That’s a question I’ve gotten in one form or another over the years I’ve been working with writers. I’ve come to realize that it’s just one aspect of the obsession we can create around our writing. Let me not worry about whether this thing I’m working on is any good, makes sense, says what I intend; let me instead worry whether there are the right number of words in it.
The quick answer is this: if you’ve been given a word count–write a five page essay….a short story of no more than twenty pages–then follow this formula. Industry standard for publishing and academia is: one inch margins all around; double-spaced; 10-12 point font. If you do the math, you’ll see that 5pp=1,250 words and 20 pp=5,000 words.
The more convoluted answer is:
A piece of writing, whatever the genre, should be long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.
That doesn’t seem complicated until you realize that the devil is in the details–and the object of that preposition: long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.
This is the tricky part, the place where most writers go off the rails. You must always keep in some part of your mind that you’re not talking to yourself. There’s a reader out there, several or many of them, and they’re not you. They don’t have access to the workings of your mind–your history, both real and emotional; your political leanings; what’s important to you as you live your life; and what’s not. Your audience only knows what you’re telling them. That means you need to make sure you know what specifics you’ll need to tell them to so that they “get” whatever it is you’re saying.
We’ve all been in situations where a story is being told, but it doesn’t hang together. Some information is missing. Some detail, some nuance–there’s a gap somewhere and it drives us crazy because we know that we’d get it, if only that detail wasn’t missing.The other side of that is where the narrator keeps going on forever. He tells you every little detail he remembers, the color of the pants he was wearing and where he bought them. He explain things that seem totally off the point to you. It drives you crazy because you wish he’d shut up already and stop confusing you with this avalanche of details.
How do you, the writer, avoid making your reader crazy? First, you need to know what you want to say. Is it a concept you’re explaining or a point you’re making? Is it a scene you’re describing or a story you’re narrating? You need to know enough about whatever it is to determine what your audience needs to know in order to get the point. Does that seem like a mystery to you? Easier said than done? It’s what Roger Angell meant when he talked about the relationship between writing and thinking.
For the second part of the object of the preposition, the no extraneous material part, beware that this is a trap the best of writers fall into. We love the sound of our voice; we confuse clarity with repetition. There are a variety of ways we can get in trouble going on and on and on. For this, the only answer is a firm editing hand when you’re on your second or third draft to make sure that you’re not committing one of the The Sins of Overwriting. I’ll write about them in my next post.