Monday, December 30, 2013

Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity &Inspiration

By Alexander Slagg

Word Counts: A Waste of Time?

Other than the size of sexual organs, there are few things exaggerated as much as a writer’s word count. Meeting up with your buddies at the coffee house or the tavern, it’s important to come off as a successful, focussed, committed creative artist.

“How much did you get done today?”

“Oh, I knocked out 5,000. I was feeling a little under the weather.”

(5,000 words? Sorry, I didn’t ask how many porn sites you checked out or Facebook posts you read, I was asking about your writing, ha ha.)

Writing is a very insular and personal experience. As such, people are wary of actually talking about it too much. This leads to there being little in the way of real dialogue about work habits among writers. That void leaves a lot of space to fill, so whatever conversation there is, you can bet it’s exaggerated.

Why would someone bother exaggerating their word count? It’s not a stretch to suggest that the psychological profile of most writers includes a streak of either insecurity or narcissism, or both. Writers exaggerate for all sorts of reasons, but ultimately it comes down to making themselves feel better about their progress or making others feel poorly about their own.

Luckily, we live in a magical time where we no longer have to seek out answers to perplexing questions from wise sages who live high on some isolated misty mountain top. We have the Internet! We can tap into the collective wisdom of all humankind for our answers.

A cursory search for “daily word count” or some such term will yield a confusing array of answers. 1,200 words, 600 words, 2,000 words, 6 pages. There’s an entire website devoted to the idea that 750 words is the appropriate word count for a day’s writing. If you were to ask Tom Robbins, you would not surprisingly get a very contradictory reply. He has said in interviews that he may spend an entire day tinkering with one sentence. Quality over quantity.

So what’s the answer: 1,000 words or a single sentence? I’d like to suggest that if you’re concerned with word count you’re focused on the wrong thing. Word count is a helpful benchmark for daily progress, but it is not the singular measure of a successful day of writing.

Creative projects are more than mere items to check off of your to-do list. So they shouldn’t be judged by some strict, up or down threshold. And that’s part of the problem with following a strict word count, you either hit the count or you don’t, you’re either a hero or a zero. Focusing on it too much risks turning it into a psychological roadblock. You start to focus on that count rather than simply letting the writing flow. And that can lead to writer’s block.

That flow is what all writers are after when they sit down to write. You want to get in that zone and let the words pull your fingers across the keyboard or your pen across the paper.

Creative flow seems to abide by rules similar to those that come into play with quantum mechanics. It doesn’t benefit from close observation. The act of closely observing creative flow changes it, and can easily cause it to seize up. Creative flow operates beyond the conscious mind. Attempting to consciously control or observe it will only screw it up.

If you need a benchmark to guide your writing, I suggest following the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Commit yourself to sitting down and writing every day. Write for as long as comfortably fits your schedule. A recent college graduate still mooching off their parents likely has hours of free time to commit to writing. A single working parent may only get in a half hour.

Committing to a daily writing schedule is committing to the writing lifestyle. You’re a real writer. Welcome aboard. Soon enough, sitting down to write will become something that you need to do, word count be damned. Your day will feel incomplete if you don’t get to it. One of the benefits to this lifestyle approach to writing is that it is conducive to creative flow. The more you do it, the easier it gets to tap into that creative flow. Your writing will get better and easier. And you will feel better about yourself as a writer.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well offers a literary lounge, where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Feel free to share your own experiences by commenting on a post.