The Writer's Economy

Why I Don’t Count Words (or pages)


Economics is a study of choices: the what, why, and how of decision-making. In many ways, writers defy the principles of economics. As I’ve suggested here and here, writers cannot expect to make a living writing books.


If we writers made rational choices, we would take the action that is of most benefit to us for the least effort. Students understand this. In the UK, future doctors choose “A” level subjects like chemistry, biology and physics over religious studies and economics because those are the courses that will pay off when they apply to medical school. Even tiny kids understand this. If I am willing to give a child two dollars for helping me tidy the bedroom but only one dollar for helping me tidy the study, the study will probably be her second choice. But what if instead of tidying the study it was walking the dog? Dog-loving kids would probably be happy to walk the dog for free!


And that is where we are with writing today. We would rather walk the dog for nothing than get a fair wage for any other job.


This is no great crime. I will soon get into pay-offs that bring writers to make what appear, at first, to be irrational decisions. Meanwhile, I want to talk about the writing, itself.


Why do we proudly state the number of words or pages we’ve written each day, as though a whole lot of words is the thing that the public demands of us? Our hypertextual world is already replete with words. Words come at us through emails, news articles, company reports, blogs, instructions, guidelines, reviews, magazines, and social media feeds. Even when we try to engage only in images, words run along the bottom of our tv screens.  We already know that there is no shortage of words, so why do we present our daily tally: I wrote three pages or a thousand words or two paragraphs, as though these numbers are any indication of our success?


Of course, we know the answer. In fact, there are a number of answers.


First, every writer I’ve ever spoken to is spooked by the notion of writer’s block. Because I grew up with a writer as a parent, I heard the expression “writer’s block” before I’d even heard the word “sonnet”. What is writer’s block anyway? Is it one condition or an umbrella term we used to explain away whatever despair is preventing us from attending to our craft?


Among other things, writer’s block is physical exhaustion from long hours working another job, then coming home to a blank screen and a cluttered mind. It is a reluctance to engage in a process that may never produce a polished work but is guaranteed to take a whole lot of time. Its roots are embedded in our self-doubt or loss of faith in publishing or simple fatigue from so many years of campaigning to be noticed. It is an exasperation at having written so much of excellence in the past that has been overlooked, or unfairly reviewed, or appreciated, if at all, for all the wrong reasons. It is a pressure we place on ourselves to be better than we were, or perhaps even than we are capable of being.


A good writer is particularly prone to concerns like this last one. I have no proof of this, though I suspect it to be true: Every excellent writer reads excellent books. And our standards for what we believe to be fresh enough, terse enough, gritty enough, and important enough to spend thousands of hours on it ratchets up all the time. Meanwhile, what are the rewards for the effort we put in? A satisfaction that is privately enjoyed and, if we are very lucky, publicly shared. But what a standard we set for ourselves, what high walls we ask ourselves to climb!


For those who read crudely written stories typed out at a pace (often by series writers) they may never feel any of what I’ve just described. If they wish to become artful in their craft, they will first have to rise above their acquired bad taste. But why should they? Their diet of 25-30 page “books” on dinosaur erotica (I’ve included the link only the prove I did not make this up) leaves them unaware of higher quality works. And so they live on, enjoying whatever one enjoys in their world of micro-books and bodice-rippers and pterodactyl sex. Maybe they even get paid for it, who knows?  I am certain I could learn to write a book of this type in a few days, but why would I? I’d rather walk the dog for free.


However, I am speaking to those who really do want to write excellent work. Those who toil and revise, and examine each sentence, then paragraph, then scene, then chapter of their books. For these people, writer’s block in the form of despair can seem not only possible, but inevitable.


Perhaps we are responsible for our own anguish. If we are good and if we are serious, we come up with greater standards to meet all the time, demanding that we write something new in a market that only wants the old. We cannot give into lower standards and live with ourselves. “Invention, after all, is art’s main business,” wrote the American novelist and critic,  John Gardner. To abandon the notion of new or stop reaching for better is to abandon the reason we come into the room and sit at a desk in the first place.


And so we return to the notion of daily word count. Again, I ask the question:  Why do we talk about the thousand words we write daily when we know that a thousand ordinary, even competent, words does not equate to a few beautifully wrought sentences that express an idea uniquely? Is it that we are afraid of not being able to write anymore? For some, especially those not yet published, word count may be the only tangible evidence they have for being a working writer.


For others it may be a case of being afraid of the bogey man, that monster called Writer’s Block, that causes them to race fearfully through the first draft of their novel, as Gardner says, “as though sprinting across a cemetery at night.”


For others, they may imagine there is virtue in “more”. But why do we persist in believing that longer is better when everything that the greatest writers have taught us is that the opposite is true? The art of brevity is summarised nicely by Mark Twain in a letter to James Redpath in 1871 “I didn’t have time to write a short letter,” explained Twain,”so I wrote a long one instead.”


Perhaps we rush through work due to an impatience to have the “world” see our work, as though the world was soon disappearing. I know the thrill of publishing has its allure, but it holds nothing compared to the feeling we get when writing at the top of our game. And make no mistake, publishing can be a nasty business. If I were to draw a quick analogy, writing is to publishing as a dog is to a wolf. I trust and love the dog; I’m wary and respectful of the wolf.


I remember being at Hay On Wye literary festival in Wales the year the poet, Michael Longley, won the Whitbread prize for the first collection of poems he’d published in twelve years. Longley was asked why the long silence? Why had he waited twelve years between books? Was he not writing poetry at all during that time?


Longley is one of Ireland’s great poets and he looks exactly as you might imagine: white beard, ruddy cheeks, a casual elegance in his spoken expression. He wasn’t the least bit ruffled by questions regarding his process or the number of poems he produced.  “I wrote poems during those years, yes. I write them all the time. But I believe we should only publish if we really must,” he said. “Sometimes, it is better to save a tree.”


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