A Ramble About Word Limits

2015 Artwork Word limit ramble sketch

A while back, I was reminded of an old short story of mine that I’d forgotten about…. for a good reason. This was a story that I wrote for a university coursework project about six years ago and it was, quite frankly, a terrible incoherent mess.

No, I’m not joking here. The ending made no sense whatsoever, the plot twist near the ending barely made any sense, the setting was fairly random and the narrator didn’t really have a huge amount of personality. I can’t remember exactly what grade I got for it, but it was probably a middling grade at best.

But, of course, this story didn’t start out as an incoherent mess. Oh no, it actually started out as a fairly good story that I was quite proud of. So, what happened to it?

Back then, I still used to handwrite a lot of my fiction before typing it up (and editing it) later. Although I’d started typing things directly by then, I only really did this for longer pieces of fiction and I still sometimes used to handwrite shorter pieces of fiction. I don’t know, there was – and still is – just something a lot more tactile, natural, spontaneous and portable about actually writing fiction. With a pen.

The only problem with using such old-school word processing technology is that it doesn’t have a “word count” feature, which is a problem if you have to stay within a word limit.

What this meant is that I’d have to either guess how long a story was (I think that 2000 words was about 8-10 A5 notebook pages in my really tiny handwriting) or, more commonly, I’d just write the story and then edit it down to length when I typed it up. This particular story ended up being ridiculously longer than the word limit for this coursework project.

So, I had to cut it. Again and again until only a barely-coherent skeleton of a story was left. Until there were no atmospheric descriptions at the beginning of the story, until there was little to no backstory and until the ending was reduced to a few barely-meaningful sentences. And all because of a word limit.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many good reasons why universities, writing contests, magazines, schools etc… set word limits. It makes it a lot more practical for the people who are examining or judging the stories and it also supposedly puts everyone on a level playing field (since everyone is restricted to the same number of words), but more about that later….

Likewise, word limits can also a good way of challenging writers to do their best by giving them a set of limitations to work within.

But, at the same time, I’d argue that word limits are something of an ancient relic in the age of the internet. After all, if a print magazine can spare two pages for an article or a story, then they’re going to have to limit it to a length that will fit into that amount of space.

But, on the internet, space is pretty much unlimited – seriously, all of the text on this entire blog could easily fit onto about four or five floppy disks (anyone remember those?). So, using this reason for having word limits for anything that is posted online is completely stupid.

In fact, the only good reasons for keeping word limits in the age of the internet is probably because many people don’t want to spend more than a few minutes reading an online article (and there are probably numerous exceptions to this statement) and because most professional website editors want to be able to look through submissions fairly quickly.

But there is also the fact that different writers work best at different lengths. Some people may thrive when they’re writing novel-length manuscripts and other people may be at their best when they’re carefully crafting just a few paragraphs. Having a fixed word limit on anything only really benefits writers who are good at writing at those lengths. So, word limits aren’t quite the equaliser that some people may make them out to be.

But, all of this is pointless. As much as I might moan about word limits (and how they ruined one of my old stories), they’re probably staying with us for a long time to come- for the simple reason that they benefit editors, tutors and occasionally publishers too.

Sorry for such a rambling article, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

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