Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Counting Words

By Mark W. Danielson

I hear a lot of authors counting words. One will say, “I wrote one thousand today,” while another boasts ten times that many. I once wrote over fifty thousand in four days during a Kazakhstan layover because there were no distractions, and I wasn’t the least bit concerned because it was a first draft. At this point, my only goal was to document my thoughts down without regard for word count or quality. While this may sound contradictory, count and quality apply to later stages of manuscript writing.

As with many fiction writers, I do not use outlines. I admire those who do because it probably cuts down on editing and makes writing the synopsis easier. But I prefer letting my characters walk me through the tale. Words flow easily because my plot has been teasing my brain for weeks, months, or even years. During my initial draft, I want my characters to transport me through a variety of obstacles while leading to a viable conclusion. I become so entranced by the words appearing on my screen that my heart stops if the phone rings or the dog barks. There is no magic number of pages or words that I expect to complete by day’s end. I’m happy, so long as my story progresses. Truth be known, I’m better off counting calories than words at this stage. But once this draft is complete, I am absolutely driven by word count because most publishers cap novels at one hundred thousand.

If I find myself significantly over the cap then choices must be made and the quality search begins. If I’m not sure where to start cutting, I’ll pick an adjective, do a word search, and see if it’s been overused. I avoid lengthy descriptions because they slow the pace, and fewer words generally paint better pictures. If I’m still over my word count, I’ll check to see how often I used “said”. Bear in mind that “said” identifies who is speaking, but if I’ve already introduced who that is in a conversation between two people, then “he said, she said” is probably unnecessary.

It isn’t difficult to cut fifteen or twenty thousand words from a 100,000 word manuscript and replace them with another ten or fifteen thousand that improve the story. In this sense, my “word diet” is like a “people diet” because my numbers will fluctuate like a scale’s reading before they stabilize. A good rule of thumb is when in doubt, cut.

By the time I send the manuscript to my editor, I feel pretty good about its quality and word count, but I also realize that my editor’s job is to return me to earth. Objective editors look for logic, believable characters and scenes, flow, and conclusions with little concern for word count. If my manuscript is over the cap after I’ve made my editor’s corrections, then I’ll consult the editor about what other cuts could be made. I will never send a manuscript to anyone other than my editor that does not meet a publisher’s parameters. To do so would mean instant rejection.

Authors agree that writing should be fun, but they also recognize that professional writing is a business with specific demands. Style, font, and layout are as important as word count. Numerous guides provide this information, and Writer’s Digest is one of the best. In the end, counting words is a reality, but count should never override quality.


Bill Kirton said...

It's always reassuring, Mark, when other writers articulate their experience of writing in a way which mirrors my own. I'm with you on letting the characters dictate their destinies. I also empathise wth the way you speak of writing the first draft as if it had nothing to do with you - the words are just 'appearing' on the screen. That's a very familiar feeling.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Bill. There are times when I think I should outline, but where's the fun in that? After all, novels aren't term papers. Creativity flows from characters, and I never know where mine come from until they arrive.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I write the same way, Mark, but aim for five pages a day before I quit. Sometimes I do twice that many when George, my muse, is cracking the whip. I write with an outline only when I'm writing a nonfiction book, but allow my characters free rein. Sometimes they paint me into a corner, but when I back out and write in another direction, I'm usually always satisfied with the results.

Jaden Terrell said...

I do outline. I never end up sticking with it, so I'm constantly revising it as I go, but it gives me a much-needed sense of structure. And since i have no sense of time, it keeps me from having people in two (or more) places at once. I do love the first-draft feeling, though, when the words are just pouring out and you know they're good words that can be shaped into even better ones.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I know what you mean, Beth. There is no "best way" to write. All that's important is we move forward. I keep tabs on my characters as I go, so in a sense it's outlining after the fact. Thank goodness for the ability to search and edit!