The Psychology of the Word-Count

speedometer-slow-to-insanely-fast-thumb9878061Recently I decided to experiment with different writing tips and tricks. This week I’ve been using 750Words. An author, Mary Robinette Kowal, pointed it out on an episode of Storyboard (If you haven’t watched that show, you really should. The specific episode is here)

The website is simple, quirky and clever. It provides a blank private slate to write on, and rewards you with badges for consistency, speed, word-count, etc. The idea is that 750 words is about 3 pages. When you hit 750 words you are alerted to your success. And every day you get points based on your consistency and word count.

The best part is that after each day a fun display of analytics pops up analyzing your speed and content. How fast did you write? How many distractions did you have? What is your writing rated? (PG, PG-13, X, etc.) What words did you use often? What tense did you write in? Mood, feelings, weather, etc. It’s quite fun and some of it is actually useful.

The problem is, and I am only using myself as a test-case here, writing with a word-count in mind (even if its just the notion of a word-count), causes strange changes in the writer’s mindset and the prose itself.

I am a competitive person at heart. I love to play myself against other people, and more importantly, myself against myself. So when there is a goal in front of me, my mind instantly and subconsciously thinks of ways to exploit the rule-set or outplay the opponent to achieve that goal, or if that is not possible, tries to achieve it through sheer force of will. That must be why I like board games and running so much! Two activities that work well with goals.

My plans don’t always work. But that is how I think. And word-count is no different. I find when I write without a goal I am a bit slower. A bit more careful choosing my words and sentences. When a goal is in front of me, however, I write fast and loose, trying to get as much out onto the page as possible.

There is nothing wrong with either of these methods, but what I want someone to get out of this article is a sense of what type of writer they are. I, for example, when writing fast and loose, tend to write crap and more crap. What I churn out may be high in word count and tell a story from start to finish, but usually it is beyond help. An editing job turns into a complete rewrite. But when I take my time and write, not slowly, but more deliberately, I find that my first draft is usually quite nice and an editing job is quick and fun because the structure is solid.

So I have nothing against 750Words, or National Novel Writing Month, or any other group or scheme that gets people to write more. Just keep in mind how your brain works and always do what’s best for the story.

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