Thursday, July 28, 2005

Words That Count

For almost twenty years, I’ve been writing for different magazines. Each experience is different and involves working with a editor to make sure I meet their expectations. Particularly in the magazine area (but also in books), the article length is key. As a former magazine editor, I understand the space requirements and the need to write to a specific word count.

In the early days, I had to physically count the words. Thankfully computer programs handle this function. As an editor, I understand you can’t turn in something that is way over the limit or way under the limit. It will make a difference to your editor and their expectations and requirements.

I’ve reviewed thousands of books and written short reviews about these books. The rule of thumb says the shorter the article, then the importance of word count increases. Imagine my surprise to hear from one of my editor’s this week that my word count was a bit short.

At first I was a bit indignant since they specified a range of words—and my review fell within that range of word count. Then I read the email again—and understood they were using a different method to count those words. Typically in a book review, I will quote something from the book. The quotation is simply a part of the word count—under my other review writing. I learned this particular editor counted my quotation and subtracted that amount of words from my overall word count. In my eyes, I was right on the money in terms of the word count—but in their eyes (the only eyes that count), I was short.  When I learned how they were counting the words, I quickly apologized and offered to immediately lengthen the short review. Since it had not been published yet, I added more words and sent it back to the editor. This editor appreciated my quick work and I learned how this publication counts words. I will never be “short” again for this particular magazine.

For anyone writing books, you also need to count words. This week a much-published author called me to talk about a novel from a colleague—and during the conversation he talked about the length of the novel in terms of number of pages. It’s always hard to tell from the page count.  People use different fonts and different margins. Words don’t vary. It’s the word count to tell the editor (even a book editor) the exact length of your manuscript.

There is a key lesson for anyone reading this entry about the writing life. As writers, we need to learn, then meet the expectations of the editor. Whether they are voiced (hopefully) or not voiced.  To be the writer, our responsibility is to meet the need—with on-target writing (perfect for that particular publication in style, content and format) as well as in a timely fashion (on their deadline). We are in the communications business and need to constantly pick up on any feedback —and if necessary make corrections in our submissions.

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