I’m always surprised when I hear writers discussing word counts. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional humble brag. I’m guilty of that, especially when I pound out 2,000 words in a couple of hours. It’s akin to running a marathon, and if runners can brag, then so can writers. Luckily, I’ve never pulled a hamstring working on my MacBook.
But what I’m bothered by is when writers put an emphasis on word count. For example, when they seem to focus on how many words are in a story rather than the content.
It’s weird, particularly in fiction. I understand that word counts matter when it comes to categorizing a story. Flash fiction is generally under 1,000 words. Short stories cap out around 8,000 words. Novellas run anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words. Novels pick up after that.
Maybe it’s a badge of honor to some writers. Like a competition. “How many words did you write today?” “Oh, about 1,000.” “Only 1,000? Man, you’re a light-weight!”
I don’t think I’ve ever asked another writer how many words they wrote that day. Or on any day. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a writer what their final draft totaled up to be. Why should the number of words matter?
The only thing that should matter to a writer is whether or not they told the best story they could, that they poured their heart and blood into it, and that they were honest (telling the story the way it should be told without forcing it into a specific direction).
I can understand paying attention to word count when writing. If a writer is working on a novel, then they want to shoot for 50,000 or more words. But, and I’ve mentioned this before on this blog and in my podcast, it still shouldn’t matter. A story is going to be as long or as short as it needs to be. If I start off thinking I’m going to write a short story and it ends up at 10,000 words, I’m not going to be disappointed as long as I stayed true to the story and didn’t fill it with a lot of stuffing just to make it longer.
Same thing goes the opposite direction. If I plan to write a novel, but the story ends up in the novella category, I’m not going to worry about it as long as I’ve told a good story.
The story itself should determine the length. If you can tell it in 2,000 words, wonderful. If it takes 20,000 words, go for it. We shouldn’t try to pad a story or slice and dice it just to force it into a category. Let the story decide.
When it comes down to it, the only time word count matters is when you’re ready to sell your story.