Your word count means nothing to me
5 April 2016 99 Comments
A “sadistic” writing app, The Most Dangerous Writing App, recently appeared on my social media feed. It registers when you’re not writing – 5 seconds of no typing – and starts deleting what you’ve already written.
At first, I laughed and moved on. I thought it was a bit of a joke, that no-one would really use it for academic work or their thesis. If anything, I thought that people would see it as a critique of being blinkered to anything but words on the page and other ‘writing productivity’ ridiculousness.
I was wrong.
People started talking about wanting to use it at their next #shutupandwrite session, to see how it ‘might whip them into shape’. They felt they needed something to make them take their academic writing more seriously, and this app might be it.
I went a little #headasplodey.
I have a confession to make: I think that there is such a thing as over-writing (aka writing too much), that ‘write early, write often’ can have bad consequences, and that vomiting words on a page is not necessarily a practice to cultivate.
Before you come at me with your flaming pomodoros and pointy word-count bars, hear me out.
Generative writing – the writing that usually takes place at #shutupandwrite and similar sessions – is extremely important. It lays the foundation for a good writing habit. It gives you the gift of being ‘writing ready’ and less daunted by the blank page or screen. It trains you to make consistent time to write/ read/ edit/ whatever. It lets you think about your current research.
After all, I’ve just spent a whole Saturday at our monthly Write Up and, as a result, I’m almost halfway through writing a book chapter that’s due in a couple of months. What did I do for the whole day? I structured the chapter, tracked literature, read (a lot), took notes, and wrote. I’ll concede that being able to devote a whole day to this focus is a privilege (but let’s not get too far down the track of categorising my feeling that I have to work across a weekend to stay afloat as a privilege).
My point is: academic writing requires thought. That thinking time (which leads to productive writing) is heavily compromised when the exhortation from many sides seems to be a heinous offshoot of that megacorp slogan: ‘Just write it’. The overwhelming fixation on word counts is unhealthy and, frankly, useless when it comes to figuring out whether you’re on the right track intellectually.
The valuation of the bare metrics above all else is insidious and harmful. It mimics the general obsession that the higher education sector has with counting outputs. That’s why the fixation with word counts does my head in. It often becomes a thin and flimsy declaration: “I WROTE WORDS”.
Yeah, ok, sure. But in the writing of those words did anything actually happen? Did you come to a greater understanding of the field and where your findings will be positioned? Did you work your way through the progression from background literature to a succinct write-up of your method or conceptual framework? How well did your discussion capture the things you really wanted to say about the work you’ve done?
Chances are that the writing did many of those things – so, why aren’t they worth talking about? Why wear your word count like some tinny badge of achievement when you have so much more that’s been going on?
This article on “The cult of productivity is preventing you from being productive” really spoke to me as I was writing this post (thank you for the link, @postdoctraining!). This part, in particular:
The reason we really care about productivity—or the reason we should care—is that it allows us to do the things we care about as well and effectively as possible. Productivity isn’t a goal, but rather a tool for better achieving our goals. [my emphasis]
If I write 3,000 words, that should mean nothing to you. If I write 3000 words and finish my book chapter, I could announce, “I’ve finished my book chapter!” and the consequent celebrations would be both grand and fitting.
I suspect that is why I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the thesis bootcamp, grant camp and similar ‘write at all costs’ models. Partly because of the aggressive, macho language (often not taken ironically), but mostly because of the fixation on word counts, as if word counts in and of themselves mean anything at all.
I understand that thesis bootcamps and grant camps were created for a very particular purposes – to bring together researchers who are at an advanced stage with their projects and get them focused on the dissertation/ application trail so they can complete them in good time, with expert assistance about structure, voice, and formal guidelines. They do that very well. I know that they were not originally intended as an all-purpose extreme writing model (and especially not for those who are early in their dissertations or other project research), but that is how I have seen them being run at times – as a word count fiesta.
That is why your word count means nothing to me. I need to know whether your words are good words, or at least have the potential to be helpful words for the larger project at hand. If you write 5,000 words and trash 4,500 of them, I don’t think that’s a great outcome. Spending more time thinking and producing 2,500 words, of which you keep about 1,800, is a much healthier research practice.
If you are 10,000 words over what your background section should be, that doesn’t mean writing a lot has been a good thing for you. It means you’re not writing to the purpose of that section and, perhaps, that you’re missing the point. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person and need to abandon your grant application/chapter/higher degree. It just means you need to stop, think, read some other examples, and take a moment or two to shape and structure it. You need to know that you’re not writing an ocean to fill a pond.
Having said that, I know there are those out there who find overwriting a useful way to create their work. What they often have behind them, though, is the experience of editing their own overwritten pieces – they know what is good or not-so-good text, what’s relevant and what will need to go. I think this kind of experience depends on having already completed a cache of writing and having the knowledge about what constitutes a good piece of work. Katherine Firth (Research Degree Voodoo; @katrinafee) wrote this great post on when there are too many words.
Don’t be seduced into thinking that a massive word count stands in for productive academic writing. It’s not about the quantity.
Write regularly; write thoughtfully.