We Don’t Need No Freaking Word Counts

I am riffing on Laney’s post from today which discusses writers who set word count goals to which my earnest reply was – no freakin’ way.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as obsessed with word counts as much as the next author, but I would just be signing up for masochistic self-torture if I assigned myself word counts each time I sat down to write.

My speculation is that word counts are more suited to novelists, newspaper columnists and freelancers than short story writers.  Novelists have a lot more words to write to “get to the end” than short story writers, and newspaper folk have deadlines to meet everyday.

I’d also include poets in with short story writers amongst the non-word-counting tribes.  A poet will only include the most absolutely necessary words and no more or less.  I would say that the very best short story writers should do the same thing.

Many of my short stories are flash fiction, which means they are less than 1000 words.  Some of my stories would even be considered micro-fiction, which are less than 500 words.  Flash fiction and micro-fiction are relative newcomers to the short story pantheon, but with today’s shorter-attention-span readers and the internet’s mouse-click hoverers, stories that can be quickly read in a sitting are easily consumed.

In terms of the process, I’d say that writing the 1000 words isn’t really so much the issue, or the speed at which I write that 1000 words.  It’s the amount of time I need to spend editing, re-writing, and obsessing over every word and phrase which takes most of my time when I am producing a story.

What’s your experience with Word Counts?

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6 Responses

  1. Ha, a kindred spirit. I write novels and still can’t wrap my head around any set number. Thanks for the shout out;)

  2. YES! Absolutely agree. Word counts, while I understand the need for them on the editor’s behalf, can be extremely frustrating. You have to kill your literary darlings for the sake of fitting it all in. And yes, it does make you more concerned than you should be about sentence length, when you should be concentrating on capturing the feeling.

    Many competitions I enter have a 1000 word limit, whereas more journals will ask for submissions 3000-5000 words in length, which makes a HUGE difference to the feel of the piece and your ability to make your point and give characters depth.

    Great post!

    • Louise, you make such a great point about the difference in the feel of a 1000 word story vs. a 5000 word story – which I haven’t even attempted to tackle. I do pay a lot of attention to pacing, but there are times with my shorter pieces that the editorial feedback reads something like “you rushed the ending” so it’s always a challenge to balance all that out.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. I’m with you on this one, because I too write mostly flash and micro fiction. Good editing and agonizing over which words to use and which words to lose are far more vital than how many words are used. If you can say in five words what you could also say in five hundred, why not say it in five?

    • Yes, I agree. Flash fiction is so compressed, it makes sense to always be looking for word economy.

      I think a challenge for me would be to let myself go and write something much longer – I actually find that to be more difficult than writing a compact story.

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