Thursday, December 8, 2016

Writers & Word Count - A Love/Hate Relationship

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. Edie, I'm working on my first non-fiction book. I only have about 30,000 words. I know I need more. I'm re-reading to see where I can add content. I recently wrote a guest blog. It needed to be less than 800 words. I had to cut over 200 words. I deleted an entire section I liked. I prayed over both projects. God showed me what to take out of the blog, and I know He will continue to show me what to add to my book. My writing has improved due to word count. Have a blessed week.

  2. I've had two experiences in this regard that specifically gave me much-needed exercise in paring manuscripts. (Writing shorter, not longer, has always given me the most trouble.) In one instance, the editor of the now-defunct The Christian Writer magazine (yes, I know I'm dating myself!)accepted my submission--if I would cut it by 2/3! In a more recent instance, the editor of True West magazine wanted to publish my article--if I would cut it from 2500 words to 450 words! Both projects took a LOT of hard work--"killing my babies"--but the cutting improved the work in both cases, and both articles were published. (You can see the result of the latter instance in the December 2016 issue of True West.) I liked your use of the phrases "write tight" and "make every word count." I drilled those into my writing students, but I also must remind myself of them every time I write.

  3. Feeling the word-pain with you. (Also please notice how I said that so very, very, very, very succinctly.)

  4. Hi Edie. I discovered you from a Post you wrote on ACFW Loop. I enjoyed this article. I am new to writing fiction. I have to say that I am perplexed about the emphasis placed on the number of words one writes and the practice of actually keeping track. However, as I said I am very new at this. I'm sure that as I experience this new journey I will learn of its importance. Take care.

  5. Hi Edie: Correction. A member mentioned your Blog on an ACFW Loop Post. Thanks Mary

  6. A lot of tips though and there are a lot of easy and searchable sites to recommend at having things written in your essay. I've done that before about the first day of school in college. ''what will you expect about school and write an essay showing your skills to the school'' lols. Well in some way there is also lots of sites and tips like  it is helpful to us to educate ourselves and best results will lead us there. Click on it. Good luck