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Counting the Words

October 5, 2009

Wordle: wordcount

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Are you able to write the same story in 500 words? What do you end up focusing on?
  4. 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

Jodi Cleghorn had the experience of shooting a 60 second slot for the Fourth Fiction elimination video yesterday and found interesting parallels between editing words and editing footage. You can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn, her Fourth Fiction Novella or her blog Writing in Black and White.

6 Comments
  1. October 5, 2009 6:06 am

    I really hold true to this philosophy too. Writing flash fiction has meant I’ve developed a sparse and to-the-point writing style as well.

    I tend to not consider word count, except when the task requires it, but it’s an unconscious thing that results in me usually writing less, not more.

  2. October 5, 2009 8:52 am

    The word count is a good discipline. Writing to a particular mark helps you to recognize the essentials in your story. If you *had* to cut 10%, what is least important? How can you restructure the remaining 90% to express what you want to express?

    However, there is a point beyond which you start cutting into meat, and then bone. In cutting a 1100 word story down to 700 words, I had to chuck one facet of the piece. What was left was, IMHO, not just shorter to meet the mark, but also diminished in quality, not as layered.

    Perhaps a better writer would have been able to cut the 400 words without compromising anything. Perhaps one day I’ll be that writer.

  3. October 5, 2009 8:04 pm

    Great post. I tend to overwrite my first draft of anything, let the voice carry the story. Then, I go back and edit, parsing down to the armature. There is balance to not edit out the soul of a piece. Writing flash and poetry has made me very conscious of the weight of each word, as well as to know when my story has lost its soul.

    For novels I always aim for 100-120k words on a 2nd or 3rd draft. First draft, anything goes.

    For shorts, sometimes the story has its own head. For instance, I’m now expanding a 3k story written fior an anthology into something much larger, perhaps novella. Which changes the fluidity and tone of my story. I can linger more. Peace, Linda

  4. October 6, 2009 12:41 pm

    I’m glad the word limits have proven helpful to you. I originally intended to have larger word counts at this point in the contest but I realized it might put off readers to have to deal with too much text.

  5. October 7, 2009 12:46 pm

    Hi!

    I’ve been writing for a long time now and had lots of essays and articles published as well as – this year – my first book. I’ve never known a piece of writing in first or second draft which wasn’t improved by an editor ( or myself!) saying “Cut this by 25%.”…..

    Anne Whitaker, Scotland, UK

  6. October 12, 2009 9:54 am

    Since my background is writing for magazines, I was always limited to word count. Different magazines wanted different styles. One wanted a lot of descriptive with em-dashes and “pop” while others wanted just the facts. Either way, I became very mindful of count. The result is that I write mostly flash fiction. I started with a 100-word contest. From there I expanded to 500 words. Now I find that I can tell a story best in just under 1,000 words. Dialogue helps, but tight action is essential. No flowery descriptives for me. I just wrote one for #Fridayflash at Twitter and I found out how many unnecessary adjectives could be deleted without taking away from the substance. This is a great challenge. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything around 2,000 words. My mindset is so tuned to flash. You can get a feel for it on my blog if you’re interested. If not, no offense taken. I will follow you on Twitter and see what else you have to say.

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