Thursday, July 29, 2021

Word Count Is Not the Only Metric for Productivity

By Spencer Ellsworth, @spencimus

Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: Putting too much focus on word counts can derail a writer from what really mattersthe story. Spencer Ellsworth shares thoughts and tips on how to be productive without stressing over word counts.

Spencer Ellsworth is the author of The Great Faerie Strike from Broken Eye Books and the Starfire space opera trilogy from Tor. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children, and would really like a war mammoth if you know a guy.

Take it away Spencer…

My friend Casey recently posted a Twitter thread in response to “word count tips,” and predictably had to address what I call the “Joe Tough School of Writing.” This is the hypothesis that you just have to grind your brain into mush to produce a certain amount of words every day. Thus a short story or novel every month or week or day, because the real secret to being a writer is neck-veined eye-popping WORK ETHIC.

Casey gives a lot of good advice—notably, sleep, nutrition and exercise are important—and also points out that if writing is never ever fun, why do it?

Seems like an obvious question.

But the cult of suffering is everywhere for journeyman writers. George R.R. Martin said it best: “I don’t like writing. I like having written.”

If you find that life complicates your writing over and over again, the Joe Toughs of the world will lay down an impossible standard. That’s how you can find yourself staring at a dead draft, wishing you were anywhere else, but thinking “It’s ok! I’m supposed to be miserable!”

To paraphrase Casey, you’re not.

As much as the Joe Tough School gets wrong, it is right about one thing: a work ethic produces professional writing. But you don’t need to place your mental health on Joe’s altar to keep a steady pace.

(Here’s more with Why You Shouldn’t Write Every Day)

Wordcount Is Only Good for First Draft, and Even Then…

JRR Tolkien, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, Murasaki Shikibu and Rumi didn’t worry much about how many words they put on the page. Only publishers did, till the 80s, when Microsoft Word and the ever-faithful Clippy could suddenly summon word count and give writers something else to worry about.

*Whispers:* you really don’t ever have to worry about word count if you don’t want to.

*Whispers again:* Clippy can f*** right off.

Word count is good for one thing: challenging yourself to write a first draft quickly.

That’s why so many people use it as a metric. You must be able to draft faster than you can doubt yourself. 1600-odd words a day will leave you a breathless sprinter, the self-doubt lagging a good ten minutes behind.

For others, though, a word count goal just isn’t a metric of achievement because…

Drafting is Different for Everyone

My first drafts are sloppy even for first drafts. I have bracketed notes like [insert graceful transition here] and [heart attack scene here after you research heart attacks] everywhere. I skip ahead and write draft scenelets into my outlines, some of which are useless once the full story catches up with them. In other places, I write three different versions of the same scene.

If you’re someone who’s innately organized, this sounds like the road to madness.

Drafting, for you, my organized friends reading this, is likely a meticulous process. I’ve had friends marvel at how fast I produce words, but when we compare how long we spend writing a novel, we find that we work at about the same pace. While they might write 300 words and I write 3000, they’ve spent a lot of time choosing the right 300 words. They need only add 50 words in revision… while I cut 2650.

A timer or a stopwatch is just as good, or better, than word count goals if this sounds more like your process.

(Here’s more with How Writing in Chunks Can Make You a More Productive Writer)

Know Your Weaknesses—They Take Longer to Write

I have trouble writing action sequences. It’s hard for me to visualize the hallway fight in Daredevil Season 1, or the flying choreography of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and account for doors, stairways, or trees. In my head, the characters fighting are always figures floating in nothingness. So I’m not surprised when action sequences, even in messy first drafts, take me five times as long as everything else. I have to scribble down maps and diagrams and block out the sequence with toy robots.

That’s work. It’s important. But it’s not quantifiable by word count!

(This is also a very good excuse for why you might have a toy shelf long after you’ve “outgrown” toys, not that I would know.)

(Here’s more with A Tip for Getting Through Hard-to-Write Scenes)

Be Honest About Why You Think You Should Write a Certain Way

Here’s a test: go to a writer’s conference or convention, hang out with other writers, and then come home and try to write. Do you feel inspired by the people around you, by the talk about craft, and the chance to share your ideas? Good!

What about not so much? What if you sink into despair a little, compare yourself to other writers and find your pace, ideas and career wanting?

What if your dedication to the Joe Tough philosophy is mostly motivated not by love of writing, but by the sense that you are supposed to do this to be like the other kids?

Not so good.

Creativity and daydreaming have two evil twins in anxiety and depression, and there’s no easier way to give them a place on your shoulder than to assume your writing—or your anything—should be like someone else’s. Humans will compare the downturns of our lives to the highlights of others’, even though it makes us all miserable.

(Here’s more with What's the Best Way to Tell (and Write) a Story?)

So… Metrics?

Here’s an exercise to find your metrics: write “Drafting,” “Heavy Revision” and “Light Revision” at the top of a piece of paper.

Under each one, write what you would consider an average session’s achievements. “Drafting” might be in word count, or it might be focused writing time. The two types of revision will have a different metric—I’d suggest individual scenes or chapters (as long as your chapters are more or less uniform length). Or you can go with time again. Maybe any focused writing for 45 minutes is your win.

Here’s mine:

Drafting: 800-2000 words
Heavy Revision: 1-2 scenes
Light Revision: 3-8 scenes

Now below each, write the barest of bare minimums. I don’t mean Joe Tough’s bare minimum. I mean it’s-been-an-awful-day-I-might-be-getting-a-migraine-and-there’s-no-ice-cream bare minimum. Here’s mine:

Drafting: 50-300 words
Heavy Revision: Read 1 scene through, make no changes
Light Revision: Proof 2 pages

Now instead of labeling them “average” and “bare minimum,” label the two rows “Good Day” and “Not-So-Good-Day.”

Stick it where you’ll see it when Joe comes banging at the door, demanding word count! Don’t make excellent days your metric, or pretend that terrible, zero-writing days don’t happen. Focus on that spectrum of not-so-good to good, based on what you know you can do.

And be good to yourself. Throw on some incense and special coffee for your writing sessions. Instead of flogging ten more minutes out of productive sessions, leave yourself wanting more. As for unproductive sessions, some days are like that. Even if Joe won’t admit it. (I think we’ve established by now that Joe Tough has some bigger issues than writing process. It’s amazing he held it together enough to found a school.)

(Here’s more with Small Changes in Your Writing Process Can Lead to Big Results)

Suffering ≠ Good Art

Most people remember than Van Gogh had psychotic episodes and self-mutilated, but don’t recall that his output, in his final years, was just as prodigious when he was in treatment as it was when he was living alone. In the asylum at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole he painted Starry Night, under the care of a personal attendant and clergyman, in an environment where he was given tools to help, paid for by his family.

You can see his psychosis as the dark twin to his creativity, sure.

I think he just kept painting through his trials because he loved painting.

The best writing hack I know is learning to love your process.

A Revolution in Faerie

Ridley Enterprises has brought industry to the Otherworld, churning out magical goods for profit. But when they fire Charles the gnome, well, they’ve gone too far. Although it goes against a gnome's respectable nature, he takes to the City Beyond streets, fighting for workers’ rights.

The Otherworld's first investigative reporter, Jane, is looking for a story. She finds it in a high society murder among werewolf nobility, a murder tied to Charles's firing.

Jane and Charles must unite the fey workers, deal with their forbidden feelings for one another, and bring the Ridleys to justice. They win, and a Faerie revolution will bring justice. They lose, and a dark, ancient power will consume both worlds.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo


  1. Who agrees that every writer has their pattern and style? I tend to fall in love with my characters or story. Writing stories without the passion for telling them works for some but to me, what works is to write what I would read.

  2. Yes, I've realized my pattern. And also that I've paid too much attention to word count. I tend to write short! But may focus more now on getting the story down in print.

  3. Bravo--so true. This entire article should be read and re-read. I will be saving the link in my bookmarks titled 'sanity' so I can always find it. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Over time, I've discovered what I love about every stage of MY writing process. The wide-eyed discovery of planning. The whirlwind thrill of drafting. The thoughtful revelations of revising. On social media, though, I've frequently run into a troubling obsession among many writers. Word count. There's the spectrum that stretches from those who punish themselves for "failure" to those who can't bring themselves to revise because they don't produce Numbers. Big Numbers. Part of it is the "social media" obsession with wanting attention, I guess, but it is saddening. For my part, it makes me cherish what I do all the more.

  5. Bravo. Writing isn't, as you say, all about word count. I write historical fiction as well as fantasy, and that requires a lot of research. That's part of the writing process as well. Often, I only manage a few hundred words in a session.