Word counting

I mentioned in passing last week that I was going to give NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a shot this year, and eagle-eyed readers of the blog (rather than the RSS feed) will have spotted a little NaNoWriMo widget on the right hand side giving daily updates as to my progress.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is basically an annual challenge to write a novel of more than 50,000 words purely in the 30 days of November. It’s a case of “never mind the quality, feel the quantity” – at the speed you have to write at, you’re going to write some pretty terrible trash, but the point is to prove to yourself that it can be done if you get the discipline right and stop the nagging goblins of the mind from persuading you to give up because it’s not really very good.

I’ve been writing for years – seriously, I think my first attempt was a novel written when I was aged five or six during a family holiday to the Isle of Wight. It was basically a James Bond pastiche and ran to a full 70 pages of one of those reporters’ notebooks from WH Smiths, which at that age I thought simply must equal a ‘proper’ novel length, surely?

Alas I soon knew better. As I grew up I realised just how long a novel really was, and how much work it took; and despite continuing to write ever since those early years I’ve never really tried anything novel length before that hasn’t quickly ended up aborted and shoved in a desk drawer.

So for me, NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity and indeed excuse to see, once and for all, whether I can keep up the focus and effort on a piece of writing over the sustained period of time that it needs to produce a novel-length work of fiction. And so far, so good: I’m up to 22,189 words as of today, which is 11 days in. That’s ahead of schedule, and so far I’m finding it pretty okay. I even have a fairly structured story that I know what is going to happen over the course of the next week, too.

Which is not to say there haven’t been a few hiccups. A couple of days have been really down to the wire as to whether I would get myself together and put in the time when I really, really didn’t want to and had plenty of other more appealing things to do. That I forced myself to not skip a day was very much helped by a group of fellow NaNoWriMo-ers that I know on The WELL: it was not wanting to go back and report to them that I was faltering that pulled me through a couple of close calls.

What’s weird about this – for me at least – is how quickly the daily word count (and overall tally) quickly become an all-consuming fetish. I’ve never experienced this sort of narrow focus before when writing something, and it feels a bit odd. It starts innocently enough, with the NaNoWriMo site helpfully telling you that the daily target is 1,667. Then you tell it your daily amount, and the site records your progress and you can compare it against those of your “writing buddies” already taking part. Suddenly meeting or exceeding that 1,667 becomes the prime target of the day; and worse, keeping up with whatever your buddies produce becomes a powerful driver as well. If they just put in a 2,000 word stint, then it’s hard not to think that you should be doing the same, too.

The last time I was this fixated about word counts was way back when I was at school, and the homework assignments used to stipulate “1500 words” or whatever the minimum acceptable length was. Of course, I’m so old that back in those days we didn’t have word processors and wrote everything out in exercise books by hand, which meant guestimating the number of words of the finished piece by calculating average number of words per line, number of lines per page, number of pages completed to make sure that you’d delivered, or at least near enough.

Since then, when I’ve been writing for myself I’ve never been particularly concerned about the word count: the length written is simply the length that the piece needs. The same is true for business documents, where at most you’ll have a vague page count to aim for (whether it’s the legendary two-pager executive summary or a thirty page report the client is after.) When I wrote for printed publications, they were all set in page layout software like PageMaker or Quark Xpress, and instead of a word count target I simply knew how much space I had to fill, and wrote accordingly until it was done. And when I started writing online, it was even easier – without the limits of paper, you can write to whatever length you need to for web publications because the web page is infinitely extensible.

Readers of this blog and especially its motor sport sibling know that I can go on at length seemingly without problem (whether you, dear reader, can keep reading for the same length is entirely a matter for your own judgement and mental health!) but it was only when I was considering NaNoWriMo three weeks ago that it occurred to me to actually check out the length of my regular blog posts. I was startled to find that the most recent NASCAR race report that I had just completed at the time ran to almost 2,700 words, far more than I had expected. It actually helped greenlight the whole NaNoWriMo endeavour: if I could do that for a single motor race then surely I could manage a sustained 1,667 words over the course of a month?

Since then, I’ve been obsessively word counting everything I’ve written: I humorously ended last weeks’ blog post with a comment that “this blog entry has stolen about 1,390 words from my writing quota for the day … You’re being a bad influence on me!” but in fact it was only partly a joke – I really was seeing word counts and writing output in a whole new way. I’ve calculated word counts for emails to friends and forum posts as well as blog articles, just to see how many words I’m squandering and stealing away from the main November focus; I’ve found myself wondering how long the book I’m reading in the morning is in terms of words; or how many words a classic short story such as one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales is – just in case I feel the urge to write something in that format, you understand.

Actually I’m not seriously finding that writing a blog post or an email is “stealing” words from the NaNoWriMo endeavour. On the contrary, the NaNoWriMo entries seem to demand a certain amount of time per day, but if I try to press onwards after that then it all goes rather pear-shaped; whereas if I switch to writing something else then I can press ahead for ages. This blog post, for example, comes after a rather hefty 2,800 word stint on NaNoWriMo, but as the cliché goes “a change is as good as a rest” and I’m happily cranking it out, enjoying the difference between the fairly formal prose of earlier with the more conversational, informal dialogue of blogging.

But I’m also wondering about the impact of the word count on the writing itself. In my NaNoWriMo effort, I’m coming up to the point where someone is going to get murdered (I can’t write a story without a murder in it, basically.) And that murder is going to come pretty much on the stroke of 25,000 words – exactly middle distance. Just a coincidence? Or has the word count been subconsciously driving me to this point, a whispered suggestion that the halfway point should have some important marker and be used to kick the story into a new, higher gear? Does that mean I’ve been extending or compressing other scenes I’ve been writing along the way to match some other word count landmarks en route?

Perhaps I’d be better off using a piece of software that doesn’t include a word count at all, but to be honest I doubt that would stop me from obsessing about the count and pasting it into another program that will do that for me. Once Pandora’s Box is open, it cannot be closed again: now that we’re surrounded with word processors with this capability, it’s nigh on impossible to go back to counting up words in school exercise books.

For the record, the NaNoWriMo endeavour is being written in a piece of software called Scrivener, a low cost program that seems to be absolutely adored by everyone who uses it. I can’t say that I’m getting the best out of it yet, and some of the features – like extensive outlining and ‘index card’ planning tools – I never seen to use or really need in my writing, so far at least. But it’s certainly a very comfortable, all-encompassing environment for writing that allows me to block off distractions for the duration, and keep all the bits together and move around the project freely instead of scrolling forever through screeds of Microsoft Word pages to find that damned elusive key piece of information, like I was forever doing with work documents.

For blog posts I prefer something a little more rough and ready, and ad hoc; so I use BBEdit, which is really a text processor more intended for wrangling bits of HTML, PHP and other code into shape but which I find a really nice and simple notebook for any self-contained pieces such as the one you’re reading right now. It’s especially good for taking columns of data and crunching them into a publishable format, which is how I process all the detailed race results (positions and times) for the motor sports reports.

Scrivener has a nice little floating palette which contains both the project word count target and total to date; and a second measure which is of that session’s word count as a percentage of the daily target. In other words, ideal for NaNoWriMo where the targets are 50,000 and 1,667 respectively. The bars are updating in live time and you’re a better person that I if you don’t have this palette open as you write, eyes flicking to it every few minutes to check your progress.

Is this word count obsession good or bad? Is it a distraction, or does it drive you on with thoughts of “just 100 words more and you’re halfway there …”? I’m not sure. Maybe this obsession is just a temporary thing for relative newbies on the scene like myself, and after a while you forget about it; I’ve already noticed that today I went through the 20,000 barrier for the project without even noticing, and when I got to the 1,667 target for the day I then pushed on because I hadn’t finished the scene I was working on, and completing that was more important than any arbitrary daily word tally.

But at least Scrivener gives you the choice; if you wish, you can close the word count palette down and fly blind. Personally, I find that sends me into something of a panic, and I need my teddy bear back on screen to help calm me down. BBEdit on the other hand just has a little summary figure at the bottom of the window telling me the number of characters, words and lines that I’ve racked up in this open document, and there’s no getting away from it.

Obviously you’re now expecting me to share with you the total word count for this blog post, aren’t you? Of course you are. And I’m happy to tell you that we just topped out at just over 2,000 words; 2014 to be exact. Congratulations if you made the full ascent with me; did you not have anything more interesting to do with your time? Like writing a book of your own, perhaps? Be careful with that word count addiction if you do …

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