Article / Writing

Writers: Stop counting your words

Writers’ and journalists’ pay and sense of achievement is often framed around a word count – and if that’s working for you, fine. But writers shouldn’t feel that daily-output counts or ideal chapter word counts are important to being a serious and decent writer.

Though writing is work and requires commitment and regular practice, it shouldn’t be an assembly line. Efficient output shouldn’t be number one on a writer’s list of priorities. And no, that doesn’t mean we can laze around and write squat. It means that instead of churning out Walmart plastic plates, we should be artisans who make incredible, intricate, unique wooden plates. That is, our focus should be on quality instead of mass production.

Content mills encourage mass production – and our rent and stomachs may require it – so there’s no judging. But the point is, that stuff isn’t good writing. It’s plastic publicity – and most of us ultimately want to write something else. It can get especially bad when we’re scrounging around for useless fluff to bring a solid 800-word article up to the required 900 words.

Another problem with word count is that less is usually more. It is often harder to write something short, succinct, and powerful than something lengthy and ranty and full of fluff. Thinking, brainstorming, and researching are also invaluable for quality articles or short stories or novels, but they don’t get included in a word count.

It’s understandable how something concrete like a word count can encourage writers to keep going by showing progression. For those who struggle at times to sit down and start, a word count can guarantee a daily minimum. That’s fine. It only becomes a problem when the word count goal becomes more important than the creative process and the overall quality of the writing.

Ideally, we’d be driven to write by something else. Instead of word counts, writers could articulate writing goals and then measure “success” by how much those goals were met. For example, as both a journalist and novel writer, I want to write artfully (ie creatively, with originality and beauty, in a way that is engaging), have an impact (politically, on our sense of humanity and our sense of justice), and provoke critical thought with integrity. And, today, at this particular part of the chapter of my second novel, I want to turn the notes and research I have into a powerful illustration of the destructiveness of commercialised tourism. Instead of counting words in today’s session, what if I just note how much I think I’ve met this goal? (And because I’m on a first draft, I’ll probably note the things I’m not happy with, and get round to dealing with them on the second draft, once I have distance).

Writers and journalists – you are creative, complex, expressive, colourful beings. Let your humanity thrive and at least keep the word counting as just one method of self evaluation. Don’t be a Walmart writer.