Essential writing skills: mastering word count

Welcome to 2014 and a new year of writing tips – quick essential skill tips on Fridays, longer posts Saturdays, and sometimes other stuff during the week. I’m going to cover a fair number of things in coming weeks and months, including editing techniques and ways to publish.

Where it all began - the newspaper office that gave me my first break as a writer.

Where it all began for me – the newspaper that gave me my first break as a writer. Click to enlarge.

First off – word count. Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while know it’s one of my little hobby horses, and it’s a good way to start 2014 because to me, everything keys from it. Sort of. I’ll explain. As a writer I often bewail the focus these days on word count. Despite the profusion of word-o-meters built into software, it’s not actually a goal or even a measure of completion.

It’s a tool. Editors commission through word count, journalists write to it – and authors, certainly when writing short stories and features – are frequently paid by the word. Publishers contract books on the basis of the word count, because it’s a gauge of scale that allows them to calculate costs. There’s some flexibility in that, but not a lot.

For authors, word count is a tool in a different sense. It’s a way of controlling structure. Any writing – irrespective of scale – must have a proper structure, meaning certain lengths of material in the correct places; and word count is a way to meter the proportions – keeping them under control. If you’re writing a 70,000 word book and the ‘beginning’ billows to a third or more, it’s probably out of whack structurally. And yes, readers will notice. So will editors.

Writing to meet specific word count, in short, is a key skill authors must master – one of the many skills. But it isn’t an end point of itself.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Tomorrow,’write it now’; next week – more writing tips, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

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8 comments on “Essential writing skills: mastering word count

  1. symplysilent says:

    Hi Matthew; Until I learned about the November 50,000 word stampede, I never even thought about word count. Up until then, I was happily churning away on a long story. After that, I was curious. The draft came in at over 50,000 words. Then, I made the mistake of reading Brooks and Snyder, and realized I had done it all wrong, lol. So, word count did not save me. Thank you, Silent

    • There are a huge number of parameters authors have to work to – of which word count is but one. Beat sheets are a useful tool for helping manage the relationship between word count and structure. The trick is balancing them all. I’ll be covering off some of that stuff soon.

  2. “For authors, word count is a tool in a different sense. It’s a way of controlling structure.”

    Exactly.

    By the way, I started as a reporter too.

    • I wouldn’t be where I am today without the break that paper gave me. It’s long gone now – swallowed in a host of amalgamations and then killed off. The building remains, one of Napier’s art deco classics.

  3. jjspina says:

    Thank you for these helpful hints. Do you consider a 70 k novel to be a full length novel? How long is a novella and novelette?

    • It depends! In my mind, 70,000 words is about right for a novel – enough to feel like a ‘good read’ without being over-weighty, but that’s entirely personal taste. Isaac Asimov used to write to about that in his novels. Today I suspect readers look for something longer. Short stories and novellas – again, it depends. I’ve seen short stories varying between 500 and 6000 words. Novellas might be out to 20,000. Again – personal taste. What perhaps counts more is how those words convey the requirements of the structure and genre. Short stories, particularly, demand a quite different approach – and are remarkably hard to do well.

  4. KM Huber says:

    As I have said previously, your discussion of the relationship between word count and writing is practical and puts the count into proper perspective. Again, these posts on writing are just invaluable, Matthew.

    Oh, I, too, began in journalism but as a proofreader and jumped to editor. It is only in later years that I think I understand why. It was in the ’70s as newspapers were being bought up and thrust into chains. Later, of course, most disappeared but the Casper Star-Tribune is still Wyoming’s only and largest statewide newspaper. Thanks for that little trot down memory lane.

    Karen

    • I lament the loss of quality local papers – it’s certainly the case here in New Zealand and I guess also true in the US and elsewhere. The ‘Daily Telegraph’, which gave me the first big break into that field, is long gone – only the building remains, an art deco icon in Napier.

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