Word count targets

computerFor a new writer there is no shortage of books and articles on the art of writing. Advice from successful writers is everywhere, much of it very good, such as:  ‘show don’t tell’;  the importance of first line, the first page, the first ten ages; the importance of developing three dimensional characters; character arc; and story structure. The list goes on and on. But one piece of advice that sticks out from the rest is that ‘a writer should write’.

Here are some of famous quotes:

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” ― Louis L’Amour

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”
—Ray Bradbury, WD

“It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer.”
—Gerald Brenan

“The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write.”
—Ernest Gaines

It is hard to disagree  with this premise.  Many people want to write a book, but never get started. Of those that do, only a few complete, and even fewer are published. Successful writers therefore have to have remarkable perseverance to finish and publish a book.

Now consider  the time frame for writing a novel. The average novel is 80-100,000 words. The words will not be completed unless the writer writes them. If a writer writes at 5,000 words a week then a first draft could be produced in say 16-20 weeks. At  a more sedate speed of 2,500 words a week (or 500 words per day)  as some suggest, a first draft can be produced in  a more realistic 32- 40 weeks.

Thus because of the time it physically takes to write a book, many writing gurus focus on word count,  urging writes to set targets and monitor performance against targets. If you’re the kind of person that likes to set specific achievable goals this might help you. But you may also end up producing 80-100,000 words of garbage. Of course, all first drafts are crap and you may end up trashing 20% and rewriting the rest. And if that gets you to your goal, fine. But what if you trash 80% or worse realise that the story just doesn’t work? Worse still, what happens if your initial idea for the story isn’t thought out and you end up in a blind alley? You are staring at the screen and nothing is coming into your head.

What these famous authors don’t tell you is that they understand the fundamentals of their story before they start to write. They may not have a formal outline of their story or all the details figured out. But they do understand the fundamental drivers of their story to write continually at these rates of word count.

Furthermore, I believe there is a direct link between the amount of story preparation a writer  completes before writing and the word count he/she can achieve. Let me give you an example. In my previous blog I referred to the use of story boarding and a twenty page scene outlining to plan my third novel. It was an experiment to see if I could improve my workflow through more detail planning. In the first seven days of writing using the outline I achieved some 25,000 words or 3,500 words per day and I didn’t feel I was working particularly hard. Did I stick absolutely to the outline – no. I moved some scenes and introduced others. But having a story plan helped me see the impact of these changes on the story as a whole.

Of course, this worked for me. If you’re the kind of writer that hates to plan and think through the story before writing it, then you’re bound to disagree. If you’re Stephen King then you’re so talented it won’t matter. For lesser mortals, and particularly new writers that see the task of writing 80,000-100,000 of story as daunting, then you might like to spend more time preparing your story before you type ‘Chapter 1’.