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…