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Word Lengths

Throughout my writing life (aka the last twelve months) I’ve been told repeatedly that word length is critical to the story/article and its intended market. All writers go through the same agony each time they begin revisions;edits.

What constitutes too much or too little? When does explanation verge on the verbose. When does concise become stingy? Is the publication’s editor the only one who can call the line between too much and too little?

If I write, “Rustling sounds emerge from the right, loud enough to snag the attention of a watcher.”, does it need to be more words to create the mood or has it used too many already. I could change it to say, “The watcher heard rustling come from the right.” That’s a good sentence, but does it have any life to it?

Which is better; the original wording, or the revised version? The second uses fewer words to say the same thing. Someone is watching something, and hears sound to his/her right. Big deal.

The first version shows the reader that someone’s interest has been engaged by unknown rustling sounds coming from his/her right, sounds that come slowly, almost secretly. It creates, perhaps, curiosity on the part of the reader. It also sets a tone/mood that says clearly that this event will be special or different.

Therefore, I favor the original version. At the end of my first edit I find that I have to cut at least 75 words from the piece, which is already (to my way of thinking) bare bones. Do I rephrase that original sentence to its shorter two sentence structure? Or, do I find another sentence that could be cut altogether and not affect the end result of the piece?

In order to keep the tone/mood, I will cut elsewhere. I might even find an entire paragraph or two that could be trimmed drastically to give me word count over integrity of the piece. Am I will to do that. You betcha. I’ve learned to do it and be ruthless about it.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned in writing is how to cut. I hate it, but I’ve learned to keep only what drives the story/article and lose the rest.

For children’s writers the art of trimming the fat is essential. Our word limits are peculiarly low because of the readers’ ages. A good Picture Book will use maybe 250 words at most. It might be in rhyme or not. It’s the word count that matters, along with story with its problem and action and solution. The three parts of these little books are sacrosanct. And those little buggers are ridulously difficult to write and do a really good job. Those successful writers deserve medals for their performances.

But, back to word count. Even academics must be a slave to the word count rule. If it’s a book they’re writing on a given subject, they still must keep the writing tight. Academic books at the best of times verge on boring. The more expansive the writing, the worse the effect. The worst examples of all are computer software books, booklets, and manuals.

Recently, I’ came to realize that the tighter I write the less cutting there will be later. Obvious, right? As soon as the writer determines what tight is to him/her, it becomes obvious. Until then, it’s only relative.

So, what is appropriate for word lengths? If you’re writing for a particular magazine, the guidelines will tell you. Most book publishers do as well. They even give you genre limitations, as well as those for age groups.

But the way I now try to ensure that I don’t have to cut quite so severely is to write each sentence twice. The first for lyric quality. The second for short word count. By the time I get to the end of the paragraph, I’ve looked at them all long enough to know the best to keep and how I must reword for efficiency. It takes a bit longer at the outset, but saves loads of time later down the line.

 Hopefully, I become a better first time writer along the way, too. It forces me to think carefully about what words I use and how effective each one is to the overall picture I’m trying to convey. It helps me chose more powerful words and phrases, too. And the way I look at it, anything that does that is worth the effort.

So, there you have it. My take on word lengths. Each writer has his/her own way of doing things. This one works for me. Try it if you like and see if it helps you trim the fat along the way.

Happy writing.


Categories: Writing and Poetry
  1. December 15, 2009 at 7:18 pm


    I know how hard it is to cut words in revisions. I started my writing career HATING to cut words. I just thought that each word was there for a reason. But after twenty or more years of writing both academically and creatively I have come to see that cutting words is as necessary as writing the first draft.

    For me, the first draft is a creative time, a time when I write whatever comes to mind. I loves this process. Then the second stage of the writing process is revising and usually cutting words. This I think is necessary to product a manuscript that you will be proud of later.

    Thank you for a wonderful post!


  2. LK
    December 24, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Writing has comes a long way since olden times.

    C. Bronte wrote Jane Eyre very quickly, but the work is complex with no thought of word count, and writers back then wrote by hand. I noticed words come out differently by hand because the typing seems to go ahead of our thoughts…so we have to go back and edit. Maybe this only concerns fiction writing, but I notice that a message that begins one way, always ends up sometimes over-thought on rewrites; I can’t stand that! I understand about word count though, and so the modern writer is a type-and-slash writer whose thoughts emerge the same as in the past, but the rewriting makes everything so rethought. Of course, the day and age has produced so many instant writers, that the majority of them are unfortunately lacking; thus the need for skills in slashing and modifying.

    Great blog, and great post (even if it was a little long).

    (just kidding)


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