Either it’s way too long or not long enough. This is an issue that we writers deal with on a daily basis—our piece goes on and on, or we’ve been at it for an hour and a half and we’ve only managed to sputter out 300 words on a story that’s to be filed with our editor at 1,000.
Photo by Ingrid Punwani
A fellow freelancer often writes 5,000-word articles, and they just about annihilate her every time. She stumbles out of her apartment bleary-eyed and dazed, but she continues on. I felt that way writing my book. Two hundred pages and about 75,000 words—that just about killed me.But despite the raw angst that comes with word counts, there is comfort. There is a finite period when our story or argument must end.
I am grateful for the few instances when I have room to breathe. Doing cover features for a national paper, I have about 1,000 words to explore a person or service. This is a luxury that I hardly get, so I take full advantage, layering in colorful quotes, full descriptions and rich background. Ahhh. But this is a rare occurrence, I assure you.This column, for instance, has to be 500 words or fewer. The column for which I interview celebrity runners is only 400, and the one that I do with my co-editor about food is only 250. It is a boundary I stick to, but somehow or another, depending upon my mood, energy level and how late I stayed up last night watching HBO, I am constantly working against either having way too many or too few words.
It is like showing your artwork at a show: No one comes all day long until you bring out something to eat, and that’s when the crowd comes. The analogy used to be about lighting your cigarette at a bus stop, but that seems so dated now ...What is exciting about word counts is that I often don’t know beforehand how I’m going to fill the space. Will I write rich descriptions of the bolts of material lining an antique-shop window or of the grilled-meat platter at the new Portuguese restaurant? Or will I spend most of the piece offering factual information such as how much sodium you can safely consume in a day or how to decipher HTML? The possibilities are endless.
And the best part? If I have to cut a huge chunk out of a piece because of a new ad running on the same page, I can use it for another article. And if it’s too short, chances are I’ll find something amazing that just makes the piece. It wouldn’t have been the same without it. So despite wrestling with them, I have come to love my word counts. They teach me so much every time.P.S. This column came in (before edits) at 500 words. That’s juuust right.