Learning to count

Most of the time I don’t like writing, I like having written. As a result, writing can fall prey to productive procrastination: Cleaning the kitchen is easier, and its rewards more immediate. The writing impulse can also die at the hands of excessive modesty: Nobody is asking for my writing, nobody needs it. And it is easily put off by tiny martyrdoms: I should do the thing that other people want from me, rather than the thing I do seemingly only for myself.

Surely if I work long and hard enough on the needs of others and life’s inescapable chores, my karma will accrue and I’ll find myself suddenly in a peaceful office, with a large oak writing desk, its polished top, otherwise devoid of distraction, dwarfing a clacky keyboard and a large mug of coffee. This fantasy office occupies the top of a turret from which descends a spiral staircase, and its door is locked for no reason, as it is obvious to everyone that I am not to be disturbed. The view out the generous window above my desk is lost on me, given how absorbed I am in the work, my fingers not leaving the keyboard for hours at a stretch.

Somehow my conscientious avoidance of writing has failed to materialize that perfect writing setup, and so, like many writers, I need some kind of accountability to get anything done. And accountability, the etymologist will note, requires counting.

Writers have a bunch of numbers to obsess over when our work collides with the world: sales, pageviews, rankings. My favorite, which I mean to emulate, is the writer who encouraged herself to bring her work into the world by setting a goal of a certain number of rejection letters. But during the writing process, our opportunities for counting are scarcer. We have only two things we can count to see if we’re keeping our pace: words and hours.

Wordcount seems to be the more popular yardstick against which writers measure themselves.

Unlike hours, you can point to words. Your computer tracks them for you—with each keystroke, your progress is logged. And even if they are not good, they have the substantial virtue of existing. They can be rewritten, made good. Where once there was nothing, now there is something. It is easy to view wordcount as both metric and goal, mile markers and destination.

But an image from William Gibson’s autobiographical essay “African Thumb Piano,” presented in passing, now has me wondering. He writes of his earliest attempts:

I was in the first place of fiction, as was my protagonist. A door was opening, however slightly.

And then, later:

The door into fiction-writing space began to open more easily, and with more regularity.

When I think about what loosens those hinges, it is not the weight of a million words that I picture, but time spent pushing. It wasn’t that he wrote so many words that publishing houses eventually became overwhelmed by them and conceded to printing his books. Instead, like a meditation practice, his mind started out untrained and stubborn and he got better by putting in the hours.

Even that is not a direct measurement—but in the absence of a mystical protractor to measure the degrees that door swings open, it seems to me that time spent pushing on the door is a better proxy than the number of words generated and then discarded.

This is different from the other, more common talk of schedules. Writers are always interested in how other writers structure their lives, the routines they use in order to accommodate their writing time. But the image Gibson conjures is not just about the requisite 10,000 hours at a keyboard, but the developed ability to enter a state of mind. It’s not just about practice, but a practice, a ritual.

What to focus on, then? Words or hours? Or is there some better way, some more direct measurement of the health of and ease of access to the hidden space that writing comes from?

The question is tricky because none of these are in conflict. A wordcount goal leads to putting in the time; time spent regularly turns into developed ability, the oil on the hinges of that inner door. But different framings encourage different mindsets. A focus on wordcount means a focus on generating more writing. A focus on the practice, on putting in the hours, means a focus on becoming a better writer. In the former mindset, -100 words for the day is a failure. In the latter, it might be a success, if you got there by deleting 1000 bad words and then writing 900 better words after having forced open that obstinate door.

Of course, if you are on deadline, the focus might change. With a paper due in an hour or an editor breathing down your neck, you could be forgiven for worrying first about quantity of words and then revising for quality as time allows.

Even if you aren’t on deadline, the focus probably should change depending on what stage of a project you are on. Maybe when you reach a roadblock the arbitrary goal of a wordcount, and the threat of shame and guilt over not meeting it, is the only way to force your butt into the chair. After all, while staring out the window can be an important part of the process, it can also be a pleasant way to pretend to work. But wordcount is a taskmaster.

Perhaps there is also a question about what kind of writer you want to be. There are runners whose goal is a certain time, and others who run for the way it makes them feel. But the analogy breaks down—runners win only with the shortest time, with ultimately no credit given for style or grace. If writers were runners—if wordcount were the ultimate goal—James Patterson would be an Olympian, and Harper Lee would be unknown.

Ultimately, I think what appeals to me most about focusing on practice and ritual rather than wordcount is that it is not subject to optimization. In life there is just so much stuff to do. You are tempted to start a comprehensive to-do list to keep track of it all, but then you find that things get added faster than they can be crossed off, so you figure out where to economize, what to automate, outsource, or do without. And then you crank and crank so that the pace at which you cross things off the list matches or exceeds the pace at which you add them. Success!

This is the wordcount mindset applied to life, and hours are important only insofar as they serve as a denominator: A high ratio of words per hour is evidence of a well-oiled machine. More and faster is better.

This feels to me antithetical to the sort of writing that I aspire to do—an industrial mentality inappropriately applied. Maybe that’s because I spend too much time on social media, where conveyor belts of text rush past. People write more than they listen, and opine more than they observe, and wordcount begets followers which beget pageviews. Most reading is skimming and most writing doesn’t proceed past a first draft.

A focus on productivity easily tips over into a focus on efficiency, and efficiency feels antithetical to art. Art should be surplus, generous, valuable because it is useless.


In the face of that, I am attracted to the idea of focusing on “writing” as a verb than as a noun. “To write” meaning to empathize, to imagine, to craft, rather than to produce. Writing as personal practice, not as to-do item alongside laundry, in which the point is not the existence of the words themselves but the insight and nuance and kindness with which they are imbued.

What if “How should I measure myself?” is begging the question? What if we allowed literary writing to be the activity that isn’t tracked, graphed, optimized, where we didn’t feel the need for efficiency? What if it were productive in the way that meditation is productive?

The problem with that, of course, is that the results of meditation are invisible. Too far in this direction lies preciousness and permission to produce nothing. The only thing worse than participating in the conveyor belt of hot takes is to opt out to the degree that you find yourself looking backward, wondering why your sensitively lived life and refined powers of observation failed to produce any art. What is to prevent me from sitting for my appointed hours, staring at a blank computer screen, concentrating on forcing the door open but failing, brow furrowed like a sham telekinetic, enjoying being a writer while never managing to touch the keyboard?

Perhaps wordcount, time, and access to the fiction-writing space should not be understood as competing focuses but as segments of a loop: Sitting down to fulfill wordcount leads to practice time, which leads to developing a practice, which slowly forces open the door—an interior trip undertaken with the ultimate goal of returning to the first step and transforming it, undergirding wordcount with the right words in the right order. A tiny hero’s journey in every writing session.

One thought on “Learning to count

  1. When I had to write something as part of my job, or had a deadline because something was going on the air, I was quite productive. But things I wrote for myself got put off. They still do. Thanks for expressing the problem so well.

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