Writer's Notes

Those Annoying Word Counts-Why Bother?

By Thonie Hevron

Counting words is downright annoying. Yet demands for word count are everywhere—agent/publisher guidelines, contests, academic papers, magazine and news articles all are at the whim of the digit. So imagine my delight when Microsoft Word tucked an unobtrusive little tally on the lower left hand corner of each word document.


Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal

Keeping track of the number of words has morphed into a work tool that I use to measure my productivity. I know, I know—artists should be at the mercy of the muse not the calculator. I’ve heard this by many successful writers through the years but it’s never really worked for me. Gore Vidal said, “Amateurs hope, professionals work.” Thankfully, I read that quote early in my serious writing career. What matters is getting words on a page. Period.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time looking out the window, day dreaming. Teachers often told me I could amount to something if I quit day dreaming and applied myself. In retrospect, while it wasn’t totally wasted time (where do you think those stories came from??), I didn’t have anything to show for it. No short story, novel, screenplay, nothing. I squandered a lot of time.
At some point in my life, I finally figured if I didn’t write something, all my stories would die. When I found Gore Vidal’s quote, something clicked. I had to stop thinking of writing as fun, a hobby, something to while away all my spare time (spare time doesn’t exist, if you want my opinion). Writing became work. Work I love, but a job nonetheless.
Working included sending out query letters to find an agent and/or publisher. Each agent has very specific criteria for reading potential client’s work: submit a 100 word synopsis, the first 10,000 words of your manuscript, and a one page cover letter specifying why you are the best person to write this story. I caught on quickly—keep track of word count. It matters. These days I have several bios: 50 word, 100 word and 500 word. I keep these and similarly constructed synopsis and outlines of all my marketed books. I’ve learned to have these on hand when someone taps me for an interview or story. They came in very handy last month when my computer crashed. I was between pcs and I got an interview request. But it came with an expiration date, one that was prior to the new pc delivery. Out came the thumb drive and off went the info—all done on my tablet.
writer at keyboardWord counts are helpful to keep up my motivation as well. When I sit at the keyboard with a general idea what I want to accomplish, I mull over the plot points, point of view, and scene goals and start in. I fall prey to the same anxiety all writers suffer from—what if I can’t come up with anything to say?
Here’s where word count comes in. If I put 500 words on a page, edit them, massage phrases, find synonyms and delete whole paragraphs, I’ve done my job. I’ve made those 500 (or 300 or 700 …) words count but it wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t put them on paper in the first place.
In my writing studio, I usually work in the early morning. I can get anywhere from 200 to 1000 words down in a couple of quiet hours. I’m goal-oriented enough to work for a number, hopefully a minimum of 4 digits. For me a good day is any day I can tally an increased number of words from the last total.

The only way I know is to look at my word count. Just another tool to get the job done.

By Thonie Hevron

Mysteries to keep you reading through the night.

8 replies on “Those Annoying Word Counts-Why Bother?”

Marylyn: my theory is “whatever it takes.” Word count, outline, scheduled writing days all point to a structured personality. If I don’t have it (self-imposed included!), my project falls apart.

A good post, Thonie. I’m at a different point, having finished the first big rewrite of book #3. Now need to pull up all my odd notes on post-its, scratch paper and other odd bits and tediously search to make sure my characters have the same color eyes on page 70 and 270, that minor characters names haven’t changed or that “swell” and “good golly” were in use in the 1890’s…..I look forward to ridding myself of such items as I go. Maybe I should keep count of those???

Word count is important to me, especially for my Cotati…Heart & Soul for the Sonoma County Gazette. Columnists for the Gazette have about 500 to 600 words, less if we are asking the editor to print an image with the column.

Lately, I got the pat on the back via email, “Thanks for being a pro” referring to my email always stating my word count.

You nailed it, Deborah. Observing the “rules” separates the pros from the wannabees. Imagine an agent or publisher going through the mounds of work they receive. Their choices are made so much simpler by those who chose to ignore guidelines. “Hm, too many words, single space, Bookman font–into the round file with less thought than one gives an annoying fly”. Easy on them. For that reason, we follow their rules. That’s the ticket.

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