What’s In A Word Count?

How long should a story be? It’s a question that I’ve asked and looked into many times over the years that I’ve been writing. I used to have a post-it note on the board in my office that listed the standard word counts for novels vs. novellas vs. short stories. I would look up the word counts of famous novels, just to get an idea of what I should be aiming for. The first Harry Potter book? Just over 77,000 words. The Hobbit? 95,000. The Great Gatsby? A mere 47,000. A Game of Thrones? 298,000.

Much of this obsession originated from writing papers in college, where I always struggled to achieve the proper length. I’ve always been a rather concise writer. Once I’d made my point, I didn’t feel a need to elaborate; and yet the page count had to be met. So I had to learn how to elaborate, find more points to be made, and it always felt somewhat like agony to draw the words out and pad my arguments. I was never a verbose person to begin with. However, it was a good exercise to have those page count goals, because it forced me to stretch and push myself rather than just stopping when it still felt comfortable. Even now, when I write professional articles, it’s helpful to have a word goal to aim for and to know whether I’ve said enough or (occasionally) too much.

Around the time period after college was when I fell into doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which has the goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. That works out to writing about 1,667 words a day, every day, during the month of November. I never managed it. I don’t think I ever even got close. But it was still a helpful challenge, because it was a time set aside, with a clear reason that I could give people, for not doing anything besides focus on my writing. Sometimes that is the greatest gift we can give ourselves as writers: an excuse to not do anything else but write. And the word count goal kept the process from feeling too much like a vacation.

I’ve now been writing and studying writing for well over half my life and I’m in that uncomfortable position of being aware of how many things I had wrong in the past which makes me aware of many things I’m likely to still have wrong right now. Humility is never a fun lesson to learn. I’ve gone through a lot of prejudice in what I read, what I think I like, and whose opinion I’m willing to listen to. I’ve also learned a lot about myself as a writer; and while I’m still not entirely sure what works for me, I’ve at least learned more about what doesn’t. The pace of NaNoWriMo has never worked for me, but neither does cutting myself too much slack. Word count and page goals can be helpful, but it’s more important to try to just say what needs to be said.

How long should a piece of writing be? As long as it takes to tell the story the way it needs to be told.

Recently, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina (349,736 words) as well as short story collections by Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury. Talk about a difference in pace. Novels like Anna Karenina were difficult for me at first because I am so used to the quick action and instant gratification of modern movies and storytelling. But the details and the nuances of the characters and their lives that you get in a novel like Anna Karenina is like nothing in modern, fast-paced storytelling. The amount that you can learn about human nature in these kinds of novels makes them well-worth the time it takes to read or listen to them (the audiobook of Anna Karenina is over 35 hours long).

On the other hand, there are short stories like those written by Flannery O’Connor and Ray Bradbury, who were both masters at this form. In a few thousand words, a good writer can immerse you in a time and a place and give you a snapshot of a life that will haunt you for the rest of yours. In a way, it’s actually much closer to real life and the brief glimpses that we get of other people and their situations.

My own writing and the form it takes is still constantly in development, but the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to just try to tell the story in the best way possible. The story will make its own demands, and woe to the writer who fails to heed them.

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