A Novel Approach, pt. 9, (Stop Counting Words)

(Continued from yesterday.)

One more piece of advice I have is to stop counting words. We live in a world where everything has to be quantified all the time, and it doesn’t help that most if not all word processing programs offer word counts at the bottom of the page—yet another reason, I suppose, it might be good to write in a notebook.

My main concern with counting words is that it encourages us to think about writing in terms of speed—how many words we write per hour, per day, per month. The thing about writing, and especially about writing a novel, is that it takes time. And if you want to do it well, chances are good that it’s going to take a lot of time.

When you start counting words, you start getting down on yourself—especially if, like me, you compare your word counts to your friends’ word counts.

The other guy’s is always so much bigger than mine.

So I start to feel bad because I’m not generating however many thousands of words per day my writer friends say they’re generating. As a result, I forget all about why I’m writing in the first place—that I enjoy the process. What’s more, hanging a number on my writing obscures everything else. I stop thinking about how satisfied I am with the work I’ve done or how meaningful the subject matter is to me, and I dwell entirely on that terrible little number.

(Concluded tomorrow.)


As a lot of writers know, November is National Novel Writing Month (or, as the hip kids call it, NaNoWriMo). As its name suggests, the basic idea behind NaNoWriMo is for aspiring writers to produce a novel (or at least a 50,000-word portion of a novel) in the space of 30 days. While I do see some value in this endeavor, I wanted to take a moment to come out in support of writers who, like me, won’t be participating in this month-long endeavor. My message: Don’t worry about it. Size doesn’t matter. While some of your writer friends may be amassing huge word-counts over the next few weeks, slow and steady wins the race for the rest of us.

To put NaNoWriMo into perspective, it might help to examine the endeavor in light of a distinction that Kurt Vonnegut makes in his novel Timequake. According to Vonnegut, writers can be divided into two categories: swoopers and bashers. Swoopers are writers who fly through a first draft in no time at all (relatively speaking) and spend a lot of time revising. Bashers, by way of contrast, are writers who obsess over every keystroke and throw out ninety percent of what they write as they’re writing it. When a basher finishes manuscript, Vonnegut said, it’s pretty much done. Needless to say, NaNoWriMo is great for the swoopers among us, but the bashers might want to sit this one out.

Personally, I’m a basher. I’ll stare at a screen of hours on end, wondering whether or not to use a comma in the middle of a given sentence. Sure, this strategy may seem counterproductive, especially when all of my swooper friends are telling me about about how many words they’ve written since we last spoke, how many pages of text they’ve generated since embarking on their latest projects. But here’s the thing: what I enjoy about writing isn’t watching the words pile up on the page. I actually enjoy crafting well-wrought sentences in much the same way that some hobbyists enjoy raising ships in bottles. In many ways, my love for making sentences is what got me into writing in the first place.

I’d be lying, of course, if I said that I was above the temptation to participate in something like NaNoWriMo. Yes, a part of me (sometimes a very big part of me) gets jealous when I hear my friends talking about how big their manuscripts have grown after just a few weeks of stroking their keyboards. And I also have to admit that, unlike Vonnegut’s ideal bashers, I also have to engage in quite a bit of revision when I’m done a draft, so it’s not like I’m saving time on the back end of the process by making sure everything’s “perfect” the first time around. At the same time, though, I’ve hit upon a process that works for me. I work at a pace that I’m comfortable with and, more importantly, a pace that allows me to enjoy the process of writing.

So far, working at this pace has paid off. I’ve published two book-length works of nonfiction, a novel, and a good number of stories, essays, and book reviews, and I also have a second novel on the way. On one hand, it’s conceivable that I’d have even more publications under my belt if I’d adopted the swooper stance and tried to crank out as many words as I could each day. On the other hand, I might have hated every minute of it — or at the very least, gotten discouraged when the fruits of my swooping didn’t mature into fully-developed and finely-crafted prose fit for public consumption.

Embracing my identity as a basher, I’ve found a niche in the writing world that suits my temperament perfectly. I work slowly (and sometimes surely), one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time toward the goal of a completed work, and when I’m finished, I go back and start working on it again. It takes time and patience, and some days I just want to give up. But I’ve learned to savor the process, learned to enjoy stringing words together and making the best of my time in front of my computer screen. At the end of the day (or even the month), I might not have the highest word count among all of my friends, but I can rest assured in the knowledge that I’ve been doing what I love. And for me, there’s no other reason to write.