Writing Thoughts: How Word Counts Can Be Toxic to a First Draft

Word Counts & Writing & How That Can Be a Toxic Relationship for a First Draft

Posted May 19, 2021 by Amber in Writing / 4 Comments

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For as much as I love NaNoWriMo as a writing event and motivator, it has created a few bad habits in me.  The worst of these is my obsession over word counts.  NaNoWriMo encourages writers to scribe a 50k work novel over the course of a month.  It’s a very achievable goal, and even though in recent years the program has become more flexible and allows participants to create their own goals with different objectives outside word count… word count still gets stuck in my head.

The industry I work in obsesses over numbers.  Quality is important, but you are judged most heavily on quantity.  The higher your numbers, the more you have achieved.  As long as your error rate remains reasonable, higher numbers merit greater rewards.  This happens in a lot of injuries – the whole sales model of commission-based positions is based on more = better.  In writing, obsessing over word counts instead of story progress is an easy way to get lost in the details without actually making any story progress.  For me, that’s a problem.

While I technically wrote “The End” on A Star Danced in 2018, I don’t feel as though I’ve successfully finished a NaNo draft since 2013 with Beyond the Silver Screen.  In fact, I am not happy with any manuscript work.  Because of the way I have trained myself to work and focus on “x words per day”, I am capable of writing a lot of words, but that absolutely does not mean I’m making any progress.

Even though it’s difficult for me to follow the rule, I think that plot progression should be the most important thing on a first draft.  Expanding the world and character growth (outside of how it relates to the story itself) can be added in later drafts.  Physical word count should never be on the radar, not until the late drafts when you are trying to make sure your story is within certain accepted limits.  But that is the only time word count should matter.

For myself, when I write, I’m going to try and focus more on the story and not the stats.

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Do you also get stuck on word count when writing?  I’d love to hear how you all navigate between story progression and statistics!  Share your experiences in the comments. <3

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4 responses to “Word Counts & Writing & How That Can Be a Toxic Relationship for a First Draft

  1. Monica Laurette

    I know that for me, I try my best to not focus on the word count when I write. I just want to let the story flow on the first go around and then worry about the editing, the word count is just a bonus if I have a lot. Even when I do NaNo I try to avoid caring. I check it while writing, and then at the end of the day to mark my progress. Though, as much as I try and just let the word count be, I also keep it in my mind. Part of me feels that if I don’t complete NaNo with the 50k words, then it’s not a good story, but I also know that that’s false.

    I also feel that because I was looking so hard at word count all the times I have done NaNo, I have abandoned those drafts because they just didn’t turn out the way that I wanted them to, because that word count was in the back of my head. Perhaps one day I’ll go back to them, try and salvage the idea that planted and grow it into a flower, but for now I’ll have to start with a whole new seed and really train to not worry on the words, but instead the story. <3

    • Amber

      I agree – the part of me that wants to win NaNo is focused so much on word count! Because I’ve finished most my first drafts via NaNo because of that desire to win… it’s like I’ve condiioned myself to believe that is the *only* way to write a draft, and therefore those word counts just haunt me. :/ I think you’re right though that many NaNo drafts are so plagued with the grind that even if the story *did* go in the direction we wanted as writers… we’re likely so burnt out on the story that we just want something new.

    • Amber

      I love that you’re aware of how checking counts affects your work! I wish it was something I realized a lot earlier. 🙂