On the Horrors and Pleasures of Counting Words

Jesse Stommel is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Division of Continuing Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this post, he illuminates the reasoning behind word counts, and the ways in which counting words can be both useless and fruitful.

On the Horrors and Pleasures of Counting Words

by Jesse Stommel

Good writing is not reducible to numbers; the word count for the expression of an idea can’t always (or even usually) be determined in advance. Ideas fit all kinds of containers, some small, some large, some book-shaped, some made of 1s and 0s. When I aim for a specific word count (or ask students to aim for a specific word count), it’s not because I think there’s something intrinsically meaningful about lining up a certain number of words. It’s not because 500 words amassed are somehow better than 25. But knowing the size of a container can give us a sense for what and how we might fill it. 500 words looks different than 25 words, and 500 words feel different coming out of our mouths or fingers. For the same reason, it’s sometimes (but certainly not always) useful to pre-determine the genre for a piece of writing, the shape of the container, before sitting down to construct it.

When Sean and I decided to create Digital Writing Month — to construct this MOOC-ish, course-like thing — the goal was less about rallying folks toward a symphonic mission to beat back a veritable dearth of words. I’m not interested in bringing piles and piles of words into the world, no matter how unassuming or placid. In fact, I recently argued in a tweet that preserving everything is equivalent to throwing it all away, piling or hoarding rather than picking or curating. “A landfill is not an archive.” (Granted, some landfills are more beautiful than others.) Kenneth Goldsmith argues in his book Uncreative Writing (an excerpt of which was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education): “With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists.” In short, we don’t need more words, just new configurations and more imaginative renderings.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj writes, in “The Problem with NaNoWriMo”, “In the culture that produced NaNoWriMo and which NaNoWriMo in turn produces . . . wordcount rules. Numbers become the primary goal. When hitting 50,000 words in a month stops being just a fun challenge or a way to jump start your writing and actually begins to seem virtuous, art becomes simply production.” At their best, challenges like NaNoWriMo and DigiWriMo ask participants to think critically about their writing practice and they gather together writers from around the world to do this work together. The word count is merely the occasion, a catalyst for a much larger conversation.

In the comments after our interview on the NaNoWriMo blog, someone worried about the “volume of drivel” that digital writing makes readily available, to which I responded: “I think it helps us to be attentive to the number of words we’re putting out there and what each of those words is doing in the world.” For me, Digital Writing Month is less about pushing toward a goal of 50,000 words and more about considering the various sizes and shapes of the containers my writing inhabits. I didn’t choose to do an entirely new or ambitious project for DigiWriMo (except working with Sean to design and facilitate the course itself). What I found myself wanting to do, though, was closely examine the digital work I already do.

I started by cut-and-pasting all the tweets I wrote during the month of October into a document. I decided to include both original tweets and retweets. One could argue that I shouldn’t count retweets, because the words in them aren’t mine; however, the act of retweeting is sufficiently generative (at least for me), moving words deliberately into new contexts, toward new audiences, and at very specific times. During October, I tweeted 10,134 words, or the equivalent of over 40 double-spaced pages, all from my personal account (@Jessifer), which is only one of the five accounts I currently maintain.Gathering all these words into this wordle gives me a sense for what they might be doing collectively in the world. Among the 10,134 words, there are happy words (like “uprising,” “good,” and “thanks”) and strange words (like “giraffes” and “MOOC”). I tried to find some sad words, but couldn’t. As it turns out, I don’t really use sad words on Twitter. The words “digital” and “pedagogy” loom large, as do the words “students,” “words,” and “media.” There are also lots of friends (including @slamteacher, @allistelling, and a certain duck).

Looking at words in this way is not indicative of what those words are actually saying. Still, there is a joy and curiosity for me in studying the texture of words made distinct from their contexts, words gathered up into a more celebratory sort of landfill. After my work with the tweets, I cut-and-pasted the body of every e-mail I sent in October into Word Counter and learned that I wrote 32,366 words of e-mail during the month. [Determines to murder e-mail dead.] The most prevalent word was “will,” used 264 times. In total, I wrote the equivalent of 129 double-spaced pages of e-mail during a single month. (Here’s the body of my e-mails from October wordled.) In tweets and e-mail alone, I logged 42,500 words, suggesting that (with Facebook, Hybrid Pedagogy, online materials for the program I direct, and the DigiWriMo course itself), I easily do more than 50,000 words of digital writing each month already.

For me, then, the goal of the Digital Writing Month experiment is not to produce more words but to make those words more my own (and more fully in conversation). I’ve determined to carve space in the day to write not because I have to, or because it would be impolite not to, but because the work feeds me in some important way.

I’ve also determined that it’s impossible for me to separate the writing of words from the other compositional work I do, designing web sites, uploading photographs, making short films, etc. In the previous post here on the DigiWriMo blog, “Digital Writing as Handicraft,” Tanya Sasser writes, “Blogs allow writers a kind of aesthetically intimate relationship with their material that they have not had since medieval monks embedded doodles in the margins of their illuminated manuscripts.” The writing I do online is in the margins of something much bigger, a project that has its lovely tentacles in everything else I do. The words I’m counting are not the ones I type but the ones I make surface — the hyperlinks, the notes for future projects, the comments, the shares, the replies and retweets, all the words that don’t end up in landfills.

How, why, and what are you counting?

Add to the comments below, and join us for further discussion of this and other topics at 6:00 PM EST tonight, Wednesday November 7 using hashtag #digiwrimo.

Some tools:
750 Words: http://750words.com/
Daytum: http://daytum.com/
PhDometer: http://www.phd2published.com/the-phdometer/
Scrivener: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php
Write or Die: http://writeordie.com

And some additional reading:
Julie Meloni, “Wordles, or the Gateway Drug to Textual Analysis
Geoffrey Rockwell, “What is Text Analysis?
Elizabeth Kate Switaj, “A Penguin, A Duck, A Digital Writing Month

5 thoughts on “On the Horrors and Pleasures of Counting Words

  1. I’m not counting the words, and I appreciate the post here. In fact, when I heard about the Digital Writing Month adventure, I wondered about why there was a word count involved at all, since digital text would mostly go beyond words (although, to be honest, mostly, folks are still writing words, right? And writing is still the heart of digital work. As a teacher of young writers, I know that and value that.) That said, just the sense of moving along a path with other folks also exploring similar terrain, from different viewpoints, is exciting and worthwhile.
    Mostly, I feel as if I stumbled into a whole other Twitterverse of university and graduate folks. It reminds of how little interaction there often is behind K-12 educators and the college system. Maybe the digital tools and the concept of exploration is building a sort of bridge between those worlds. But I’m not sure that is the reality. Yet. I still feel like the lonely classroom teacher in a room full of very smart academic types with a language and rhetoric and understanding of digital work all of their own.
    That said, I appreciate being here, and am enjoying the adventure. I’m learning a lot out here.

    Kevin Hodgson
    Sixth Grade teacher
    (and member of the National Writing Project, which is one of the few places in my professional life where I can mix it up regularly with college and grad school folks)

  2. It should not be but is somehow comforting in a misery loves company way to know someone else maintaining 5 twitter accounts. Is there a 12 step program? Although I am more of a serial blogger. I’m counting, paradoxically, to not count. Tracking where the words go to check the accuracy (or not) my impressions, not that I really want to be more organized, more random and intuitive than programmed and on a schedule suits me just fine. Still, since I do community, volunteer online ESL and #newfac blogging (somewhat in the realm of public service), announcements need to appear before events and followups not so long after that everyone has forgotten what they are about. Too much of that though takes away the sense of play and much of the joy. The month is an exploration of digital writing patterns. Counting (and then forgetting) is part of it.

    • Absolutely love what you say here about “counting, paradoxically, to not count.” My friend Jay Ponteri said to me that he counts, not in order to make more words, but in order to make less. And, yes, I think I do need a 12-step program. At the very least, my plan is to hand over a couple of my extra Twitter accounts to others so that they can help me keep them up to date. My identity is definitely feeling fractured, which sometimes feels fascinating and good, but other times just feels insane. :)

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