Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing, and Publishing ~

Is Counting Words An Important Part of Being A Writer?


If you’re not a writer, Word Count may sound like some child’s game, yet many writers consider it critical to their craft.

There are a ton of widgets to count words and many quite respectable software tools for writers include word count functionality.

If you’re a freelance writer, not adhering to the required word count can stop your money-flow.

If you submit manuscripts for traditional publishing, word count ranges need serious consideration.

But, apart from the space constraints of certain newspapers and magazines, why would publishers enforce word count limits?

And, with the new opportunities of self-publishing, one might think that word count would be losing importance as something a creative writer needs to consider

Johanna Harness, in her blog post, Why Word Count Matters, begins by saying, “Why should you care about word count? Honestly, you shouldn’t—not at first anyway.”

Later in her post she says:

“So we can just self-publish and forget all about word counts, right?

“Nope.

“Well, we can—just not if we want readers.

“Story length is based on reader expectations.”

Then, there’s a post about word count from BookEnds, LLC, a literary agency, that says they’re “going to try to make this the complete guide to word count post”.

After giving some word-count-ranges for various genres and echoing Ms. Harness about reader-expectation, they go on to say:

“The other thing to consider is that as long as we’re still selling books primarily in a paper format, it’s an expense issue. A book costs more if it has more pages and somewhere along the line those costs have to be passed on to readers.”

So, there are some of the representative opinions suggesting writers should sweat over how many words there are in their creative works

However, there are other opinions.

Thanks to my best friend, I can share a quote from The Cambridge History of Australian Literature that gives a touch-point to the controversy in one country over the “proper” length of short stories.

The Bulletin was an influential publication that restricted word count.

The Cambridge History says, “In restricting stories to about 3000 words or less, the Bulletin set a pattern that persisted in newspapers and magazines for most of the next century.”

Australia is rich in short story competitions and I found an article in The Write StuffAre Aussie short story writers an endangered species?—in which Geoffrey Dean, who was Tasmania’s most celebrated short-story writer, says:

“How strange it was, I thought to myself as I made myself my afternoon cup of tea, that the federal capital Canberra, the seat of government, the city that turns over more words in a week than the average city would wear in a year, insists on so few words when it comes to word competitions. Was this some kind of reaction against poly-verbiage – an attempt, as it were, to substitute quality for quantity in the word game? Or was it simply that Canberra’s Ivory Tower dwellers were so out of touch with the real world they no longer knew how long a good short story needed to be.

“When 3,000 words went by on my word counter, I began to realise that not only had this story written itself out of the majority of story competitions in the country, it was now in danger of writing itself out of the prospects of publication in any of the staunch old standbys, the literary magazines.”

And the last bit of evidence in this blog-trial over the fate of word count belongs to Lynn Biederstadt, who’s given me permission to reproduce her post called By Numbers << that link being where you can go to leave her a Comment :-)

Not a dig at my writing brothers and sisters. Not nearly. Instead, call it a curiosity:

Word counts.

Whether as the landmark measurement of yearly writers’ events or as a passing note on FaceBook, the posting of the day’s output seems to wield an almost mystical importance. I’ve done it myself. I’ve never been quite sure why.

The number of words achieved through the intellectual and emotional wrestling match that is the day at the page seems a strange yardstick for triumph, as if we were marking an ascent of Everest rather than the quality of output. Sure, it indicates the dedication of the day. But what is it really?

Writing a novel is a marathon made up of a series of sprints—work (and in this I am speaking of those of us who write while holding full-time jobs) fit into dedicated weekends and the hours carved into weekday work nights. And perhaps that’s what bothers me.

The number is a passionless one. Numbers always are. Yes, it is the evidence of the accomplishments of altitude or mileage, but not a sign of what getting there cost…the hours and hours of lonely roadwork, the toll of altitude sickness in the strictly solo climb.

For all its exultant joy, Writing is emotionally expensive for those of us who do it. It is often the choice between a weekend day spent working and a trip to the movies; between breaking the back of a feisty chapter and dinner with friends. It is—especially, I reckon, for those of us who write for a living—a constant battle against brain drain. Noting the progress of a living story as if it were a tote board of output seems to under-serve both the breathing characters and labor pains that brought them into the world.

As I said, I have, in the past, joined my compadres in the observance. Not sure that I’ll do it any more. Writing is more to me than a creative odometer…it’s the way we get there.

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