In this age of Bluetooth, I no longer get odd glances when I talk to myself in the car. I get contemptuous glares, as my traffic distractions are clearly going to kill us all. If people knew my secret shame, however, the chain-the-madman panic stares would never end.
See, word count is making me mumble in public again.
I don’t know that this is normal for writers. I’m only an expert on this writer – and even then only to a certain failed-undergraduate degree – but I suspect that your beginnings have something to do with it. My start, no doubt, poured an obsessive foundation for the rest of my writing career.
Short version, feel free to skip: my first real writing experiences, as a child, were feeble attempts at making text adventure games on our family Atari 400 (circa 1982 or so). I really cut my teeth on those things – first the TV-dinner Scott Adams stuff, then into the dark red, bleeding steaks of Infocom – and finally I started to figure out how to write my own. They weren’t good, because hello, they were written by a 12-year-old. But I loved them.
That love demanded a price. Thing is, an early-80s home computer had less memory than the average Casio wristwatch has today. You had to squeeze that sucker into some brutally tight corners. Every single keystroke counted, and so if you wanted to do anything interesting at all, you had to learn to economize the material to an insane degree.
Fast forward about twenty years. I spent about a year volunteering with the Red Cross, in the months following 9/11. I was just starting out as a professional writer and needed “clips”, those mythical fairy-tale bits of original prose immortalized in print that would open the floodgates of writing success and good fortune. I wrote for the Public Affairs department in the Tampa Bay chapter, mainly for their various newsletters.
During this time I confronted an uncomfortable truth, that there are as many definitions of “good writing” as there are writers, and probably a few more. One book says to write in a gushing, “honest” style without editing; another says to compulsively outline first, and then wire in every chosen word in a fit of life-and-death anxiety. One praises long, flowery, metaphoric verse, while the next demands a cold clarity and bloody straight-razor precision. I quickly realized that if I was going to get anywhere doing this writing thing, I had to answer this question for myself, accepting the harsh reality that my definition would likely only ever apply to me.
I decided that good writing started with word count, with economy. The only way to manage economy is to keep things clean and clear, and I felt that clarity was the ultimate goal. Word count was the key to clarity.
That suited the needs of the ARC fairly well, too. Writing for a print publication, even a newsletter, usually means bearing the cruelty of column inches. You simply never had enough space, and you never would.
Word problem, kids: this month, the design layout has a three-inch column hole to fill on page 6, which in turn translates to a hard limit of about 75 words and, if you’re lucky, a 3-5 word headline. You, meanwhile, have exhaustive notes from a fascinating three-hour event, full of wonderful stories, raw emotions, interesting tidbits, a thoughtful reflection on how it all relates to your organization, a take-away message for the reader, how you felt about it then, how you feel about it now, what it means for the future, and how it all sheds some light on the past.
And you have 75 words, not a stitch more, probably less, and stop crying.
“But!” I hear you say. “Surely your editor would love all this background and be willing to throw an additional page in, just to get all that out there?”
Ha! Madness, I say, madness. For every story in this month’s issue faces a similar plight, and no one is going to condone, design, write, read, or pay to print and mail a 200-page nonprofit newsletter. So get out of that fetal position and get to work, because we need it in finished layout by 2pm, and it’s lunchtime now.
I spent that year learning every trick I could to economize text. Better verbs. Basic nouns. No adverbs. Compact sentences. Building meaning into story structure (my favorite). Relying on implication and nuance. Letting things unsaid do the talking. Isolating telling details. Building stronger headlines. Every loophole, trick, devil’s bargain, slight-of-hand chicanery, and outright fraud that I could get away with.
Whatever it damned well took. Because even if I could make the 75 words work, someone would come along and tell me to knock it down to 50, or else the piece would get cut and no one would read it at all.
Tight corners form the tyranny of word count. Never satisfied, only ever demanding greater sacrifice.
So yeah, that’s what I’m doing in traffic today, mumbling quietly to myself. I have a sloppy sentence or a bit of fuzzy dialogue or a scene that just doesn’t work, and I’m running through versions of it in my head and trying to get more clarity into less space. My head isn’t big enough to hold the whole job, so it leaks out of my mouth.
Again, I don’t know that this happens to other writers. I’m sure there are plenty of great writers out there who started their writing lives with expansive, gushing epics and wild, panoramic vistas, for whom the idea of simplifying a mighty vision to a few humble sentences provokes outrage and horror.
And maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. It all kind of depends, I think, on where you came from and what formed your instincts. For me, ruthless economy didn’t so much form my writing instincts, as it shoved them screaming into the basement, held them hostage, beat them daily for good measure, and forced them to forget the outside world of warmth and comfort.
There are worse ways to learn how to write.
I accept that I’ll never write a 1,500-page epic novel that inspires a beloved trilogy of massively successful four-hour films. If you have a couple of column inches you’re not doing anything with, however, just give me a target word count and I’m your guy. Everything in between is kind of negotiable.