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  • Writer's pictureMatt Davies

Watching the numbers click over

I’ve changed my mind about watching word counts in the drafting stage of a manuscript. I used to think it was a kind of fool’s gold. So, you’ve written 5,000 words this week. How can you call that real progress if 4,000 of them are terrible? Wouldn’t you’d be better off spending that week planning what comes next and then taking the week after to write 5,000 words that you actually need?

I could never understand taking part in NaNoWriMo either. To me, it was a merry dance. Yeah, you’ve written 50,000 words in a month, but how good are they? Are you actually going to use any of them? Because when your only goal is to get words on the page (and as many as possible as fast as possible), you are likely to take the road of least resistance. Rather than contemplating what should happen next in your story, you write the first thing that comes to mind, because it’s the fastest way to hit your word count, and that first thing is likely to be the most obvious thing. And obvious storylines don’t make for a good novel.

Then I tried it. I took note of my word count at the beginning of each writing session and again at the end. I wrote the numbers on my whiteboard. And I found that watching the word count rise is motivational.

For some writers (especially those who write on instinct rather than to a plan) need to write those 5,000 words to get to the 1,000 good ones. They need to test out their ideas, see where the story takes them. And it might take those 5,000 words to get to wherever they need to go because they need to write themselves there. For these writers, the solutions might not be immediately obvious, but by doing a lot of freestyle writing, not worrying about whether the words will end up in the finished manuscript, you can arrive at a place of understanding or surprise that you wouldn’t have discovered had you stuck to a rigid plan or by writing only what you thought you needed. Taking this approach, you can surprise yourself and therefore surprise your readers.

Picture of numbers clicking over

I always start with theme, but, through the writing, other themes emerge. The one I thought would dominate might slip down the list and another, more prescient theme, might rise to the surface. This can happen as I get to know my characters better and as I delve more into plot. When stories first brew in my brain, I’m often focused on the internal journey – the story rather than plot. But you can’t write a compelling book by laying out the character’s every thought in introspection. Stuff needs to happen. Your characters need to act and take risks. I tend to fall into the trap of letting things happen to my characters and then pushing them to find their way through (often on an emotional level). Books need more than this, and that is the aspect of novel writing that I need to work on most.

Anyway, I digress. Word counts.

The other thing I would say about word counts is not to get hung up on your manuscript being too long, at least in the beginning. Lots of YA books are between 50,000 and 60,000 words. Most commercial/general fiction is 70,000 to 90,000. If the first draft of your YA is 90,000 words or your adult fiction is 120,000 words, don’t panic. It just means you’ve got more to work with. Maybe you have to focus the story more, maybe you don’t. Maybe that YA needs to be 90,000. If every one of those 90,000 words needs to be there to complete the story – to make the ending work on multiple levels – then that’s OK. Beta readers will let you know if it feels too long. Feel is a much better measure of the right length than word count. (I have to say, I do get a bit annoyed when writer friends tell me that a publisher has told them that their novel is too long without even reading it. That, to me, is ridiculous. It’s as long as it needs to be.)

The most important thing for any novelist – aspiring or established – is to finish manuscripts. And if counting words is the motivation you need to get there, I say go for it. The words won’t get written unless you sit at your computer and type them. And you can’t edit a blank page. Just get the damn thing written, because without a finished manuscript, you will never have a published book.

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