Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Truth and Untruth of Statistics


"Figures often beguile me. Particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'"

Mark Twain

Chapters from My Autobiography, published in the North American Review in 1906}




And so I find myself, having just finished the fifth draft of a new novel for middle grade readers, staring the stats WORD popped up.




Time was, I wrote long hand, then revised and typed a story, only to ignore the numbers. WORD insisted on telling me the word count, but I looked the other way. I was writing literature, not counting beans.


I remember the feeling of diminishment when I encountered writers who spoke about word counts for different age groups, chapter page counts, and output counts per writing day. Everyone, it seemed, was counting.


I honestly couldn’t figure out why, and determined not to write-by-numbers.


Only they are everywhere. And while they say nothing about the quality of the story or the art of the telling, turns out they do count.


In the business of publishing, they count quite a bit. To quote Agent Jennifer Laughran’s iconic post on the subject, outlier word-counts put her in the mode of  “...I am tying a noose.” I don’t want that responsibility. I also want my work to be considered for publication.


Innovative work should not count these counts. But the numbers will let us know how far off the expected norms we’ve ventured, and then choose to do so knowingly and deliberately.


These Stats still lie in the most fundamental sense of not telling that all’s well, or that I must take some drastic action. The readability statistics only sit there, telling their truth. It’s not an important truth. But it is one I  now look at , just as I look at the WORD program’s mechanical (and often wrong) grammar-check at which end these stats pop up.


For me it is about marching forward having looked at all I could know about what I wrote. It means that if a reader calls the story “too long,” this is not a matter of length but the feeling it drags. The strengths and faults lie in the art, not in the craft. The mechanical checks and algorithmic statistics deserve a glance, and then the option to dismiss or heed from a place of awareness.



Phew, these latest revision stats look okay. But who's counting?


10 comments:

  1. Congratulations on getting through your 5th draft. Now, if you're writing math puzzles like I was for my latest book, the numbers can matter a bit more. :)

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    1. Fifth, sixth... who's counting, right?
      I can imagine your challenges are to make all the numbers fit just right.

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  2. Congratulations on finishing the revision, Mirka!!! Always a big accomplishment. There's always a time and place for metrics (I use them a lot for EZs but I use Lexile) and seeing those numbers climbing can be such a boost when you're writing a first draft but during revision, I like seeing the word-count go down :)

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    1. I tend to terse writing, so my Betas more often advise to add "more" of this and "expand" that, and my challenge is usually to add rather than subtract.

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  3. Good thoughts about all these numbers! And wow, you have a new novel ms. Looking forward to hearing more about it!

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    1. Hopefully someday many will get to read it ;) but meanwhile, I'd love for you to get a glimpse, maybe after revision #6...

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  4. Don’t get me started on spell check. Lol Congrats on finishing another draft!

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    1. And grammar-check suggestions are sillier at times, but I look at them all.

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  5. Wow, 5th draft! Well done on the revision, Mirka. Would love to learn more about this MG. (Curious: Your word count of almost 40k sounds about right for an MG, doesn't it?)

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    1. Yes, it is, and guess what--- i'm at it and still tweaking :)

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