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A Word About Word Counts

It should come as no surprise to you to learn that word counts are an important thing to me. Most of my fiction output over the last eight years has consisted of flash fiction (that is, complete stories totalling no more than 1000 words apiece). My particular favourites were a series of drabbles that I wrote (a drabble being a complete story of exactly 100 words), and I even beat that record on occasion. My story ‘Small Ad’ marked the apex of my flash career, clocking in at a mere 6 words in total.

But that’s very much by-the-by. My point is that every market has a word count hidden somewhere in its guidelines. They can be restrictive, or they can be extremely lenient, depending on the publisher in question.

In my time as an editor, I have noticed a certain trend that I’m sure is nothing new, and which tends to apply only to those markets that offer a certain amount per word. Put simply, it is padding.

Whenever I edit a short story for a client, I ask them if they have a specific market in mind, so I can read over the guidelines. There’s no point in paring a story down to the bone, if it means that it no longer fits the requirements of the magazine or anthology it is aimed for. When the market in question is a non-paying or For The Love market (and, believe me, I’ll be talking about them soon enough) the stories tend to be fairly tight. When the market offers an amount per word, the vast majority of stories I end up editing suffer from writer’s bloat.

No manuscript is perfect before it reaches a qualified editor: there will always be a surfeit of words in any narrative or description, but writer’s bloat is a peculiar thing, where you suspect the writer must be aware of it himself. Every item, every character, every personality trait is expanded beyond reasonable measure as the author cracks open his or her precious store of adjectives.

The logic is sound enough, I guess. If you’re writing for a pro-rate market then every time you slip an extra 17 words in there, you’ve made yourself a dollar. Only, if you indulge in this particular practise the odds are good that you’re not going to make those elusive pro-markets anyway. The big magazines and the well-funded anthologies are in the habit of employing excellent editors, who will recognise this trick a mile off. If your story really is so good that they accept it despite your horrendous padding, the first theing they’ll do pre-publication is gouge out all the extraneious verbiage, so you’ll be no better off.

Really, your best bet is to follow the old adage that a story should be as long as it needs to be. Eliminate waste, discard excess, and make your tale lean and mean before sending it out into the world.

Alternatively, send it to me, and I’ll do the nasty work for you.