Word Count For Writers: To Count or Not to Count

Do you write every day? Do you obsess about word count?

Personally, I have word counts for the days I have planned to write fiction and I achieve that word count when I set it. I don’t have word counts on business days. We all have our ways of working and in today’s guest post, author Curtis Hox talks about his.

Here’s a scenario: you’ve finally decided to start a writing project. A novel, of course. Maybe even the great American novel. You sit down and stare at that blank screen. Then what?

Even for many seasoned writers, the fear of starting can cause anxiety. Getting over that anxiety then presents a whole series of obstacles. One, in particular, comes up again and again in writing workshops: how do I find my groove and keep it?

Professionals have been telling us how to write since Aristotle’s Poetics.

A quick look through any fiction writing monograph and you’ll see a plethora of advice . You’ll often hear the ambiguous “Write what you know,” which must seem odd for fantasists, down to Elmore Leonard’s supremely practical ten rules for writing (my favorite: “10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”).

I’ll add one more pebble to the mountain of advice. The technique that always, no matter what, helped me was to set a very simple writing schedule for myself and stick to it. No matter what.

I used to use a large paper desk calendar, the type with the big squares (I now use Google calendar). I always gave myself a small word count (i.e. five hundred words) in the beginning.  I would write immediately after I breakfast. I would then sit at my computer until the words came. No internet. No books. Just the blank screen. And the hardest part? You have to stare at it.

I believe there’s something enthralling about this process. Literally. Of course you will often fiddle, play with your keys, toss something up in the air, sing a song, or talk to your dog. But at some point you find yourself staring … and thinking. Then the mind clicks over and an image pops in your head, maybe a scene, some dialog. Something comes and the narrative starts to flow.

Now you’re in it.

Of course, the staring is just a metaphor. My first novel, I spent half the time on the floor tossing a ball up and down. It functioned the same way as staring: it was a mechanism to set my mind right.

When I’m done with the daily session, I write in my calendar how many words I completed for that session. I find that for the first two weeks, it’s rough going. Then, I suddenly am writing for longer than expected. And the word count increases. Of course, if you’re limited to only an hour of writing a session, you’re limited.

I find that if I have the time I can easily hit 2K words a session (usually two words for me). Of course, we all write different types of prose. Some writers have diarrhea mouth and must excise material during revisions. Other like me tend to leave things out and fill in the end.

Bottom line: get your word count in, whatever that number is.

Now, there are plenty of philosophical romantics out there who say this technique is much too machine-like, that true inspiration comes when it comes and you can’t force it. I’d like to hear an Olympic athlete say this on those cold morning when he or she has to get up and go run in the rain. It will sound like the excuse it is.

Writing is exercising the brain. It’s a habit. And it needs to be used. The words you put down may not always be your best. In those instances the writing session is like a free-writing exercise, which does wonders for the subconscious. Amazing insights often bubble up, even if the prose is crap.

Of course, this is a technique to get your butt in a chair and words on a page. I admit it’s a very blue-collar approach. But, hey, if you don’t like sitting in a room by yourself, spinning stories, find something else to do because this gig can, often, is a labor of love.

I scribble contemporary science fantasy novels. I’m interested in the process of indie publishing and writing, plus a whole bunch of technoscience stuff. This article was written for the Creative Penn as part of the 2012 blog tour launch of Bleedover, my debut novel as an indie author. For more information visit www.curtishox.com.


In addition to Curtis’ post, here’s some additional information people keep asking me about word count.

How many words is a book?

It’s a terrible answer, but it varies by genre and increasingly by means of publishing. At the top end, fantasy books can weight in at 120,000 – 150,000. Fast paced thrillers like James Patterson can be 70,000 – 90,000. Romance can be 50,000.

Then there’s a novella at 25,000 – 40,000 which is becoming more popular with ebooks.

Remember that your first draft will need editing. Stephen King recommends cutting 10% every edit, so if you want a book of 90,000 words, write 100,000.

What’s the best word count tool for my blog?

I’ve been using this word count tool. It’s easy to use. You just put in your current number and your goal and it gives you some HTML to post on your blog. I use this on the sidebar at my fiction blog JoannaPenn.com (which I am in the middle of a WIP anyway)

What do you think about word count goals and targets?

Top Image: Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. says

    Awesome post! I am a brand new author, wrote a book for the very first time. I completed it and keep going over it – over and over. Each time I read it, I am adding to the story. The problem is that I can read my novella in ONE day. Which, I don’t think is a good thing. Is it? My book is only 34,192 words! Don’t people want to read more? Is it ok to release a novella? I saw a previous post where someone said that is happening a lot with ebooks now, but…. is it really? Should I really add some more? My book hasn’t gone to an editor yet (that’s next month) so I am wondering if the story will be cut, or added to. Heck, I can read a James Patterson novel in 2 days, but mine? In 1 day? Will people be disappointed? I don’t know. I’m all confused. Its my first attempt, so I don’t know what to expect from my readers. I felt good about my book – I really enjoyed writing it. But now, I am not too sure of myself. Help!

    • Connie says

      Lisa Cron’s book, “Wired for Story” (2013) says . . . say I have a scene, if I cut it out would anything that happens afterward change? If no, cut it. So if what you want to add drives the story forward (it’s relevant), go for more additions.
      Naw, I think a one day read is o.k. Who cares? If it’s good, it’s good.
      I think a publisher wants a page-turner, so the bottom line counts (I mean the $s).
      Keep doing what you’re doing.


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