Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Love/Hate Relationship between Writers & Word Count

by Edie Melson @EdieMelson

Sometimes our lives seem governed by word count.
As working writers, our lives sometimes seem governed by word count. We use these numbers to set goals, define projects and sometimes even determine our victories. But it’s important to also view these numbers as a guide to show us how far we’ve come.

I remember in high school—the anguish I felt when an English teacher assigned a 500-word essay. Pulling together that many words in an original sequence seemed an almost impossible task. I spent hours looking for places to add the words that, the, and of course and. Of course back then, essays were written long-hand. No quick check in MS Word or an easy way to add in extras here and there.

Yes, I’m old. Don’t rub it in.

I would write a paragraph, and then stop to count the words, working to make the required 500 without going over too much. It was agony.

Today my issue is a different one.

When did 500 words morph from too many to too few?
Now, when I get a writing assignment like a guest blog post, and I see that the word count is 500 words I still groan, but for a much different reason. I wonder how on earth I can say something worthwhile in only 500 words.

When exactly did 500 words morph from too many to too few?

After I decided to take up writing full-time, I began by trying to write fiction. My words overflowed the page. Flowery phrases dotted my chapters as I tried to translate what was in my mind into the black and white of letters and words.

Adverbs and adjectives were my best buddies.

Then I started taking classes, attending conferences and sharing my writing with critique partners. The pages began to bleed red as my darlings were murdered. But I learned the skill of a single active verb and a strong noun.

I laid aside my fiction endeavors to earn some money.
I laid aside my fiction endeavors to earn some money. That meant freelance writing—articles, blog posts, and writing copy (advertising). I no longer felt compelled to put down every word that came into my head and I learned how to write tight, making every word count. For a while I did copy writing for a well-known Christian publisher. I would get a book and have to write a 300-word blurb, a 100-word blurb, a 50-word blurb, a 25-word hook, a 20-word hook, and a 12-word hook. I reveled in the ability to convey an idea in such a short space.

Then the opportunity came to revisit book-length projects. With my newfound skills, I once again struggled to find words. But this time I measured them by their quality not their quantity. I dug deeper instead of wider and my books became reality.

In some ways I’m right where I started. In other ways, not so much. Now word count is my friend, not my enemy.

This is my path, my love/hate relationship with word count.  I’d like to hear yours. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!

PS. This blog post comes in at exactly 500 words, minus the title and tweetables.


The love/hate relationship between writers & word count –via @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)


  1. I loved the reminder of how we agonized in high school with enough words. Yes, a 500 word count for a blog post is agonizing. I spend more time editing than I do writing. I still need more practice. This is the first year I have a schedule that allows me to write every day and even with finally having the time, the pressure of word count is high. I set my goal of 200 words, which I always meet and exceed. I will raise it gradually in time. That's what works for me.

    1. Mindy, I wonder if limiting myself to only 500 words will ever get any easier! Having a word count goal is a good idea, as is starting at 200. I have to give myself plenty of opportunity to succeed or I get discouraged. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Blessings, E

  2. Perfect examples. We are on similar paths of writing. In college, I had the belief that if I filled that Blue Book (test booklet with blank lined pages) for a final, I was good. And it worked! But now that I have word counts and deadlines, I have the same response - how can I say it all in THAT many words? Learning to write tight is exactly what we do. :)

    1. Angie, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one! Thanks so much for stopping by and chiming in, Blessings, E

  3. Great post. I actually try to limit my posts to 300 words because no one has time anymore.

    1. Pat, Mine vary in length, but 300 is a good solid goal. You're right, no one has time anymore. Thanks for sharing! Blessings, E

  4. Edie, excellent post. And, no, this comment won't come near to 500 words, because I have some others to write. But thanks for sharing.

  5. Love this. I've always been a wordy writer. Why write a sentence when a paragraph will do? I like Twitter - it forces me to focus and pare down my words. Quite a challenge, usually.