Have you heard the million words theory?

The idea is that once you’ve written a million words, you become a better writer. Indeed, you become the best writer you can be.

By a million words you’ve written several novels, hundreds of blog posts, practised the craft of writing until you’re sure of your own skill. You’ve (hopefully) let go of some bad writing habits, decided what ‘rules’ to abide by and which to ignore, discovered your unique voice, and maybe even created your own style.

If you listen to writing podcasts or read indie publishing blogs you’ll hear some authors talking about writing a million words as if it’s a prerequisite, some sort of milestone you must pass before you can write good novels. I can’t remember where I first read it – I would have sworn blind it was in Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ but I don’t think that’s right. I’ve tried to dig around for the source, but the best I could come up with was this blog post on the subject. From the authors the blogger mentions I suspect Ray Bradbury would be my source. (Unrelated – I read that Alan Moore has written a novel of one million words – but he’s a wizard so he can do what he likes.)

After hearing it mentioned as gospel in a few podcasts recently I thought I’d do a tally up of my own word counts (once a mathematician, always a mathematician). I started with my novels – 500,000+ words. Screenplays come in about 150,000 words. I stopped counting when I got to recent freelance writing work, as that easily comes in over 400,000 words.

All of this adds up to me having passed that hallowed ‘million words’ mark in the last six months or so. By my reckoning over 600,000 of my million words have been written in the last fourteen months. It doesn’t really mean anything, but strangely I do feel like my writing has changed of late. I am not trying to suggest that I’m awesome now and deserve a merit badge, but I certainly feel more confident in my fiction writing. I have explored who I am as a writer, have managed to shake off some annoying writing habits, and have learned what writing conventions I like to embrace, twist or disregard as needed.

The number of words is arbitrary, of course. If you’re a screenwriter it would take a long, long time to get to a million words. Feature length screenplays, normally counted by pages and between 90-105 pages long, only come in at about 14,000 words each. Imagine trying to aim for a million words if you were a poet or short story writer? Folly.

Thing is, I do believe that the more you write the better you will be. It doesn’t need to be a million words. It should just be enough to teach you what kind of writer you are.

Have you ever been tempted to count many words you’ve written?

2 thoughts on “Writing A Million Words

  1. I’d actually never heard this theory before, so of I immediately tried to figure out my number. It came out a lot lower than I expected in some ways (and then I realized I’ve mostly been doing short stories for a while, which don’t lend themselves to bulging word counts!) I also didn’t include incomplete drafts of short stories, and obviously didn’t through counting every word of my notebooks! I guess my real question with this theory is how do you figure out which words count? Would you count each draft of your novel, or just the finished one?

    It’s an interesting theory for sure, but I agree with your point that it’s a subjective thing, and the main goal should be honing your writing skills, not believing that hitting a quantitative target will suddenly mean you’re a writer (if only!)

    • I know what you mean, the question of what words counts occurred to me too. Even counting final draft figures for novels and stories isn’t the same as how many words you’ve written – so many edits go into each one! Maybe it’s a good task for people who keep a daily word count 🙂

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