Word waterboarding! Less may be more

Why is it that some people seem to have the idea that the more words they write the better.  What do you think? I don’t think it is necessarily better for them or for the reading public. Indeed, it may be positively unhealthy as there even seems to be writers worrying about word count addiction and word count obsession.

A few days ago, I got involved in a discussion in a thread on LinkedIn where someone was asking how many words each day people write, and this was followed by a swathe of comments, some seemingly bragging about daily word count as if somehow “stream of consciousness” writing ten hours each day spewing out thousands of words was the “way to go”.   Other commentators on the LinkedIn discussion thread even wanted to include in their writing tally, their blogs and how many letters and memos they write at work and their shopping lists (no, I think I’m exaggerating there).  There are also these daily word count writing contests on twitter which I can understand help to motivate people to “put pen to paper” (so to speak) and the NaMoWriMo competitions which seem to encourage people to write a novel in a month.

I can understand that in this era where most authors earn very little from each book, most can only make a living from writing if they have lots of books out.  So the more you have out there the better: the more likely readers are going to buy one or more of your books and the better known you become.  Also I agree that to learn how to write, you need to write, but I do have serious reservations about  these various arrangements, competitions and schemes as they seem to me to be saying that word count is the main thing in writing.  Of course, if someone can write five thousand words each day and barely have to edit or correct them and it’s brilliant writing then I take my hat off to them. But I don’t believe that most writers can do this.

Even though I’ve only written one and a half novels and a few one-act plays, I did have the dubious good fortune of writing a PhD thesis many years ago and since then I’ve supervised and examined varous theses.  I’ve also written twenty or so academic and professional text books (in law), and to me, one of the basic rules learned from the writing of theses, is that about one third of the time is spent researching and developing the works, the second third in writing and the last third in polishing (revising, editing etc etc).  Of course academic writing isn’t the same as writing good literature.   But it seems to me that this sort of division of time is at least what is required in writing fiction and non-fiction as often writers don’t even start with a solid knowledge of the topic they are writing about (unlike a doctoral candidate) and have to acquire much of that along the way.

I’ve always thought that great writing should be a bit like poetry: each word being considered, carefully chosen and carrying a wealth of meaning.  Quality not quantity:  in an earlier post, I’ve already tried to come to grips with what “great writing” is.

So I would rather know how much time a writer is spending in editing and revising than how many words he or she is writing each day.

…..some other blogs (there are lots more):






9 thoughts on “Word waterboarding! Less may be more

  1. I would say I easily spend 5 times more time editing, then writing (please feel free to use this poorly worded, un-edited sentence as an example of my rough writing, thus creating the need for massive amounts of editing). Also working in law, I have lots of experience taking a plethora of information and distilling it down to its most persuasive form. However, I find in both technical writing and recreational writing, you first need all that information, read: many words, so they may then be fine tuned to their best shape. It’s time consuming, and it blows (IMHO)! But we writers trudge on!

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m with you. Even putting research to one side, I don’t believe that good writing and particularly great writing can come that easily. I wish I could just write beautiful, well-structured and tight prose by just typing it out … but even then my typing would let me down… It’s a slow process and unrealistic expectations don’t help… All the best ..

  2. I’d agree that less if often times more. But remember that writing and editing are two separate processes. When writing you should just be writing, writing, writing. Not only is word count is a form of encouragement to some writers (I use “encouragement” here because the more words I write the more I want to write), but it is also a platform into endless possibilities. When you just keep writing the story sometimes goes somewhere unexpected – but oh so right. So what if half of what I write will be nixed in the edit? At least I have a solid foundation to edit from.

    • Thank you for your thoughts. Absolutely understand continuing to write while the flow is going and that it can be a boost to check out the wordcount clicking over….. I do it too … but I do think that as I go along I can sometimes spend the time to choose the best possible word, do some research and ask if what I’m doing fits in etc … other times I’ll do all that later along with editing and revisions … when it’s done doesn’t matter as long as it gets done and enough time is spent to perfect the writing. ….. Some of the comments from people on the LinkedIn thread I mentioned and other places seemed to show a pre-occupation with daily wordcount, writing as many words as possible and publishing as quickly as possible. There seemed to be a competition amongst them to write as many words as possible and it was as if all that mattered was quantity and quality was not thought about at all. That’s why I started to feel that perhaps we should be thinking more about how to write high quality literature than wordcount.

  3. Pingback: The 20 Unwritten Laws of Writing » Cities of the Mind

  4. Pingback: Why I Like Word Counts | Concerning Writing

  5. Pingback: Revising and Editing: something to avoid | Gary Heilbronn

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