The first draft of my story totaled just under 6,000 words; the second draft sliced wordage to 5,191 words, and subsequent editing chopped the story to 4,980, 4,845, and 4,621 words.
Still too long.
I am not obsessed with the number of words it takes to tell a story; what I do care about is succinctly telling a story with the least number of words possible—unnecessary verbiage is my enemy during the editing cycles.
Other people (like editors) do care how many words your story totals, and they can be a bit myopic when it comes to the decision to purchase your story for publication. Why?
When I wrote for newspapers (and also published a couple small zines), I was keenly aware of space limitations, not only for artwork and stories and articles, but for paid advertising, the life-blood of keeping a publication afloat.
When laying out a daily, weekly, or monthly publication, the editor has to find a spot for each of the articles, stories, artwork and/or photos, and advertising space. Decisions are based on logistical space issues as well as aesthetic value—breaking up the publication’s pages and making them appealing while being informative (and keeping readers interested) both fall within the editor’s duties.
Planning a publication is done with a “Mock-Up,” an empty layout where each space is designated by a symbol: large X where art and photos will be placed, the headline’s font and size at the beginning of each article or story, often an arrow drawn down columns or pages for text (or lettered gibberish as in the graphic above), all without the specifics to be inserted at a later date.
So, an editor looks and sees he needs a story or article to fit within each of those arrowed slots, and a quick glance reveals the text on pages 4-7 (wrapped around the planned graphics) cannot surpass 850 words due to space allowance, and the two pages at the back must be saved for advertisers sponsoring future events, and . . . . you get the idea.
In these cases, word count is critical.
While researching a market for your planned story, one of the first delineated requirements is word count (1,500 to 3,000 words), usually following the “types” or genre the publication accepts, as well as what they are not interested in receiving. Pay attention to each guideline, and always strive to accommodate their wishes—to do otherwise will cause your story to be rejected outright, regardless how well it is written.
Note: Book publishers are not normally so defined, but there are still basic needs and guidelines you should follow. Publishing is, after all, a business, and a 225,000-word novel by a new writer will have a hard time finding a house willing to take such a chance.
As far as my story is concerned, cutting needless words—even scenes—has improved the tale. This particular story is being readied for a Writer’s Digest short story contest. The last time I entered the contest, my story placed in the top hundred, but even more importantly, the story was later purchased by a major publisher. I can only hope the same will be true for the current story, this time a fantasy rather than a mystery.
Alas, the Writer’s Digest contest requires all stories to be “no more than 4,000 words” so I have more work to do. Can I? At this point I’m not sure, having been through the story several times, cutting all the proverbial “fat” in the form of unnecessary “thats” and -ing verbs, replacing lazy prepositional phrases with active phrasing, using colons and semi-colons to eliminate conjunctions connecting phrases (not too often or they can make the writing choppy), removing weak adjectives and adverbs, and other little tricks I have learned—all without affecting the story’s central thrust.
All that being said, do not jeopardize your story just to match a periodical length requirements; if a story must incorporate 3,000 words after several edits, and the magazines of interest only accepts up to 2,500 words, find a different publication to submit your work—telling your story the best way possible takes precedence, regardless.
At magazines, deadlines are another part of the process. As writers, we need to define our own deadlines—in an effort to accomplish our goals—even when we are not producing with a predetermined timeline. Nonetheless, the deadline for the Writer’s Digest contest is October, so I better get busy cutting some more weak words and phrases . . . .
See you on the next page,
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