There was an interesting piece from Cath Staincliffe recently on the usefulness, or not, of word counting. I hadn’t realised that some writers do this constantly, to regulate their writing, or to reward or chastise themselves for their workrate. Cath’s view was that it was a fruitless and potentially damaging exercise, and I’ve been thinking about it.
I don’t think a poet would judge the quality of her work by the number of words, as one of the goals is to distill rather than to expand, in pursuit of the essence of meaning. Similarly, the best editing for me is when I cut rather than add: unnecessary adverbs, cliched adjectives, they all have to go, ‘decluttering’ the text. In my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, started to celebrate my 60th birthday, my fear was that I would not have enough to say and I wrote initially far than necessary, leaving myself with a massive ‘slaughter of the darlings’ in the final edit. It was a better book for the cuts, but how much better it would have been if I’d been more sparing, more discriminating, from the very start. That first book was written ‘from the outside in’ from a rambling ill-considered structure through cuts and re-writes to the final product. The process was difficult and frustrating and I vowed I would never try it again.
Book 2 ‘Forgiven’ was approached with a much firmer structure, holding back on the first draft until I was clear what I was doing. Much more satisfying, in terms of both process and product. Book 3 ‘Fallout’ is underway: no prizes for guessing how I am setting about it. I’ve learned that going from the inside out, from the core to a gradual expansion of the draft, works for me, and word count doesn’t really matter at all.
Which raises the next question: how long should a novel be? My first writing course, succinctly entitled ‘How to write a novel’, suggested 80,000 – 90,000 words, which has felt about right in my two efforts so far. But Julian Barnes has won prizes with far fewer than that, and I’m just embarking on 800 pages of ‘The Luminaries’ with no thought that this will be ‘too long’. In fact the first few pages promise so much that I’ll spread out my reading as slowly as the library will permit.
No easy answers to the word count issue. As with most things, the best – if banal – advice is to do what suits you, and aim for quality rather than quantity.