Word Counts for Revisions?

Writers know all about word counts. It’s drilled into us—1,000 words a day. Write for three hours, four hours. Achieve that daily word count. Writers get that. The only way to finish the first draft of a novel is to place the old “butt in chair” and write. The daily habit. Do what it takes to churn out a draft of 80,000 to 100,000 words in less than six months.

Simple enough, right? Okay, but what happens when the writer gets to the revision process? What’s the word count when revising a first draft? What is a writer’s daily production goal? What’s the benchmark? If a writer’s goal in producing a first draft is 1,000 words per day, shouldn’t our goal in revising a first draft be to review at least triple or quadruple that number? After all, we’ve already put all those words on the page. This may seem logical, but the hard part has only begun.

I’ve spent the last two weeks revising the first chapter of my work-in-progress. Heck, I’ve spend the last week on the first page of my draft. I’ve completely rewritten the opening scene twice now and it’s still not where I want it to be. There’s a valuable lesson here. When it comes to the revision process, there are no word counts. There are no benchmarks. The key is this: do whatever it takes. The opening line, page, and chapter must sing, or, better yet, must belt it out like an opera singer.

Once a writer gets the opening chapter right, the rest falls into place. It makes revising the entire work a whole lot easier. Well, not always. Sometimes the rest of the draft is just as much work.

So this begs the question: if there are no word counts for the revision process, how does the writer ensure the whole project doesn’t fall way off track? There may be no word counts, but discipline still counts. Revising is not fun—certainly not as much fun as writing. Ever spend an hour struggling to come up with just the right word or the right sentence? Your brain generates cliché after cliché. You know what you need to say. You just can’t conjure up the right word to say it.

It’s different when writing a first draft. If the wording isn’t perfect, move onto the next scene. You can fix it later. The revision process is when the later comes due. A writer can’t merely move on, unless he wants to go back and revise again and again. No, the writer has to get it right, word by word, page by page.

This is one of those posts where I can’t summon up a simple bullet point list, but I’ll give it a try:

  • Revisions are hard.
  • Revisions require supreme patience.
  • There is no word count.
  • It’s not fun, but
  • A writer must do it every day, just like writing.

And that is the hardest part: returning to the work-in-progress each day, knowing it’s far from perfect. The satisfaction of molding that imperfect first draft into a work of art must drive the writer forward. That is the only benchmark.

Do you set goals for the revision process? What sort of metrics do you use, if any?




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4 responses to “Word Counts for Revisions?

  1. amyfromgi

    It may sound crazy to admit, but although revising can be agonizing at times, I enjoy the challenge of whittling away the “extra” of my draft and tightening my story up. I have to work very hard to get the editor off my shoulder for that first draft and find it somewhat comforting to have her settle in for the rewrite. For me, it is all about the discipline of keeping myself to task and working through the (sometimes very) tangled mess of my draft. I love the simple and straightforward bullet list you have and the message of being consistent and persistent.

    • Amy,
      The editor in me gets some satisfaction., but it is tough, demanding work. This is especially true when there are problems with the draft. Thanks for sharing your comments.

  2. Pat

    No, the goal is to actually stop doing other things and get on with it – which I hate!
    I plod, revision and editing is just that – a plod. Do it and get to the end.
    Then go back and re-read for a different reason.
    Someone once told me that you have to edit for seven reasons and they have to be done separately because you can’t keep all of it in your head to deal with at one time.
    Point of View problems first. Then Show not Tell. Then Dialogue and beats, followed by Filtering and passives, then read aloud for Echoes/repetitive sounds, Style/voice (and who knows what that is?) And then Sense and typos.
    And that’s after revising it.
    Do I do all that? – Certain amount of wriggling going on now…..

    • Pat,
      Thanks for your comments. It is true there are different types of edits. The first round of revisions is crucial because the writer must solve as many of the problems with the draft as possible. Hard work, but worthwhile.

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