Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words less than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.
Insist on your own persistence. The words will come. They might not arrive as burning bushes or pillars of light, but no matter. Fight again, then again and again. If you fight long enough, the right word will arrive, and if it doesn’t, at least you tried.
Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.
Stare the blank page down. (Column McCann, Letters to a Young Writer, p. 16)
Colum McCann’s letters are to a young creative writer, so they’re not quite for me, but certain passages are broad enough to inspire and remind me of a writer’s challenges. And even once I realized he’s not writing to me, I couldn’t help reading on because his rhythm is captivating. Take his last sentence. For some not-quite-articulable reason, it has the rhythm I associate with McCann’s fiction (e.g., Let the Great World Spin, which I recommend). It’s paradigmatic McCann. (And there’s a whole potential blog post here about how a writer’s product should be indicative of that writer’s style—unique—and yet submissive to the rules of writing to which we’re all subject. See, for example, how William Zinsser fixes this seeming paradox early on in On Writing Well—in chapter 4 on style: “‘But,’ you may say, ‘if I eliminate everything you think is clutter and if I strip every sentence to its barest bones, will there be anything left of me?’” His answer is yes, of course.)
This McCann passage is something I’d like to share the next time I’m prepping a batch of undergrads to write their very own, very first philosophy papers. Writing 1,000-1,250 words seems torturous to most of them, and they mistake their biggest worry for coughing up 1,000 words, when it should be the opposite: if their understanding of a topic—and their own thesis—is precise enough, they should worry about coming in under the 1,250 word limit. In any case, the next time I make my spiel—if I include McCann—I will need to qualify the point McCann makes in the second paragraph—I’m less concerned with the words the students use than the ideas those words convey. Precision of language is no less important, but it’s the precision of thought I want them to demonstrate for me, even if their language isn’t pristine in their first essays I grade.