Saturday, March 2, 2013

“You Want It in How Many Words?!” Why Word Count Limits Can Help Writers

If you are a professional writer, or plan to be one, sooner or later you will have to deal with word count limits.

Word count limits are those sometimes unpleasant and restrictive limits imposed by editors, writing groups, or others for whom you may write. They usually come in the form of an editor telling you, “I want you to trim 10,000 words out of your story,” or your writing group offering to critique your novel 1,500 words at a time.

Writers often chafe against word count limits. Will your story be rejected if you can trim only 8,000 words? Will members of your writing group hate you if you submit 1,600 words for their perusal?  And what qualifies as a word anyway?  Is “son-in-law” one or three words?

Thanks to automatic word counts in modern word processing programs, the last two questions are mostly moot. And while policies differ among editors and writing groups (some hold strictly to word count limits; others don’t), every writer should make an effort to follow such limits.

After all, being a professional in any field means understanding conventions, respecting others who work in the same field, and following directions.

More importantly, word count limits can actually make you a better writer. They force you to ask yourself tough questions, such as:

  • Do you really need this scene and/or character?

When I was in grad school, I wrote a screenplay about a multi-generational rock band. I had carefully worked out the back story and chronology of this group, which included many personnel changes and extended family members to make the drama more realistic.

But in writing the screenplay, I came to realize (with some pointed questions from my professor) that certain characters were not necessary. In particular, I cut out a keyboard player and one of two grown sons of the lead singer.

Did eliminating those characters improve the screenplay? Surprisingly, yes. The story was much leaner and tighter without them. Their functions in the story were quite easily assumed by other characters.  

Did eliminating them hurt the back story and chronology?  In the end, it didn’t matter since those devices were meant to flesh out the story, not be the story.

Likewise, your story may contain characters, scenes, or even chapters that simply don’t need to be there. Word count limits can force you to justify every element of your story. If anything doesn’t demonstrate sufficient reason for being there, get rid of it.

  • Can you say the same thing in fewer words?

Most writers love words. We spend hours crafting the clever phrase, the incisive dialogue, the beautiful description—and then we are told to cut it?!

Well, yes.

That flowery passage you labored over can bog your story down and bore the reader. More common, but just as deadly, are sentences which contain more words than necessary. 

Both flowery passages and wordy sentences are normal pratfalls of the writing process: While getting the story down on paper (or on the screen), we become so involved in our characters' lives that we lose track of how our sentences actually read.

This is a perfectly normal part of the writing process, but it’s why pruning is necessary.  Pruning means you go over every sentence and make sure each word, like each character and scene, demonstrates good reason for being there.

If you have a word count limit, you will be surprised how many words you can cut from a passage without altering its meaning.

More, you will be amazed by how much better the passage reads.

But aren’t some word count limits arbitrary?

They can be—but every editor knows how much space she has to devote to your story, if you are submitting to a magazine, for example.  

Likewise, writing groups which handle multiple submissions on a regular basis want to make sure there’s time to read and critique each submission. Word count limits ensure everyone’s work gets an equal chance for review.

Word count limits force writers to recognize that we’re not composing our works for our own amusement. They remind us that our stories may go through several levels of gatekeepers before reaching their intended audience, and that gatekeepers such as editors and writing groups can help us achieve our ultimate goal: to write the best story we can.

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