On wordcounts

The Wordcount is a capricious beast. It is simultaneously the carrot and the stick. The milestone by which you mark what you’ve achieved, and the one that tells you just how far you have to go.

My current novel WIP is sitting on about 65,000 words. I envision it will come in around 90-100,000 words. Which means I’m about 2/3 of the way there. But, hoboy, those last 5000 words have been a slog. I don’t quite know why. I’ve got the key plot stuff all planned out, but I’m having trouble moving between plot points. Generally this means I’ve got to go back and do a bit more work on shoring up the foundations of my story, but that’s a whole other blog post.

A piece of tried and true writing advice is that if you commit to writing a certain amount of words a day (or a week, whatever), it will only be a matter of time before you’ve completed your 80,000/90,000/120,000 word novel. And that’s true…to an extent. It’s not quite the whole picture, though. You can write 90,000 words in three months, but if by then your protagonist hasn’t yet found the magic widget, vanquished the evil nemesis and saved the cat, you’re not finished. You might have another 10,000 words to go. Or another 50,000.

If you’re a good planner – or, perhaps I should say, if your writing practice revolves around planning your work – wordcounts are probably a really good yardstick by which to measure how you’re meeting your writing goals. You probably know you want to write a 90,000 word story and you know X will happen by 30K, Y by 45K, and Z will happen in the last 5K. Great.

But I’m more of a pantser. I feel like this will be a 90,000 word story. I’ve got my plot bones set out, but I don’t do detailed planning around how I’ll get from A to B to C. I’ve already had to revise my chapter plan about 4 times, because the stuff I thought would happen in chapter 7 won’t happen now until chapter 10. It’s all good. That’s what first drafts are for – working all this stuff out. The thing is, though, I find I just can’t commit to progressing my story to a certain point within a certain wordcount. So, for me, I often find that plot milestones are a better way of measuring the development of my work. Have we found the magic widget? OK, now we’re halfway through. Have we just set out to vanquish the nemesis? OK, that’s the 3/4 mark.


The wordcount is still there, sitting down in the bottom corner of Word, alternating between mocking me and being a triumphant marker of progress. I’ve found myself falling into the trap of thinking “I’m in that mid-draft slump. When I’ve reached 70,000 words, I know I’ll be doing OK.”

The fact is, though, I am doing OK. I’ve written 65,000 words. They’re not perfect, but I’m generally happy with them. And having the manuscript sitting at 70,000 words won’t be any guarantee that the 2000 words between 70 and 72 K won’t also be a bloody hard slog. There are times when it feels like I am inching myself forwards by the raw edges of my chewed-off fingernails. But I’m not in bad company.

George R R Martin on writing A Dance With Dragons:

The last one was a bitch. This one was three bitches and a bastard.

I just have to keep on swimming.