Stand up and be counted

Some people – accountants , for example – do number crunching. Those of us who write do word-crunching. And some of us count words at night in the same way that other people count sheep.


The subject of word counts came up this week in the very worthy blog of my writerly colleague Seumas Gallacher ( ) Non-scribblers amongst you should know that writers are urged by spoilsport writing experts to write a specific number of words daily: a hundred, five hundred, a thousand? And if they don’t hit the target? Well, firstly, they will feel very very bad and their inner critic will beat them up and, secondly – as Seumas points out – they may go to Author Hell, which is undoubtedly a very horrid place to be. It’s a place where you write and write and write at a hellish laptop and then, when you click on word count, it says ‘zero.’

I’d like to blame it all on NaNoWriMo:

Day 1: 1,667 words

Day 2: 3,334 words

Day 3: 5,001 words


(Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem, Chronicle Books, 2004)

By the time you get to Day 19, you are so desperate to keep up that you will write anything. But it all ends happily. By Day 30, you have your 50,000 words, you have broken the back of the novel (as well as your own) and you are ready to begin the real work.

Chapter 1

(That’s two words.)

And there’s that old story about James Joyce, recounted by Stephen King in On Writing (Hodder and Stoughton, 2000). A friend went to visit James Joyce one day and found him in a state of despair:

  ‘James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?’

‘How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): ‘Seven.’

‘Seven? But James … that’s good, at least for you!’

‘Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is … but I don’t know what order they go in!’

So, what you need to bear in mind when you become full of yourself because the word count thermometer is rising is: 1) Are all the words you’ve written in the right order and 2) are all the words you’ve written different? And 3) when you edit, will anything be worth keeping?

Just a minute while I count how many words I’ve written.