If you pay any attention to nutrition-related advice—and these days, who doesn’t?—the one phrase you’ve probably heard more than a dozen times is that anything is good in moderation. There are exceptions, of course; you should never eat paper, for example, even in moderation.
This often over-extended concept—which I’m allowed to weave into this blog post because (a) I majored in dietetics in college and (b) it’s my website and I can do whatever I want (within reason)—can easily be applied to any non-health-related subject you want. In this case, I’m going to apply it to writing, or more specifically, word count.
The Pros of Counting Words
Meaning, of course, the benefits, not word-counting experts, though if you consider yourself one, I’d love to have a nice quantity vs. quality chat over virtual coffee. Word counting is an excellent motivator, and in some instances can help you move past a creativity block.
The major benefit of word counting I like to highlight is that it helps writers practice trimming down their own work. I write for an online magazine; my editor gave me a challenge this semester to keep my word count on standard articles below 600 words. Was it hard at first? Absolutely. Did it teach me to be more critical of my work, constructively, and to take a few pages of writing full of adjectives and phrases I thought I needed but really didn’t? Absolutely.
In many cases, such as Wrimos, it’s healthy to crank out a lot of words, for the sole purpose of going back and editing later. But as you might guess, this can lead to problems.
Word Counting Cons
Referring to the disadvantages, not one of many other meanings of the word: a noun meaning “something used deceptively to gain another’s confidence” (Merriam-Webster). Spending all your time counting words instead of tracking plot points, for example, is a con that derails many writers from projects they love, setting them back from deadlines and leaving them feeling grossly unfulfilled.
During NaNo, I skim the discussion boards and glance at participants’ word counts under their avatars. I’m always skeptical of high word counts (i.e., over 25,000 words) within the first week of November. Granted, the whole point is to race to the finish line, all based off your word count. I only hope writers understand that once November ends, it’s going to be a long, tedious editing marathon.
While it can be “fun” to sprint—in the world of “speed writing,” sprinting refers to cranking out a large amount of words in a specific, often short, amount of time—keep in mind you’re very rarely, if ever, going to write 1,000 words in less than 30 minutes that’s ready for the rest of the world to read. Rapid-fire writing will always lead to more editing time, which can be discouraging and even discrediting.
Finding Balance In the Math
It’s no secret that math and I do not get along. Numbers tend to freak me out, until I start using them to track my writing progress. For some, self-monitoring your work by making note of how much you’re writing is just the motivation needed to keep a schedule. Still, it’s easy to get carried away, and (here we go again) as with a healthy lifestyle, finding balance between quantity and quality is essential to any writer’s success.
When working on smaller projects, write the piece without worrying about word count. Many times you’ll start off thinking you won’t be able to meet a minimum, only to look down in the middle of your conclusion and realize you’re several hundred words over the limit. Writing without focusing on quantity helped you get your ideas out on the page. Now you can focus on quantity in a different way, cutting words you don’t need for the sake of quality.
Of course it’s healthy to write often, and there’s nothing wrong with using word count as a jump-starter when you’re desperate for a self-induced creative push. Always keep in the back of your mind that moderation is the ingredient to success in any form. As a writer, too many words really can hurt you. Balance word count with other means of tracking progress, which I’ll (hopefully) get to writing about soon, to keep yourself on track.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.
A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.