1,000 Words On Why I Hate Word Limitations

Of all the things that piss me off about writing, nothing does it quite so completely as the matter of word limitations. There seems to be this prevailing notion that any story can be made better by shrinking it down to a smaller size, as if a station wagon could be dropped into a car crusher and compacted into a sports car.

No! Bad Writer! Bad Editor! Bad! Bad! Bad!
(Swats nose with rolled up newspaper)
And don't let me catch you ever doing it again!

The phrase 'kill your babies' in reference to gutting a story as much as one can to make it as small as possible is one of the most profoundly stupid bits of writing advice ever uttered. A story should be as long as it needs to be and not a word more nor a word less. You have my permission to give a hefty boot to the butt of anyone who says otherwise.

Now with this said I have to admit that I have a hard time bringing myself to read the comic strip Sally Forth (the syndicated one, not the sexy one) for just this reason - too many words - we are not talking about thousands of words or even hundreds of words but only a dozen or so words. Why?

I think Garfield has spoiled me.

No one ever sits down to read the Sunday funnies and reads just one. You read a whole bunch of them in a row and hope to get a giggle out of two or three. Garfield, BC, Hagar the Horrible, the Wizard of Id - these are the flash fictions of the funny pages. Rarely will you encounter more than five or six words per panel. With Garfield it's more like five or six words per strip. I rarely laugh at any of them.

Doonesbury, Jump Start, Foxtrot, and Sally Forth - these are the short stories of the funny pages. They pack significantly more words per panel, but unfortunately their delivery rate is just as low. It often makes me wonder why I even bother with the funnies at all (and I want you to know that right now I feel like the crotchiest old man in the universe, damn Sunday funnies, shakes skinny arthritic fist at the sky).

Here's the point - time is precious - even though the rate of return is fairly low for both kinds of comics and time spent reading the funnies is meant to be time wasted on a luxury. Time is always precious. The cartoons with fewer words are given a higher value because for what they're worth it takes less time and attention to get through them.

Does this mean that the shorter strips are better than the longer strips? Actually no. Intellectually there is a Grand Canyon sized gap between Doonesbury and BC. They are two different kinds of strips with two different kinds of audience. Doonesbury could not exist on the supermodel sized diet of verbiage which BC consumes. It would cease to be Doonesbury. Which is not to say that all short strips are intellectually challenged, either (there is Mutts, after all). However, it is to say that expectations matter. The attitude a reader brings to the funny pages is often more important than the quality of the strips themselves. If you have read so many Sally Forth strips which failed to so much as curl one lip then the idea of wading through another seems like a dreaded trudge through a swamp - despite the fact that we are only talking about a handful of words and less than a minute of time.

Now to get back to the world of writing, specifically short story writing. We have a world where it is quite common for an editor to put a 2,000 words maximum in the submission guidelines and then follow it up with a professed love of the written word; the idea being that everyone naturally overwrites but only those who care enough to trim it back to such a truncated level will do so and that this sprinkle of magic pixie dust will make it all better.


The desire for word limitations is actually endemic of ones hatred of reading, of ones dread at wading through yet another morass of poorly chosen words (such as is often the stuff of slush piles) rather than a love of it. Back during the golden age of pulp when writers were paid a fifth of a penny per word, when a publisher wanted to have as many titles in a periodical as possible but not go bankrupt from printing costs then word limitations had a place and a purpose. Nowadays everything is digital and nearly everyone gets paid nothing but word count limitations persist, and the only answer I can give is that we all secretly hate the act of reading.

We hate to read.

Fathom that for a bit. This is the reason why the comic book supplanted the pulp magazine in the 1950's only to then be superseded by the TV drama in the 1970's and 1980's. It is why when you pick up People magazine and go through its onslaught of media shills the novel only appears on its last few pages.

People hate to read.

This is a hatred taught in schools through forced reading assignments and reinforced all through life by contracts and instruction manuals and lame social media posts and half-baked nanowrimo novels and NY Times bestsellers with dumbed down language made to be indistinguishable from all the word-laced wallpaper which surrounds us.

However, we do not hate reading.

The difference is a bit like chewing verses eating. We love to eat but hate to chew because when your diet is high in fiber and low in everything else you could easily chew until the cows come home and still die of malnutrition. But every now and then you graze a bit of story or a piece of poetry which is so packed full of meaning and image and thought that it makes up for the bland ruffage of the rest.

That is the reading we love.

That is why when one writes it should always be driven and succinct no matter how long or short the work might be. Drive gives it energy. Succinctness delivers it with power. Love makes it shine. Anybody asking for more than that is just plain evil.
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© 2018, JDMcDonnell