Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 29, 2009

How Many Words? Who’s Counting?

I know some writers who work every day until they’ve reached a certain number of words. Whatever keeps you in your chair is great. But I’ve written long enough to be comfortable with my slow process of scribbling a lot of disconnected words and phrases before wrangling them into sentences and paragraphs. I take a lot of wrong turns on my way to a path that seems stable. So what would be the point of measuring words that aren’t going to last, but provide a way? And sometimes when I’ve written enough without a sparkle or intriguing image, a good phrase, character, or change in events occurs to me. From the universe? My mind? The clutter I first created?

Who knows? Small treasure comes, and no more than I’d check for a price tag on a gift, I’m too busy being happy, and hopeful for what might come next, to look back and count. This seems to work better than saying, yeah but look at all the sentences I have to go. Or complaining: why couldn’t this scene come to me in the right order? Like, say, the chapter I’m working on? Or whine, but there is still that whole theme yet to happen.

Do you get those gifts of a wobbly sentence turning stronger, a funny bit of dialogue, or an image that might work its way into metaphor though you don’t yet have a clue as to how? I hope so. And I hope you sit back and say something like: oh wow. Or thank you. Sometimes I have to be grateful for even a few crummy words that at least broke the blankness of the page. It’s the glee of these moments, often after a morning spent kind of pulling out my hair, that keep me going. The knowledge that if it happened once, it can happen again.

It will, it will, maybe not in the kind of time we’d like, but then who’s counting?



  1. counting words
    I’m with you this, Jeannine! Wrestling words into poetic form is crazy-making and fun, and I try not to think about words counts at all as I meander and sometimes make progress.

  2. Another lovely and thought-provoking post. 🙂 Thank you! These days I’m just grateful when I have time/focus to sit down and work on my WIP. Right now I’m rereading and grateful that ideas for rewriting it are coming to me in big bursts. Keep going! Cheering you on! (And hoping to see you in a few weeks!!!) xo

  3. Re: counting words
    Of course word counting makes no sense at all for poetry. It’s depth we want, not length. Good luck with the meandering and progress! It’s a creative season, I think.
    Going to hear Mary Oliver read tonight at Smith College! Should be inspiring.

  4. Thanks, Debbi. Big burst of ideas sound great! And I look forward to seeing you soon!

  5. Thanks for the reminder of what it’s all about, Jeannine. I don’t have a quota, but at the end of the day I do a rough count of the net gain. Useful in some ways, but sometimes the bean-counting only makes it harder to turn the train around when I’ve gone the wrong way. It’s too easy to confuse more words with true progress!

  6. “…words that aren’t going to last, but provide a way?”
    Great advice! It helps me to remember that especially with this WIP.
    And I so relate to the way you write, Jeannine; the meandering and the scribbling that leads us to what we really want to say. Thanks for another inspiring post.

  7. I love the small treasures.
    Thanks for a great post.

  8. Of course these things are always so much talking to myself, but it’s great when they strike a chord in someone else. I’m glad this one did. I certainly can’t keep myself from oohhing over the sight of pages piling up, and I do estimates from time to time, but it’s obsessing over the counts that will get me in trouble.
    I love the way you put it!

  9. It is a pleasure to be on this journey with you, Lorraine!
    I’m pacing between chapters 13 and 15 now, moving ahead, moving back….

  10. Thank you!

  11. Like you, I celebrate small treasures. Although I do like days where I can look at what I’ve written and it equals a lot, those days are not the norm.

  12. A poet would go insane trying to count words and probably wreck her poems, too. Though I agree, seeing words line up, if not pile up, is a pleasure. And it’s wise to find pleasure in the small moments for the vast time between.

  13. Sometimes, I like the measurement, but when it threatens my loving the process, I back off. I think it’s great that you know your own writing style so well.

  14. Your strategy sounds like an excellent one.
    Okay, I don’t always love my writing style, but I know it!
    Good luck with yours today!

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