Why Count Words

The inestimable, unstoppable, and seriously terrifying Peter M Ball recently blogged about why counting words matters. But as he said therein: “Writing is a weird thing. Idiosyncratic, personal, and utterly without rules.” So his reasons to count words, while in some ways reminiscent of mine, are not the same.

For the record, I hate and fear things like NaNoWriMo and The Rabbit Hole, simply because I react badly to any kind of arbitrary metric set before me like that. I don’t just mean I freeze up, I mean my mental illness spikes and I have to have the sharp objects taken away from me, and that doesn’t help anybody. But I do believe that counting words matters, and not just because I usually get paid by them. Counting words matters because in the end, it’s the only measure we have of doing anything.

It’s art, which means it’s hard, if not impossible to measure. It’s never finished. It’s never good enough. And it’s never bad enough. The only way it is done, in any sense, is by volume. The only way it exists, in any sense, is by volume. Is the Mona Lisa a better or worse painting than the roof of the Sistine Chapel? Impossible to say. But we can say that the latter is definitely a lot bigger. And it took longer, too.

That’s not being facetious. In a capitalist world, brow-sweat equals cash equals food, and if we artists have any chance of surviving in that world, we have to play by those rules, and value our sweat. And volume is sweat. Regardless of how much research or planning or imagining you did before, or rewriting or editing you do after, each word still takes work. It’s something you can hold up and shake at capitalist masters and say “yes, I have worked, so I deserve food and shelter”. You can show it to hand-wringing parents who think you’re doing nothing all day, or foolish acquaintances who think being a writer is easy.

Better still, you can show it to editors, because ultimately, they want words too. When it comes to sales, its all about volume, and when it comes to getting books out, it’s the same. You can’t sell empty space. To an editor, to a reader, hitting your word count is a hundred times better than writing perfectly. Bad writing can be fixed. Empty space can’t. And readers don’t have the expectations you do. You had the perfect sentence in your head, and maybe you never got there, but all they had was empty space.

And destroying empty space is what it’s all about. To quote Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame, “I love writing but I hate the empty page. The empty page looks at you and says ‘who the hell do you think you are?'”. The empty page is a mockery, and although I’ve said a million times that starting isn’t the hardest step, it is still a balltearer. And really, the only way to break down that wall at the start is words on a page. And no, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what those words are. They can be a hundred new and ever-more-extemporaneous spellings of ‘horsefelcher’. It doesn’t matter. It’s words. The pattern will emerge eventually.

Think about it this way. If you ask somebody to paint a picture on a blank canvas, they freeze up. But pour paint on a table and slap their hands in it, and they start rubbing it around, moving it back and forth, making colours and patterns, and soon enough, lines and shapes and meaning. We can’t help it; once we start squelching through material we end up squelching towards the inscrutable forms screaming in our soul. And with writing, to get that material under your skin, you need words on the page.

Years ago, while wrestling a Warhammer project, I compared writing to trying to grab eels in a trough full of mud, and half the time everything just slips away through your fingers. My friend, a more experienced writer told me that one day I’d learn that it wasn’t about whether you grabbed eel or mud, it was all the same in the end, and it was the grabbing that mattered. It’s not 100% true – what you can do is make sure there’s more eels than mud in the tank to start with – but yeah in the end, it is the grabbing that matters, and I get that now.

It’s great to seek and find and speak good words. But they’re in the tank already. Start shovelling and they’ll come out when they’re ready. And don’t count them, count the handfuls. Not because it’s the only way to get the eels out, and not even because you can’t see them until they’re out anyway, but because in the scheme of things, it’s the handfuls that matter. Fill the page. Crank the wheel. Count the words. Everything else will take care of itself.

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One thought on “Why Count Words

  1. This is wisdom

    Like everyone else who writes, i guess, I struggle with the idea that the only words I should be writing are good words. Great words. The exactly right words.

    Instead I’m going to concentrate on convincing myself to just get as many eel words on the page as possible.

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