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Saturday, February 04, 2012

Inches, Feet, or Miles?

When I wrote my first novel, it emerged from developing characters I'd created in a short story I had written. Initially, the kernel of the novel--the short story--was edited from the novel. Then, as I worked with my novel in my graduate workshop classes because I wanted to trim more from what I'd written, I wondered if my novel really wanted to be a novella.

Writing shouldn't be measured in inches, but
if the story gets told. Credit | Elizabeth King Humphrey

In writing, determining a length is important.

That seems like such a trite statement, but this week the length of a written piece has cropped up in conversation a lot. I sat in on a magazine writing class that discussed that readers like chunks of text: 500 words at a time. Length, length, length!

How long should my piece of writing be? Should it be an inch...or should I take a mile?

The answer that comes to mind is that a piece of writing should be as long as it needs to be, which is probably not very helpful if you are looking for a specific answer. Of course there are suggested guidelines for pieces of writing that help define the writing and publishers routinely provide word count guidelines.

So, call an 80,000-word piece a feature magazine article and it will certainly be re-classified as a novel. And a short-short is not even considered short if it comes in at 15,000 words. Even if you can write 200,000 words, you might want to make sure it is at least 50,000 to 80,000 words put together really well for it to be considered as a novel.

How can I figure out what the length will be?

1. Look at the structure of your story. Is the structure clear and does it serve your piece? Have you covered all the areas in the plot that you wanted to? Are you struggling to write more for the story?

2. Have you written just to add to the word count. If you are just adding filler, then re-think your story. You should write long enough for the story to be told. If you find yourself struggling to make it to the 50,000 word finish line, take a critical eye to the piece. If you overwrite a piece, will your reader miss the importance of what you are writing?

Last week, I took a red pen to a person's nonfiction work (at a professional request) and trimmed more than 1,500 words of a 3,000-word piece. I trimmed until I found the essence of the piece and brought that information to the forefront. Much of the other words prevented the reader from getting to the essential information. While the author could, at some point, add more information that information needs to support the structure of the piece.

My novel and I are still at an impasse as to whether it wants to be a novella or return to a short story, but I know one thing for sure. And I guess I will never be able to whittle this work down to a short-short or business card size, unless I sign with the right agent.

Elizabeth King Humphrey has a writing plan for her second novel and hopes to reach the story's end soon. Follow her @Eliz_Humphrey.


  1. Elizabeth, this is just what I needed to read as I attempt to write my first novel or novella. Thanks for the inspiration and the clarity!

  2. Great, Linda! I'm glad it was helpful and thank you for letting us know!

  3. Elizabeth,
    I especially like your #2 - are you writing to hit a word count. I found myself doing that, and once I realized it and removed the clutter, I was able to concentrate on the real story.


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