Dear Writer - October 2017

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Dear Writer,

It seems many writers have 'writer's block.'  I have friends who are always staring at a blank screen, and they get more desperate when they fail to write what they are thinking. But that's not my problem. I love the writing, but I always have trouble knowing when to stop. I'm usually well over a word limit by the time that I'm done writing. Can you help me with this problem, or at least convince my editor that I need more space for my stories.

Whole Lot of Words

Dear Whole Lot of Words,

Congratulations on not suffering 'the block.' I know writers who would trade spell check for such a gift.

As to not being able to fit your 700-word masterpiece into a 500-word bag, you are not the Lone Writer. And there are assignments requiring more space, for example a topic requiring deep background. But the common problem is not the story but the storyteller. One way to sabotage a word limit is the Cinnamon Syndrome: If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of cinnamon, two teaspoons must be better.

No. A sports editor once supervised a reporter who wrote great feature stories filled with interesting detail and anecdotes. But that same writer's deadline stories given the same treatment were overwritten. Whole phrases and in some cases paragraphs could be wiped clean without touching the heart of the story. “The wet, gray sky hung low, the wind continually impacted the flight of the ball during pass plays and the field itself turned to soup, impacting the Raiders' vaulted ground attack” would find publication as “Blustery weather and a muddy track stalled the Raiders' offense.”

It's a game story requiring crisp, active prose. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be essential or be gone. Apply this test to everything you write, whether an article on landscaping or a short story. Does a detail or idea advance your story, or do they exist because you are in love with them? There are times when a detail or idea may have fit when you wrote it, but stories change. Revisit everything. If it doesn't move it, remove it.

When I edited magazines, more than half of my writers' stories came back racing well past the assigned word limit. And there was this note: “I think I wrote long. Feel free to edit,” illustrating both problem and solution. The writer wrote long and should own up to it and state it clearly, “I wrote long,” saving two words. And “Feel free to edit?” Well, yes, I WILL feel free to edit. I am the editor. It's what I do. You wasted another four words. You used nine words where three would serve. And going through the article, I find this problem repeated: Nine words where three would serve. The edited story was a leaner, cleaner piece.

Whole Lot of Words, you can solve your word-limit angst AND become a better writer. Hopefully you're familiar with Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Find your copy and read it again. This is the Bible of Composition, and the First Commandment is “Omit Needless Words.” Now exercise your new muscle. Retrieve a piece you've already written and get a word count. Edit out 20 percent of the words. Seek and destroy unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. How many times did you use the word “that?”

If 20 percent seems harsh, consider advice offered students in a freshman English class by the late Laurence Perrine, professor at Southern Methodist University and author of numerous books on literature. “How can you achieve this well-tuned, economical, smooth-operating style? The answer is simple. For every 300 words you write, cross 100 out. When assigned a 500-word theme, write a first draft of one thousand words; then cut out the fat without losing the meat. This apprenticeship is rigorous, but it brings results.”

Finally, Whole Lot of Words, let's revisit your letter. How's this?

Dear Writer,
My stories always go over the word limit. Can you help?

Good luck,