Monday, 9 July 2012

Counting words

There’s a bit in Regeneration by Pat Barker – which I haven’t read since I was sixteen, so please forgive me not quoting it verbatim – where Owen approaches Sassoon for advice about how exactly to go about writing. And Sassoon basically tells him that you simply have to get down and do it – make yourself write. Force yourself to do something every day.

Owen replies, a little ruefully but with some knowing irony, that this doesn’t exactly go along with the idea of the poetic muse. Sassoon replies that you have to forget about any such ideas as that, and get on with it.

Despite it being twelve years since I read the book, this part has always stuck in my memory – more than anything else in the novel, pretty much – because it came as such a relief. I think for a long time, as a teenager especially, I was under the impression that all other writers found writing incredibly easy, enjoyed every moment of it and were blessed with constantly living and breathing artistic creativity.

So it was a bit of a revelation to find – as I have found more and more since, from seeing and hearing interviews with other writers – that not only is it quite difficult, most of them actually don’t enjoy doing it. Hence Dorothy Parker’s superb quote, which always sums it up so well for me:

I hate writing. I love having written.”

There are so many other things you could be doing instead of writing. So many distractions, so many excuses to put it off. My friend and fellow scribbler Tim recently drew my attention to a quote from Zadie Smith, where she gave some writing advice, part of which was that you should always do it on a computer that doesn’t have access to the internet.

Because the demon of procrastination will get to you again...

I often feel guilty for not writing. And I always feel pleased with myself if I have managed a day where I have written a few thousand words. They may not be very good words; or at least, while all perfectly good and acceptable individually, not especially pleasing when assembled in the particular order I have chosen for them. But at least they’re there. At least I’ve done something.

As another famous old saying goes, “To write well, first you must write...”

You can always change and edit and improve later on. Or at least try to.

Probably also when I was about sixteen, Tim gave me a book about writing by John Braine, of Room at the Top fame. This contained two particular nuggets of wisdom which have also stuck with me. The first because it gave me hope – Braine claims that very few people, if any, are capable of writing a decent novel before the age of thirty. (The aforementioned Zadie Smith disproves this notion of course, but anyway...)

The second thing in this book which struck me was Braine’s assertion that “a writer is someone who counts words,” because that very much rang true for me. If I have a day where I have written two or three or four thousand words, then that feels like a good day. A productive day. A day where I haven’t wasted my time and the oxygen I’m using up.

But it needn’t be that daunting. You can write a novel very easily, if you do it a little at a time. If you wrote only 200 words a day, you’d have a novel of 70,000 words or so in a year. 200 words is, frankly, a piece of cake. I’d got to over 200 here in this blog entry by the time we reached Dorothy Parker.

I am a word counter. I fully admit that. It might not make me particularly creative or artistic. It might make it sound like I’m reducing writing down to the level of mathematics. But at least I get something done. I may not have the talent, but at least I make the effort – if I do end up becoming a professional novelist, at least part of it will be down to the fact that I kept going when other, more talented, writers simply couldn’t be bothered.

There’s a standard old joke along the lines of “You’re writing a novel? Nor am I....” So many people claim to be or want to be writers, but they never get anything done. Or they pick and paw at a single project for decades, never finishing it or submitting it or showing it to anyone, or doing anything at all with it.

“Oh I’d love to write a novel...” or “Of course, I’d really love to be a novelist...” But they never do anything. They concentrate on other things, allow the rest of life to distract them, and they never write a word.

If you want to do it that much, sit down and do it. Just write something. It may be terrible, but you can improve.

And it starts by counting words, day after day, until you get there.

I’ve just written nearly 900 in a quarter of an hour on this blog entry. If I did that every morning, in three months I’d have a novel. What’s your excuse...?


  1. My excuse is I'm making a fecking feature film! Not quite sure how I account for the other thirty-odd years since I left shcool, though...

    900 words in a quarter of an hour is pretty swift going, though - I'm happy with 1,000 an hour...

    1. It's a slightly cheeky stat given than - for me at least - writing a quick bit of non-fiction like a blog post is much, much easier than sitting down and trying to craft an effective chunk of fictional prose.