Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Write. Count Words. Make Every Word Count. Repeat.

I love questions and observations from writers in my classes. They make me think, and what writer doesn’t like that? Lately, I’ve been thinking about word counts, because lately I've been dealing with: (1) Can I exceed the word count? and (2) It’s not possible to do this assignment within the stated word count. I get the same thing, regardless of the focus of the class, type of assignment, and whether it's a 300 or 2500 word limit.

The short answers are: (1) No, you can't; and (2) Yes, it is.

The longer answer is a bit more involved.

Word counts impose discipline. When we write, we make something. And sooner or late, like any other created “product” it needs to fit in a particular space. Writing with the goal of eventual publication means we come up against word counts imposed by editors and publishers, agents, and industry standards.

It’s true that word limits were more strictly enforced when everything was in print form, and that many online venues have more "space" and are more flexible. Yet I’ve found that even (and sometimes mostly) the most well-designed, heavily trafficked, best-edited sites adhere to word counts, too.

When you accept an assignment, or an editor accepts your submission, word count comes up. If the assignment is 700 words, you don’t write 900. If the column has room for 900 words, you don't submit 1200. If a literary journal's submissions guidelines say under 6000 words, you don’t send 7000. If you submit an unsolicited piece and an editor wants to buy/publish it, and it's 559 words, and you are asked to cut it to 500, you cut it. End of story.

Word counts are something writers engage with over an entire career, a language a writer needs to be fluent at, a universal code among those who write, edit and publish. Many media venues still pay according to word count, and whether that's a dime or two bucks a word, you need to do the math before deciding if you want to spend your time on the piece.

Write a book manuscript and you will have to speak of it in terms of word count – to agents, editors, even other writers. You’ll need to know that most X-type of books fall in the Y word count range, for example.

Some writers insist they are creatively inhibited by word counts, or that it makes the writing process feel too technical. Well, some parts of writing are technical. Sorry. Others want to write freely without thinking of word counts. That’s great, I say. Do that – write until your fingertips fall off. And then, cull and revise the words which make the finest 400-word dialogue exchange, the most sparkling 1500 word essay.

Sure, I have turned in 711 words when the limit was 700 (but I wouldn't send 725). Editors do have a small window of “more or less” which they will accept without hitting the roof; a skilled editor can so deftly delete such a small overage, within minutes and without harming, and usually improving, the piece.

Once, to my horror, when I had three personal essays due to three different venues the same week (may the freelance Gods so bless me again some day!), I mixed up word counts. Editors A and B wanted 1,000 words each, and Editor C asked for 1,500. I sent everything off, only to discover that Editor B was more than a bit put out at having received 1500 words instead of 1000, and Editor C wanted to know why the piece was one-third shorter than we had discussed. Needless to say, it was easier to add 500 words to the too-short piece than to excise from the bloated one. It was no fun being me that week.

Practical considerations aside, word counts also impact craft. Mark Twain was famously credited with paraphrasing Blaise Pascal about a wordy missive: I’m sorry it’s so long. If I had more time, I would have written a shorter one. The implication is that crafting a finely honed succinct piece of writing takes time – and skill, craft, patience, and revision. Being verbose on the page is easy.

Another reason I insist on firm word counts is because at the root of many writing problems is not writing tight. Adjectives proliferate. Adverbs abound. (Don’t even get me started on my kill-all-the-adverbs rant.) Descriptions which should take one sentence go on for paragraphs. Dialogue is bloated. Writers spend entire opening pages clearing their throats. A rigid word count will make thinking writers question everything in their prose. Is this necessary? What about that? Can’t I condense here, or maybe there?

In writing, as in life, the answer so often is: Cut. Three cookies and six hungry toddlers? Cut. An appetite for designer shoes and a small paycheck? Cut. Another rejection, nosy in-laws, and a fight with your spouse? Cut (your hair or, the leftover cheesecake). Word counts will force a writer to make cuts, often painful ones; which will turn out, in most cases, to be the ones which propel better drafts, successful revisions, more focused final versions.

I’ve rarely had the experience, after having to trim a piece, of thinking it was better in the original longer version. But I often have the opposite experience, of a piece turning out so much better once I lop off a bunch of words (along, sometimes, with my own puffed-up idea of how wonderful my original prose was.)

Write tight, fellow writers. And yes, those who teach and coach writers do have another reason for sticking to word counts. We’ve got other stuff to read. Like all those concise Twitter updates (140 character limit!) and wonderfully brief Six Word Memoirs.

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