Counting the Words
One of the forgotten elements of writing is the word count. It could also be said it is perhaps the least influential aspect of writing in the early stages. Few of us start writing with the end number in mind. It is only later in the editing process we decide on how many words we want our story to be – either through a criteria for submission (either a contest or publication), personal choice based on the number of words at the end of a first draft or feedback from beta readers. Then there are other times when stories defy the boundaries of the short form and demand are longer exploration.
Becoming mindful of word counts and using them as a tool, rather than a stone to hang around our creative necks can have unexpected benefits.
For the past three months (or six rounds) I have been writing as an outside contestant for the blog based literary reality TV show Fourth Fiction. Each round comes with a challenge to incorporate into your instalment and a word count to abide by.
Round Two was to write the novella opening paragraph in less than 250 words. It took more than two hours to construct the 250 words which were finally published on my blog. This is the same time I could easily knock out 2000 words or more. I knew exactly what I wanted to say but being given a limited space, I was forced to get savvy with my exposition.
As a consequence of six rounds of being actively engaged in considering the number of words at my disposal, my writing style has changed considerably and has had a flow on into other writing projects. Now I get down to the nuts and bolts of the narrative, rather than waffling on. I’ve started using dialogue to provide not just interaction between the characters but to fill in back story or to world build. Never one for descriptive narrative, this pared down style has meant I’ve been working hard at writing concise descriptions which play on a number of levels. I remain amazed at how much can be said in just one well written and thought out line.
Paying close attention to the number of words and employing the maxim “Does this progress the story” has meant I have become far more objective about what needs to stay in and what needs to go, what is important and what is just embellishment. Not only has it improved my writing but also my editing skills. How this influences my NaNo campaign this year remains to be seen – given November is all about getting the greatest number of words on the page, the antithesis of Fourth Fiction to date!
I leave you this week with an exercise on word count – something you might like to work on across this week.
This exercise has four parts.
- Take an existing story of around 2000 words. Now cut the story down to 1500 words. What goes, what stays? Are you able to do it?
- Cut another 500 words to make it 1000 words? What goes, what stays? What did you need to rewrite to compensate for the loss of so much original story?
- Are you able to write the same story in 500 words? What do you end up focusing on?
- In your best objective opinion, which length worked best for the story?
Do you consider a word count before you begin writing? How influential is it to your writing?
Graphic from Wordle