C. S. Lakin is a novelist and professional copyeditor and writing coach. She is currently working on her eleventh novel, a contemporary family saga drawn from the biblical story of Jacob. Someone to Blame (Zondervan), an intense relational drama and winner of the 2009 First Novel contest, released in October 2010, and she is also the author of the allegorical adult fantasy series The Gates of Heaven, featuring The Wolf of Tebron and the upcoming release The Map Across Time (March 2011).

The Pitfalls of Counting Words

From time to time I make a comment on Facebook about word count. Granted—I need to get this out of the way first—some authors are under contract and absolutely need to schedule themselves to write a certain number of words each day to meet a pressing deadline. I get that. Although I will still argue that’s a skewed way to look at writing a novel. Why not make it a goal to complete one scene or chapter a day? That’s how I set my writing goals, but I don’t worry too much about sticking to them.

I try very hard to steer as far away from word-count goals as possible. Sure, from time to time I check my word count. It helps me when I think I’m halfway through a novel to see how many words I may end up with. My novels range from 75k words to 130k words. But word count doesn’t matter at all. A book should be as long as it takes to tell the story properly.

I have some strong sentiments about the whole word-count issue, and they are pretty negative, because we live in a world that puts emphasis always on quantity, not quality. More is better. And even more is even “more better.” Some writers tend to brag and compete with one another: “I wrote five thousand words today.” “I wrote five thousand words today standing on my head and cooking a gourmet dinner for eighteen people.” And so it goes. It can make most normal nonsuperman-type writers feel just plain lousy.

Another thing: It’s not just society but our churches have, sadly, become works-driven. You are a good Christian if you can write a long list of all the “things” you do to prove you are faithful. I recently listened to a CD where the speaker asked a number of old-time, faithful believers what they would say to God when they got to heaven and He asked, “Why should I let you in?” Believe it or not, these people all answered with variations of the same answer: “Oh, well, I’ve been attending church faithfully for sixty years. I led Bible study for decades. I supported missionaries and donated to xxx causes . . .”

Horrors! Do you see the problem? And the wrong answer? There is only one correct answer as to why God should allow you, me, or anyone into His kingdom, and that is “Jesus died for my sins and paid the entrance price. I do not, on my own merit or because of anything I did, deserve to be here.”

What does this have to do with word count? I am not going to stand at heaven’s gate and say to God: “Well, I wrote an average of three thousand words a day to prove I was faithful.” Do you really think God cares about your word count? What if you feel called to write but it takes you a lifetime to pull together a short little story that burns on your heart? By some standards, that means you have failed as a writer!

I can’t tell you how relieved I felt when listening to two hugely successful best-selling, Pulitzer prize–winning authors at the Book Expo in New York who said that they took four to five years to write each book. That made me feel good. I had been writing a very difficult novel and it was stretching into a full year to complete. I felt like I was slipping. But I needed a lot of time to think and plot out the story. And this is my last beef about word count.

Many writers say that the important thing is just to write. Make yourself sit down each day and push yourself to write something, that if you keep writing thousands and thousands of words, inspiration will follow. I completely disagree. Some writers who pump out thousands of words end up having very little of

interest to say. Again, it’s quantity over quality. I will say again: I would rather write one beautiful, powerful, moving sentence than 5,000 boring, nothing words that don’t reach a reader’s heart.

It would be nice to believe that inspiration and beautiful, powerful writing can be accessed like a water pump—just turn it on full bore and let it gush and at some point something good will spill out. Then you can throw out most of the other stuff and keep the good stuff. I rarely hear anyone talk about mulling, thinking, musing, ideating. I remember reading how Tony Hillerman would often lay on his couch for hours with his eyes closed. That was the bulk of his work. I am much the same way, but instead of lying on the couch, I take long walks, talk out my plots and ideas and characters, sometimes in prayer with God, other times just talking out loud to myself somewhere secluded where no one but my dog hears me (and he doesn’t mind).

I would like to encourage all the writers out there to stop and think. Yes, spend more time thinking. Avoid using those distasteful words (word count) and focus more on quality, on planning, on letting ideas simmer. And when you sit down and write, don’t set some arbitrary goal of how many words to stuff into your document. Aim to write with passion and concentration, with sincerity and significance, slowly, deliberately. And if all that comes out of the effort is one great sentence or paragraph, allow yourself to see that it a great end goal.

Sometimes more is said with less. In fact, I truly believe: more is better said with less words. The right words. I truly believe that. Chew your words, taste them, spit out the ones that aren’t just right and only settle for a sentence that says exactly what you want it to say. You may not get it first time around, in a first draft, but don’t zoom through, typing away. Stop and ponder what you are trying to say, how you want it to sound. Let the spirit fill and lift you as you write, for if you rush ahead mindlessly, you leave the spirit behind. And it will show.


Someone To Blame