Why I don’t do Word Counts

December 11, 2013 | By | 22 Replies More

Blink of an Eye

Cath Staincliffe is an established novelist, radio playwright and creator of ITV’s hit series Blue Murder.  She doesn’t do word counts, which came to us as a surprise. Hence we asked her, why?

I don’t do word counts. Well, only once I’ve completed a novel, and then with one eye closed, holding my breath, worried it won’t be adequate. There are a couple of reasons why I avoid them (apart from the above mentioned fear of falling short).

Firstly, I write longhand so although I might be able to judge that I’ve written ten or twenty or two pages today, I can’t tally the numbers at the stroke of a computer key. Secondly, there’s the way I developed as a writer.  When I started out I had a part-time job and small children to look after. My writing time was very constrained.

The first two books were written in the only free slot of my week – a two hour stretch on a Friday morning when I wasn’t at my day job and the youngest child was at playgroup or nursery (it’s all a bit of a blur now).  I became used to grabbing that time and writing.

I was very strict with myself – ignoring the chores, which were legion, resisting all those little distractions that suddenly begged for my attention – and I just got on with it. Back then there was no email or Twitter or text messages to lure me away from the task at hand but I like to think I’d have withstood them as well. As long as I sat there and scribbled for my allotted span, it didn’t matter how quickly or slowly I got it down or how many pages I filled.

Cath colSomewhere along the way I had learned that it is all too easy to undermine yourself when you’re writing. Any confidence or belief in what you’re making is a fragile, easily fractured thing and ‘judging’ my work by the quantity I was producing would have been another way to chip away at the dream: only done 300 words, you’ll never finish, it’s probably rubbish anyway, give up now.  You know the sort of thing.

As you might have gathered from what I’ve already said, I am a writer who writes sparingly. My early novels were about 240 pages long, some were as little as sixty thousand words – but they worked at that length. In the years since there seems to have been a trend for novels to be much longer, for us all to be churning out wrist-breakers. Some of my contracts stipulate word counts that make me want to weep.

And I have on occasion been found wanting and had to add several thousand words to a manuscript in order for it to be published. Some writers have the opposite problem from mine – they write at great length. A friend recently talked about having to cut 40,000 words from her latest WIP to make it more manageable. Forty. Thousand. Words.

Now I know that many writers (possibly the majority?) measure their daily word count. Some tweet their progress, others blog about it. Initiatives like NaNoWriMo invite people to reach a word count as a way of encouraging fledgling writers not just to start but to keep going. In my case I found other measures worked better for me. Attending a regular writers’ group gave me a monthly goal to complete my latest chapters for submission to my fellow authors and of course once I was lucky enough to get published I had deadlines in my contracts.

Bleed Like Me As with other aspects of the process of writing there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in creating stories and putting them down on paper – or up onscreen.  What is most important at the end of the day (after just getting on with it) is to find out what approach works for you – and stick with it.

Is that long enough yet?

PS  Perhaps I should add a disclaimer here (and not just to pad out the piece) – little of the above holds true for my scriptwriting. Radio and TV need material to fit very exact time-slots so the length of a script is a given thing which the writer must work to. I still don’t do word counts but I do watch those page numbers and read the work aloud to time it. Also, for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, when I write a radio play or TV drama I work straight onto the computer unless I get to a difficult or emotionally loaded scene which demands the old pen and paper.  Strange but true.

Cath Staincliffe is an established novelist, radio playwright and creator of ITV’s hit series Blue Murder, starring Caroline Quentin as DCI Janine Lewis. Cath was short-listed for the CWA John Creasey Best First Novel award for Looking For Troublethe debut in her acclaimed Sal Kilkenny series, and for the Dagger in the Library award in 2006. She was joint winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger award in 2012 for Laptop. Cath’s newest novels, Split Second and Blink of an Eye examine hot topical issues and tell stories of ordinary people, caught up in the criminal justice system, who face difficult and dangerous choices.  Cath writes the Scott & Bailey novels based on the popular ITV1 series.  She is a founding member of Murder Squad, a group who promote crime fiction.  Born in Bradford, Cath lives in Manchester, England with her partner and family.

Find out more about Cath on her website www.cathstaincliffe.co.uk and follow her on twitter @CathStaincliffe

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

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  1. Why I Don’t Do Word Counts | Cath Staincliffe | December 22, 2014
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  1. Evie Gaughan says:

    Well this article has really cheered me up! My novels always seem to hover around the 60,000 word mark – which isn’t too much of a problem when you’re self-published, but I have had some feedback from readers saying they wished the story had been longer. However, as a reader myself, I can always sense when a writer has been ‘advised’ by their publisher to increase the wordcount and find myself getting frustrated with being led up the garden path! Just writing for the sake of length seems a bit counter-intuitive to me, but I guess if there’s a book deal on the line, I’d find the words somewhere! I’m not sure a traditional publisher would even consider a commercial fiction book of less than 80,000 words, especially women’s fiction (which is a whole other conversation!) Great article – thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Glad I’m not the only one, Evie! It’s still an issue for me and I’m green with envy when other writers I know talk about having to cut 30,000 words because their book’s too long. I know what you mean about books feeling ‘padded out’ and as a reader I do get tried of books that seem longer than the story or writing warrants. Maybe one day the trend will change but no sign of that yet. Good luck with your writing.

  2. Hi Cath,

    Thanks for sharing this experience. My problem as an author is that I end up writing long- really long books. My word counts go 1.9K+ Is it okay to write long novels or they are again considered ill-fitted by industry standards? As a matter of fact, I plan to break my novel in 2 parts before sending it to agents because I am scared that a very long novel might not go well with agents as I am a first time writer.

    Can you please advice me on this matter?

    • Hi Kirtida,
      Thanks for getting in touch. It sounds like you are the opposite to me! That does seem long, I think most books are 80K to 100K (though lots are shorter or longer). If your novel naturally breaks into two parts then you could think about treating it as two books. But if it would spoil it to split it up then you might need to consider editing it into a more manageable length. Good luck.

  3. I found this so interesting. Thank you for your insight. I’m a slave to word counts even though I hate them. My best days of writing (and not coincidentally, the most productive) are the days I throw word counts out the window and just write the scene that’s been brewing in my brain for days … This is some great advice and I’ll be sharing! Thank you!

  4. Hello, Soul Sista! So glad to know there are others out there that don’t freak over a daily goal. The story finds it’s own way out when you give it the lead.

  5. I’m happy to read you here and I thank you for this thoughtful piece.

    Two things sang out:

    I am also a “writer who writes sparingly.” My recently completed and first full-length book of ecstatic poetry is full of space, many lines only one word. It takes a certain courage to trust the reader this much.

    And, I agree that “a difficult or emotionally loaded [subject]… demands the old pen and paper.” Immediacy of paper and pen, eyes following this lead of ink, sound of pages turning, the rocker in which I sit or some place in the sun…all grounding me in my body, on the planet, giving tether to the mind, wanting to wander at will.

  6. I do word counts, but not the way most people do it. They tend to set a word count goal and try to meet it. If I do it like that, I end up terribly disillusioned and frustrated. I don’t outline, and my creation process is rather messy. The story word count may bounce up and down. It is entirely possible I could end up in negative words.

    So what I do is write down how many words I wrote for the story for that day. If I did writing in different sessions, then two different word listings. If I do a blog post, that’s another listing. If I do a critique, that’s another one. Then I write them down in my planner and ignore them. At the end of the week, I total them up and it’s like “Wow! I did more than I thought!” I also total it up at the end of the month. Much different than trying to write to a word count goal and not reach it.

    • Cath says:

      Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. Sounds like your approach helps boost your confidence in what you are achieving, which is great. I think with this writing malarkey what’s most important is finding the methods that work for you.

  7. Christine Jordan says:

    Hi Cath. I was never bothered by word count until I came to submit my debut novel to agents. After several agents asked for the full MS and then rejected it I started to ask questions. I discovered that any book over 90,000 words is costly to print and as mine was 135,000 (historical novel) my submission suffered as a result. Combine that with the reluctance of agents and publishers to take risks with unknown authors who have no sales track record and I immediately saw I had a problem. I cut 20,000 words from the MS but I could do no more. So in the end I self published and got cracking on my latest book – keeping a keen eye on the word count. The magical numbers are 60,000 to 90,000 and no more. One agent actually said he was a great believer in being able to tell any story within 300 pages. Just thought I would share that with anyone out there who is trying their hardest to get published in the traditional way.

  8. Lisa Reiter says:

    Cath – only just come across this but thank you for some confirmation! I’m writing a difficult memoir and the pressure of word counts was adding unnecessary drivel ! Secondly – I’m going to try the more emotional bits longhand – that little throwaway of yours could be a total nugget !

  9. Marialena says:

    I very much enjoyed these thoughts on the use, or rather lack non-use, of word counts. I think that time and word counts are very similar in terms of building a habit and developing a practice. I have a bizarre fascination slash abhorrence of focusing primarily on word count, such as activities like NaNoWriMo. The energy of NaNoWriMo is awesome as it motivates so many people. But not for me (so far at least).

    Reading aloud for timing is interesting. Apparently Umberto Eco drew a map of the monastery in The Name of the Rose and made sure his conversations matched the distances the characters walked.

    • Cath Staincliffe says:

      Thanks Marialena. Yes, you’re right, it’s the habit that’s key – however you cultivate it. Wow – astonishing attention to detail from Umberto Eco! The timescales in some of my book would not bear close scrutiny but the story trumps the realism.

  10. Julie Luek says:

    I’m so glad to read this post. I too resist word counts. I don’t participate in any contests that emphasize word count. Life, to me, is not conducive to word counts. My heart my produce lots one day and little the next.

    However,having said all that, I do envy the discipline of those who can stick to daily word counts. Unlike you, I let the distractions eat at my time too much. It’s all fear-avoidance, I suspect. Thanks for the great article.

    • Cath Staincliffe says:

      Thanks very much, Julie. I think you may well be right about fear-avoidance leaving you open to distractions. Perhaps you should promise yourself a certain amount of time purely for writing – and promise yourself not to be critical while you are doing it. Good luck.

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