word chapter, and raise it from something merely wonderful to the type of truly earth-shattering quality that, ahem, all my stuff of course eventually reaches.

It’s also obvious that in the editing it’s possible (and, in fact, quite common) to get a huge amount done without really altering the number of words at all.  You cut rubbish and add quality, replace weak dialogue with strong, fuzzy description with sharp, sloppy language with tight.

So we watch the word count, knowing that a day of many words can still be a day of little progress, and vice versa.

But given that one’s judgement of whether what one is writing is good or bad is a hugely vague and changeable thing, shifting from day to day with confidence and enthusiasm, what other tool is there?

You’ve got to give yourself some sort of goal, after all.

Or you’d just be sitting there, drinking tea, playing computer games, and waiting for the royalty cheque from the stuff you did last year.

Hold on a darn second…

Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on May 25th, 2011.

28 comments so far

  • […] Abercrombie schreibt einen nette Blogeintrag über die Angewohnheit, beim Schreiben ständig zu schauen, wie viele Worte man schon geschrieben […]

  • Jimmy says:

    Always interesting to get a glimpse at the writing process. Thanks for that! Now tell me about your next book!

  • SwindonNick says:

    Hmmmm, understand the need for a focus to keep momentum, but is there not the danger that you focus on volume rather then quality.
    Your books provide evidence that you don’t, but is it hard to balance the two – and I presume the publishers are on your back for deadlines?

  • Jeff says:

    Could it perhaps be said that “novel author” is way down on the list of artistic pursuits that offer instant gratification? I suppose one can feel gratified after having turned out a particular good sentence or paragraph, but even a steady string of these do not make a novel. One needs to at least have a coherent/well-written chapter to truly feel successful, and true gratification only arrives after the months or years it takes to actually finish a novel. So “word count” as a means of offering instant feelgood moments would be one way to make it possible for humans (who thrive on quick thrills) to even write novels at all. Or am I spouting?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Volume’s no bad thing to focus on initially, then you cut down and reshape. When you’re drafting, getting anything down is a lot better than staring into space.

    You may well be right. I don’t usually start feeling good about a book until I’ve written most of it and developed a better idea of the characters and themes, and it’s only in the editing process that things really come together. I find the first draft the least rewarding (and unfortunately much the longest) part of the process.

  • Tim H says:

    Joe, I love it when you write an essay instead of some rambling blog post (not that you ever do that). I follow a number of my favorite writers’ blogs (what a horrible word), and I sometimes feel sorry for them. After a hard day of writing their real work, they have to sit down and come up with something clever for the “blog.” (I admired Jim Butcher immensely for not updating his blog since 2008 until I found out he’s a Twitter fiend.)

    I think you’ve got at exactly the right point in your essay. Start your work and keep at it. Perfection and “art” are wonderful things, but get the job done first. Reminds me of the Bright Eyes lyric, “I’d rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery.” Exactly.

    Do you have any favorite essays or essayists? I keep going back to David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and enjoy it more each time I read it. He grabs the reader by the ears and gently, kindly, and with great erudition pushes their faces into a steaming hot bowl of lobster bisque.

  • Chad says:

    So, I take it the new book is a bit of a struggle?

    Take heart. You’ll pull it together. I can’t wait for the fantasy equivalent of:

    “Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!”

    “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

  • Thaddeus says:

    We have the same daily word count target [I think you’re several million sales ahead of me though]. I tend to try and get 500 words done (roughly 1 page on Word) then take a break.

    How many words are in Best Served Cold and The Heroes?

  • henderson says:

    Hope the 1000 words a day I have written since 2009 NaNoWrimo is not all for naught.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    They’re all a struggle, especially towards the start. I have learned not to be too horrified by this and trust they will come good. Fingers crossed.

    BSC – about 225,000
    The Heroes – About 202,000

  • James says:

    Hi Joe, great blog. Having recently written my ten thousand word dissertation I have always wondered how many words some of these comparatively huge books use. I also checked the word count every time I made any alteration throughout writing it.

    Do you aim for a certain number of words when it comes to writing each book? I imagine you have some constraints due to the size the book would be.

    And also I read on here that the next book has something of a western theme involved, how much influence did Fallout New Vegas and Red Dead Redemption have on inspiring you to use some western influences? Great games by the way.

  • Thaddeus says:

    Ah, cheers, Mr. Abercrombie.

    It’s unfortunate writing’s a struggle at the start, but the end product’s definitely worth it. Already looking forward to your next book.

  • Tyson Perna says:

    Awesome post. I love hearing about authors’ processes.

  • jordan ruyle says:

    I just finished the first law series. I don’t know where else to write this, so:
    Thanks for these books! They absolutely rock!!!!!

  • DrGonzo says:


    No writer mysel but I had the same thoughts when I wrote my diplomathesis.
    It did not make any sense but the word count funktion was somehow satisfying for me during the whole progress.

  • Phil says:

    Great post Joe, I know where you’re coming from. I have this tendency to check my word count way too often, I try to set myself targets but they usually fall to the wayside.

    On average I manage between 800 – 1,000 a day which I’m happy with. I find I get too distracted though, I suppose doing my writing in the lounge, with the TV on and the wife chatting away is counter-productive. Perhaps I need my own writing space.

    Do you have a seperate room away from distractions?

  • ColinJ says:

    As long as at least one of those words is ‘Monza’ then you can write as many as you like.

  • Matthew Graybosch says:

    I know exactly how you feel. It can be hard to belt out 1500 words after spending eight hours debugging code or writing new code, but I won’t get anywhere if I don’t.

  • Jacob says:

    I find that writing is more often than not about the simple task of revising the revision of the fifteenth draft. It’s only around that time everything begins to “feel right”. If you’re as picky as me that is. 😛

  • […] of my fellow moderators at the Bolthole, Squiggle, referred this blogpost from an author named Joe Abercrombie. I have no idea who this guy is or what he has […]

  • Bryce says:

    Ha, I remember writing essays for my degree with a pen.How did we manage that. You had to physically count each word to kcheck the word count. Now everything I write for work is redrafted several times, where before I would usually hand in my first draft for marking as rewriting a whole essay would have been a huge undertaking.

    Before anyone calls me Grandad, I turned 40 last month.

  • I didn’t post on this the first two times I read it, but now that I’ve shown this post to another aspiring writer, I wanted to comment: I GREATLY appreciate these posts, Joe. They are immensely helpful. Thank you for writing them.

  • Kirsten says:

    Very insightful! I work pretty much the same way when I’m translating your books into German and check my word count by the minute. Strangely enough, action scenes are the most difficult and take the longest with me … Just had a fantastic time with The Heroes and can’t wait to start working on the next one!

  • Julia Rees says:

    Hi Joe! This is a really fascinating article.

    You wrote:
    “These days, when first drafting, fearsome professional that I have become, I aim for 1,500 words a day, but I tend to settle for anything over a thousand. It is possible of course, to smash out loads. My best ever day is around 3,500ish…”

    I’m curious about this paragraph. Are you a touch-typist? Or a hunt-and-pecker?

    Best wishes

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I’m a pretty respectable touch-typist, about 80 wpm. Obviously the bottleneck on productivity isn’t really typing speed so much as planning, thinking, organising and reviewing speed. You don’t spend a great deal of writing time actually typing. At least I don’t.

  • Julia Rees says:

    @ Joe Abercrombie

    Hi Joe, and thanks for that response.

    Best wishes

  • travis says:

    How many words are in Best Served Cold?

  • Joe, you are awesome. I am sure you have heard it said a million times, but I had to make it a million and one. You have inspired me to write my own book. I don’t have your vocabulary or ability to create memorable phrases, but you have to be realistic. Thanks for the benchmark.


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