Meaningless Word Counts

This post was Freshly Pressed awhile back, and I just got around to reading it now. It’s geared to academic writing, but I can’t help but feel that it relates to any kind of writing. The point of the post is that when writing a thesis or some other kind of academic paper, getting a high word count doesn’t mean anything because if you’re just getting words on the page and not focusing on what you’re actually writing, then you’re not helping yourself.

I’ve said before on this blog that I am excellent at getting extremely high word counts, but I’m bad at editing my own stuff. That’s mostly because I tell myself that I’ll go back and edit “later,” but “later” never comes because I find something else to write. So a lot of my stuff never gets past the first draft stage, and because it is all written very hastily, I will in all likelihood end up trashing 95% of it once (if?) I do actually get around to editing.

That’s not to say that NaNoWriMo and other incentives to rack up huge word counts are bad. As the author of this post says, writing just to write can get you into the habit of writing and can break your fear of the blank page. That’s a valuable thing, especially for new or young writers.

So that made me think of why many writers start out with short stories. They gives them practice with getting the words down and with editing and polishing something short and more manageable than a novel. My excuse for not writing short stories is that I don’t have enough ideas, and I don’t like developing a character in the space of a short story when I could have used that same character in a novel. So on the rare occasions when I do write a short story, I use “pre-existing” characters, so I know who they are when I sit down to write.

Anyway, I think what the author of the original post wanted to say was that writing is basically thinking about your subject matter and condensing your thoughts so they can be easily understood and shared. In the end, that has very little to do with a word count. It all goes back to this common saying: “All writing is rewriting.” The first draft is just the tip of the iceberg of revision, rewriting, and rework.

(By the way, the word count of this post is 417, but who’s counting?) 🙂

2 thoughts on “Meaningless Word Counts

  1. There is, from what I understand, a common explanation in the newspaper game when you’ve written a long article (“dumped your notebook”):

    “I would have written a shorter article, but I didn’t have enough time.”

    Concision is the difficult part. As Charlie Parker used to say about players who took long solos, “If you can’t say it in three minutes, you can’t say it.” (Not 100% applicable to everything, of course, but always worth keeping in mind.)

    I did notice this in the post you linked to: “academic writing requires thought.”

    So, some kinds of writing don’t require thought? Which ones? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The only writing I can think of that doesn’t require thought is writing while you’re drunk or under the influence of some other substance. 🙂


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