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Is What I’m Writing Too Long or Too Short?

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.

 

When Do I Get To Call Myself A Writer?

Okay, so the little Q&A is obviously somewhat tongue in cheek. But–this is an issue that I hear a lot from writers I work with. Hell, it’s an issue that I dealt with way back when I started my career. I definitely felt that calling myself a writer was a privilege earned. But what was the privilege that earned it? Hence, the four points of the Q&A above. As I recall, however, the whole issue for me was resolved when I applied for a new passport and had to fill in the blank marked “Occupation.” Since my days pretty much consisted of writing, I guess I felt the truth trumped whether or not I had earned the privilege.

The fact that this is an issue for others has something to do with the ambivalent view the outside world has of writers. We do something most people can’t imagine doing. Yet, anyone who is capable of holding pencil or tapping a keyboard can do it. It doesn’t require any education, even if the MFA Writing Programs would have you think so. We tell secrets; we make our version of the story stick; and oh, it doesn’t pay very much, if at all.

In fact, of all the things that make people disparage writers, it’s the money thing. As I wrote the other day in What Real Writers Know, we are a culture that values product over process. The worth of a particular product is determined by how much money it has made. For those not part of our world, the financial end of the writer’s life–who pays us, why they pay us, how much they pay us–is very murky.  And for many, if they can’t put a dollar value to an activity, then it has no value. 

The other day on a Facebook writers group that I belong to, this was part of a long conversation: how do you deal with family and friends who question your being a writer? There were a lot of opinions that ran the range from “Fuck anyone who questions you” to “Do your writing in secret.” Both responses seem extreme to me. The middle ground–have confidence in yourself without needing external approval–strikes me as therapeutically correct, but, damn, hard for a person with a normal amount of self-esteem to do.

Valuing yourself and valuing your writing, no matter what–is it really so hard to do? What do you think?

 

What Real Writers Know

The first thing I know about writing is that it’s a process. Writing is not something you have done; it is something you are doing.

Sound nitpicky?  Actually, it’s a radical idea, which is blasphemous to the mindset of our culture. Think of it: inherent in my statement is the assumption that the product of your writing should not be the singular point of your writing.

Unfortunately, we in the Western world have been trained otherwise.  We are a product-centered culture.  Our tendency is to think that the things we do don’t matter until and unless they’re finished.  Even more, for many of us, the things we do don’t matter until someone else values them.  So we focus on our product, on getting it done and making it worth someone else’s approval. It doesn’t really matter what it means to us, whether we value it. Our opinion is not enough to count. It’s like when our mothers told us we were pretty.

So if that product, that piece of writing, turns out to be less than we imagined?   Or, it doesn’t achieve the end we intended, get the comments, provoke the compliments, make the sale?  Then we’re dealing with the soul-sucking notion that our whole effort was a failure.  Our goal was not met, our time was wasted, we let ourselves down. Clearly the fault is ours: we’re not talented enough. Or we didn’t work hard enough. Or….

…Maybe it’s that we weren’t inspired to begin with. Maybe real writers are always filled with inspiration. How can we ever be real writers if we have such trouble being inspired? That leads to magical thinking that involves lucky pens and shaman-blessed stones, maybe some incense as well. It also leads to a work ethic that is choppy at best. We don’t sit down to work unless we’re sure the inspiration is there, waiting to flow over us. As a result, we never get into the groove of writing. We never learn that some days are inspired writing days and some days suck, and some days are just mediocre. We never learn the secret of the “real writers”, that the aggregate of your writing practice is what counts, the median, not the high and not the low

It’s called putting in the time. Writing

  • …no matter what you’re feeling
  • …no matter whether you want to
  • …no matter if you have nothing to say

Who among us hasn’t been there?  I dare you to raise your hand if you’ve never sat in front of the screen or paper and just thought, shoulders slumped, I don’t wanna.  Fact is, however, that those of us who are writers do it anyway.  It’s our job, and if it sometimes feels like Monday morning on the assembly line, well, so be it.  That means, deal with it.

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