Too many words is never enough

4757004_69f7ec8fea_zWhen you are working on your PhD it is easy to get caught up with your word count.

How many words are you supposed to write everyday?

How long should each chapter be?

How can I possibly fit all this in only 80,000 words?

I like to tally word counts. It makes me feel like I am doing something useful when I am avoiding writing.

I just worked out that I have written more than 40,000 words this year; and that is just the stuff I have submitted or presented. I have thrown away at least that again.

Here are the pluses and minuses of this maths:

– Minus – I can probably only use about 10,000 words of what I have written so far in my final thesis (and even that still need serious editing). For those playing at home, that leaves 70,000+ still to write.

– Plus – I should feel happy that I am capable of writing so much in a year, but I tend to judge my work by the finished product not by all the steps it took to get there.

– Plus/Minus – I now know how easy/hard it is to write this much.

When I am in writing mode, I average between 500 and 2000 words a day. For the theoretical writing, this varies depending on whether what I am writing is research heavy or not; if there is a lot of fact checking involved as I write. For the creative, it depends mostly on my mood and the ‘creative flow’. Remember, this is only on the days I am writing. Which is, maximum, 3 days a week. The rest of the time I am working, sleeping, eating, etc, as well as, reading and note taking.


That doesn’t sound so bad. When I do a bit more maths and work out it means I could potentially write between 1500 and 6000 words a week, multiplied by, say, 45 weeks (when you take out leave and other distractions), which means I could write anywhere between 70,000 and 200,000 words a year. I don’t get any where near that latter figure. Why?

Well, I can do all the maths I want and it won’t change the fact that for every word I write, I delete at least 2/3rds. Not surprisingly, I am a writer, I think as I write. I use writing to clarify my research to myself. So, a large portion of my theoretical writing is not useful to a finished thesis. Also, writing is really hard. Have you ever spent a whole day going back to one sentence that just isn’t right, exactly? – then you know what I mean.

What is the take away message here? I think the maths, while fun, is a distraction.

Don’t beat yourself up if you are not where the maths tells you should be. I don’t know how much I should be writing each day, but I should write as much as I can, as often as I can, even if that is just a few words a day. I think my chapters should be as long as they need to be to make my argument – even though this may mean some structural adjustments later on. And how will I fit all this into 80,000 words? – not sure yet, but I’ve got a much better idea than I did a year ago.

For some other perspectives on thesis writing see: Why writing from day one is nuts.

Or another post from the Thesis Whisperer, this time on how to write 1000 words a day… 

Happy writing.

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