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.

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

Four Ways To Make Your Story Shorter

Yes, it's time to put my "editor's hat" on again.

Yes, it’s time to put my “editor’s hat” on again.

Although I hardly ever seem to write fiction these days, I used to write quite a bit of it a few years ago and, well, I’m more than familiar with competitions and writing assignments that have word limits.

As someone who likes to write at length and tends to use long, complicated sentences, I’m obviously not a huge fan of word limits. But, if you write regularly, then you’re going to run into them. Almost all academic writing courses set word limits for coursework, all writing competitions have word limits and I’m guessing that most professional non-fiction writing-based jobs also have word limits too.

As sad as it may sound, it’s usually a good idea to follow word limits as closely as possible. Yes, it might sound like a good idea to rebel against a word limit on a project, but it really isn’t.

Most competitions, universities, schools, magazines etc… set word limits for a whole variety of practical reasons (eg: it limits the amount of time that editors, tutors etc.. have to spend looking at each manuscript, there’s only a limited amount of space in a magazine for stories etc…) and going against these limits will only end up annoying the people that you’re trying to impress with your story. This isn’t a smart move.

So, if anything, it’s usually better for your story to be slightly under a word limit than it is to be slightly over it.

After all, it’s easier to bulk out a story if it’s too short than it is to cut it down if it’s too long. But, most likely, you’ll probably end up having to shorten your story – so, here are four tips which might come in handy.

1) Long Descriptions: These should probably be the first thing to go. Although long and detailed descriptions can be fun to write and they can enhance the atmosphere of your story, they are also the most expendable part of any story.

The reason why they are so expendable is because your readers will usually “fill in the gaps” in their own imaginations whenever they find a short description which only shows them the most important parts of something, somewhere or someone.

So, you can get away with making your descriptions short and basic if you need to get the word count of your story down. You can do this by focusing on the most important parts of your descriptions and getting rid of the rest.

For example, you could spend an entire paragraph describing a decaying old house in detail, or you could just cut it down to something like: “It was clear that Westlake Manor had seen better days”, “The large manor house was crumbling from years of neglect” etc…

The most important parts of the description are the fact that the house is a large manor house and than it is falling apart, your readers’ imaginations can fill in the rest of the details, so you don’t need to describe every crack in the brickwork, every tendril of ivy etc….

If you need good example of concise descriptions, then try playing a text-based adventure game (some links to free text-based games can be found here ). Generally speaking, these games have to describe complex, explorable locations in the space of just a few lines. So, they are perfect for learning how to be economical with your descriptions.

2) Deleted scenes: Unless you’re a super-cool retro traditionalist and still only watch films on VHS, then you’ll have probably seen “deleted scenes” on a DVD or Blu-Ray disc before. Directors usually end up cutting various scenes from their films for length reasons, for pacing reasons and/or because they aren’t completely relevant to the plot. Well, writers can do this too.

It doesn’t matter how interesting a scene is, how descriptive it is or how funny it is – if you’re story is over the word limit, any scenes which aren’t critically important to your story must go. Don’t worry, with the extra space you’ve freed up by deleting these unnecessary scenes, you might have room to add a line or two to the other scenes in your story summing up what has happened in your deleted scene.

Even if you really love a particular scence – if your story can still work without it, then it has to go. By all means, keep a copy of your deleted scenes, but don’t include them in your final story.

3) Rewording: This is one of the best ways to shorten your story and it works best if you story is only slightly over the word limit. Basically, if you need to trim your story slightly, then you can do this by just rewording a few sentences. You’d be surprised at how well this can work.

For example, the sentence: “He walked over to the desk slowly, slid the drawer open and pulled out a sheaf of yellowed old papers” is twenty words long. Now, if we reword it slightly into something like “He walked over to the desk and pulled a stack of old papers out of the drawer”, we can get the same information across the reader but in just seventeen words. We’ve saved three words!

This might not seem like much, but you’d be surprised at how it can all add up if you reword quite a few sentences. Yes, this is the most time-consuming way to shorten your story (which is why you should only use it if you’re only slightly over the word limit), but it’s the least noticeable way of making your story shorter.

4) Dialogue: This is the other place where you can shorten your story quite a bit. Although it’s not as fun to read, abrupt and “functional” dialogue is a lot better for compact storytelling than long passages of “realistic” dialogue.

Of course, if you want to keep your story short but you also don’t want your characters to sound like robots, then you have to know when to make your dialogue “functional” and when to make it “decorative”. Generally speaking, if you keep a few lines of “decorative” dialogue in every long conversation, then you can get away with making the rest of the dialogue shorter and more “functional” without giving the impression that your characters are robots.

If you need any help with writing short, “functional” dialogue that doesn’t sound completely robotic – then try reading some comics. Generally speaking, comics writers usually only have a small amount of space for each line of dialogue (you’d be surprised at how little you can fit into a normal-size speech bubble), so comics are literally crammed with good examples of well-written “functional” dialogue.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂