Thursday, June 24, 2010

Beyond the Wordcount: What is writing?


I’ve been contemplating a lot about writing REALLY is. Of course, this fevered inner debate sprang to me during my unproductive month, but the seed was sown after reading a short post by Karen Mahoney on her decision to stop using word meters, because they were not the ideal measurement for progress. Her point was that certain days she may feel the need to edit words she has written yesterday or perhaps work on some plotting, outline scenes, research etc.

Along with the Series Bibles posts I have been reading [the topic seemed to overlap on a few place] posed the question: What is writing? Yes, the most obvious answer is putting words down on paper [typing words on the screen], chaining them until you reach the end and that is that. This is the first school of thought, also the one, which is most commonly understood and widely spread. I will call it the expansive school, because success and progress is measured by the very tangible word count. In this school belongs the advice “write every day”, the New Year’s Resolutions to write more and the clever quotas writers set for the month or for the year. The industry operates with it. This way writing is tangle. It can be broken to bits, it can be counted and slotted. Every business needs clarity and stability, which makes it a lot easier for both writers and publishers.

However, writing is not the physical act alone. Because the fingers are not programmed with the words they type the moment we sit down on the keyboard, nor does the wrist have a battle plan, when the writer picks up the pen and scribbles away. Yes, there are times, when we all feel like the words are pouring out as if we are receiving a fax from the Creative Department above. In these instances, reaching our quotas seems easy breezy. However, writing is always about finding the right words, creating the right mood, establishing a firm logic that binds the characters and story in a homogenous work. There is so much to be done that has nothing to do with the wordcount. It’s related to writing, inseparable from the process, but beyond the physical. Beyond the wordcount.

I’m inclined to define writing, along with the measurement of progress, as a storm inside the writer’s head. Chaos that the writer channels primarily into the body of the work, but which also leaks out in the series bibles, the character sheets, the worldbuilding concepts. It’s in the impulse to delete what the writer deems inferior, to retrace his steps, alter the story and edit in order to enhance an idea. Writing includes the editing, the revisions and the subsequent work on a piece in order to make it work. It’s a mental process as much as it is physical. I call this the intensive school, because quantity is not the sole factor, determining progress. Here it’s important whether the writer does the idea justice or not, whether he utilizes his own faculties to their utmost potential or not. In this sense, word meters aren’t accurate, because when the writer is not producing new words [aka being unproductive], he may be doing something to aid his story. And this cannot be caught, because writing is perceived as meeting quotas.

Yes, perhaps I’m nitpicking at semantics. People can argue prep work, editing and revisions to be related processes, which accompany writing. But they require a different state of mind to perform them, so they cannot be writing per se. Writing is writing. End of discussion.

I’d like to ask: What’s the point of writing so many new words, when they are the wrong ones or the weak ones? Or when the writer never really knows whether they won’t be deleted, because during revisions the story takes a different route? Or when they need to be altered, because the writer got the facts wrong? For me, that’s wasted effort.*

But let’s get to the point. Yes, there is one: Writing is a lot more complex to simplify and sum up in numbers.

Tell me: What do YOU think writing is?

* Which may or may not be rooted in our competitive nature. You have to admit that seeing someone rock 3,000 words a day will kick you into competition with them. But that is and entirely different point.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've found that word counts are useless for me too, and even page counts only give general approximations. At the end of the day I can "feel" whether I did the work well or not. And I know that if I make progress I will finish.

T.D. Newton said...

Writing, for me, is creating. Crafting a story, not just telling it or writing it. Defining a world, the rules of that world, and the people who live by those rules.

Word count is a way I measure progress in my initial draft, and I can't deny that it feels good to write 10,000 words in a single day. But after the first draft, I pretty much ignore word count and focus on things like the quality of the writing, the coherence of the story, and the complexity of the characters.

What you've talked about here is one of the big reasons why I don't talk about "muses" or other existential concepts when discussing writing. It's just me and the page, me and the story; I don't need to imagine some faerie whispering in my ear to whom I must give the credit. And it's why I advise people to disregard word count except as a guideline -- obsessing about any one thing is unhealthy, especially when it comes to writing.

Whether it be rejection, low word count, bad criticism/reviews, dreaded writer's block, or something else, the obstacles that you place importance on will dominate you until you learn that they're not obstacles at all. Just like the story is all in your head, so, too is your motivation to write it in the first place. Capture that, and none of these other things will matter.

Harry Markov said...

@ Charles: Exactly my point. You can definitely see that writing is far more than putting down words, because you feel that you have not made the progress you wanted, even with the newly added words. Sure they help to reach the goal, but when the writer is stuck in amidst a bad decision as to how to tackle the idea. Then it becomes evident that wordcount is not the best tool for the job.

Harry Markov said...

@ TD: You make a really interesting point and it has nothing to do with 'it's all in your head' [though that one is a classic]. Writing means a heck of a lot of things to different people and it's up to the individual to decide. I was just sharing how I see things and I am not bothered, if other people would state the exact same opposite.

T.S. Bazelli said...

I like word counts. They're more of a psychological driver for me - something measurable and concrete to say that I have accomplished something at the end of the day.

That being said, I don't think about word counts after a first draft. At that point other lists come out, and I measure progress a different way.

Harry Markov said...

Valid point. They are a drive for me to a point, because they give me a structure I can work with.

However, since I am scatter minded and more or less break free from the self imposed order, meters do not help me as much.