Measuring Quality – Words or Pages

David | Jan 31, 2010 min read

I’m a couple of weeks into my second term in Seton Hill’s MA WPF program. My thesis is a marketable horror novel, targeted at 350 pages. My personal goal is to complete the 1st draft by the end of this term, and spend the rest of my program editing and revision. Or rewriting if my mentors so command.

None of that is particularly interesting, but they’re facts that lay the groundwork for what’s been on my mind lately. Every professional writer develops their own flavor of discipline, without which they would be unable to sustain professional standing. It’s actually pretty common among most successful people regardless of profession to develop a habit around their chosen work. What I’ve been interested in is how writers measure their progress?

Last term I measured my progress in terms of word count. It seems reasonable since the publishing industry is largely word count driven. Every submission guideline includes a word-count limit. The industry has accepted word-counts attached to novels in each genre. For instance, horror novels range around 300-400 pages, but an epic fantasy comes closer to 700 pages.

What I found, when I measured word count, was that I spent too much time generating words to reach that count. It became too easy to wander on the pages, adding words here and there to meet a necessary but arbitrary goal of 500 words per day. I did pretty well–although Stephen King recommends shooting for at least 1000 per day. But I had to ditch a lot of it due to the bad behavior that specific goal encouraged.

For this term, I’ve opted to measure my progress in terms of pages, a page being roughly equal to 250 words. My goal is to write 4 pages per day, or 1000 words per day to align with King’s recommendation. If you’re familiar with On Writing, you’ll know that King actually counts a page as 200 words, but for my purpose 4 is as good a stepping stone as 5. I’ll ratchet my goal up another notch next term.

Does it really matter? I put some thought into this over my break, and these past few weeks have shown my hunch correct. Yes, I write better when my goal is page count over word count. I focus better on the story and don’t worry at all about producing dense copy. Before, I would work in extra words. But now, I can write whole pages of dialog, which tends to be pretty sparse in terms of words per page, and still make my goals. I just don’t care, because a page is a page.

In addition, it helps to remember that word count for a publisher is really a means of estimating number of printable pages. They take the word count, divide by around 250 (I think this varies), and arrive at page count. Novelists don’t get paid by the word, and I wouldn’t want paid that way anyhow. My goal is to write well-told stories with efficient, emotionally charged language, not drudge on for miles, taxing both the reader and myself by counting every step along the way.

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