In this episode, I discuss word counts.
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This is episode 9, where we talk about word counts. I have included a couple of useful links in the show notes, which you can find on ianmactire.com, along with the transcript for each episode.
You can probably guess what a word count is, but in case you don’t know what it is, it’s generally the number of words in your document. While they aren’t necessarily important while writing, they will for sure become important when it comes time to submit your work for consideration for publishing, as that is information that many, if not all, publishers and literary agents will want to know. You can choose to keep track of that as you go, or you can wait until your done and get the final total.
To get your word count, there are a few different ways. You can do it the old fashioned way and count them by hand, though I wouldn’t recommend that, especially for a short story or novel. However if you choose to do that, hey, live your best life! Some word processing programs will have the ability to display the word count, and some writing programs designed with writers in mind might even have more robust word count tools. For example, Scrivener, the program I use, gives me not only the overall word count, but I can also look at word count totals by chapter or section, and even set word count goals for both the overall manuscript and the writing session.
If you’re wondering whether word counts are necessary, and whether you should even use them, again, they will for sure become important when you submit your manuscript. Whether you choose to use them prior is completely up to you. That said, I will go over why I use word counts throughout my projects.
Before I continue, let me just say that it’s good to note that there are generally accepted ranges for each type of manuscript. Your first draft is basically just getting the story out of your head and onto the paper. At this point, overall word count doesn’t really matter. Word count will come into play upon subsequent drafts, and will for sure matter on your final version. This will be one of the factors that agents and publishers will take into consideration. As a general rule, the average novel is anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 words, a novella anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words, and a short story anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 words.
Now at this point, you might be wanting to point out that JRR Tolkein, Stephen King, and George RR Martin all have published novels greater than 100,000 words in length. You would be correct, however the reason they can get away with that is because their publishers know that their novels sell. If you’re just starting out, or you have had a few novels published but haven’t gotten much traction, they’re going to be really hesitant to publish your novel, if they publish it at all, if it’s pushing the upper end or even crossing it. Food for thought.
Okay then, here’s why I think using word counts throughout the writing process is a good thing.
First, word counts are a good means of giving you a goal and a way to track your progress. As I said before, the program I use gives me the ability to track an overall goal for the manuscript, as well as a daily goal. Knowing that the minimum word count for a novel is 80,000 words, I can set that goal and leave it alone. Having that overall goal allows me to eyeball my progress from time to time, but during the first draft, it’s really just for fun. The word count I am more concerned with is my daily word count. Having that goal keeps me focused and doesn’t allow me to get lazy, and when I meet or exceed it, I get a sweet, sweet hit of that dopamine that no amount of likes on social media can give. It also helps me get through the rough times when I don’t meet it because I’ll be aware of all the times I did.
When setting a daily word count for yourself, you need to take into consideration several things. How much time are you going to be able to devote to writing each day? If you’re independently wealthy, or work a job that allows a lot of free time, you may be able to fit in a higher word count. If you’re working a job like me that is busy, and eight plus hours a day, you might be able to only work with a lower word count. How soon do you want to finish your first draft, or subsequent edits? If your goal is to get an 80,000 word novel completed in a month, again, that’s going to be a higher word count. If the goal is just to finish when it gets finished, you could probably go lower. Another thing you will need to take into consideration is, how long can you write before you’re unable to write any longer?
I would love to tell you at this point that I did some grand scientific study to arrive at my perfect number, but I didn’t. I simply chose 2,500 because I had read somewhere that 2,500 words equals roughly six pages. That sounded both doable and seemed like I would get my book written in a short amount of time. Assuming my novel was 80,000 words, and assuming I did indeed write 2,500 words every day, then it should take roughly 30 days to get it done. That sounded a lot better than writing one novel for several years. Is this doable? Yes, but you will have to be spot on every day, and every day will have to go amazingly well, which if we’re being honest, won’t.
I will tell you that while this is not impossible, it’s not likely. How do I know? I started the first draft of my first novel on November 1st, 2020, as I wrote it during NaNoWriMo (as I spoke about in a previous episode). At the end of November, I had written a total of 63,170 words in 30 days (although I had missed a day, so technically 29). Some of those days saw me barely making the 2,500 words, some days saw me blow way past that number, and there were some days I didn’t get anywhere near that. There was one day I was only able to write 24 words. I wouldn’t finish my novel until December 18th, ending with a grand total of 87,086 words. I did this as someone who doesn’t live with any significant others or with any young children. The only thing I had to be responsible for beyond myself, was my dog, and as he’s a golden retriever, he’s about as laid back as they come. I tell you this so you keep that in mind when trying to determine your daily word count goal, should you choose to set one.
Now that we have spoken about setting word count goals, I do want to stress that these should be used as guidelines. Don’t make it something that you stress over. We all have enough stress between our jobs, bills, health issues, etc. Word counts should be used as a means of measuring your progress, not your sense of self worth or whether you’re any good as a writer. Allow yourself to be ok in not always meeting this goal, because there will be days you won’t. In these cases, just write what you can, and then come back to it tomorrow. There will also be days that you will be on fire and will blow past it. Allow those days to carry you through the days when you don’t meet your goal. Writing should be fun, not drudgery.
So with that, stay classy and keep writing those stories!
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