Don’t count on it

Last night I wound up shaving some words off a chunky short story in order to meet the 5k word limit for submission to a magazine. Obviously, when you’re operating with a tiny margin of error, precision becomes more important than when you simply need a ballpark figure for your own edification.  While checking the manuscript in several programs and webapps, I discovered something curious that led me to conduct a little experiment. As a test, I copied and pasted the same manuscript into a half dozen applications that determine word count, among other statistics.

Here’s the word count total as determined by Microsoft Word 2010: wordcount_word

Here are the same words pasted into Google Docs:wordcount_docs

OK, not exactly the same but close. How about a few webapps?

The word count from javascriptkit.com:wordcount_jskit

And from wordcounttool.net:wordcount_tool

And  wordcounttool.com:wordcount_toolcom

And, finally, from wordcount.co:wordcount_co

So, we’re talking about a variation of 224 words across six different tools.  This file was in standard manuscript format, with no diacritical marks or other funky special characters. One explanation I can think of is that, because a few italicized passages are underlined, some parsers do not consider an underline as a word break.  However, this is the standard manuscript specification, so you’d think a word count tool would take that into account.  And I still find it curious that no two applications returned the same word count.  Clearly not all parsers are created equal; in fact, it would appear that none of them are!

Caveat scriptorus!  Especially if you’re skating on the edge of a word count limit.

At length

Word count.  Everything begins and ends with this little detail of writing. Is your story a short? A novelette? A flash piece, maybe? These designations are mostly a product of word count, which determines when and where you can find a home for your work. I’m a big proponent of the rule, “as long as it needs to be”; give your story the space it needs, no more or less. And the answer is different for every piece. But the subject of word count has come up a lot for me lately.

I discovered a deadline for an anthology with a theme that seems to fit one of my stories like a glove. Unfortunately, they are imposing a limit of 3,000 words.  The story is currently around 5,000 words. I’m all for tight editing, but I don’t think I can trim almost half the words and still tell the same story. So, that’s out. Bummer.

I’m also preparing an excerpt from my current work in progress to submit for critiques at Paradise Lost in April.  They ask for 5,000 words or less, which is respectable. But I’m struggling with what to submit.  Should I just submit the first 5k and receive a critique on the opening? Perhaps provide a couple of shorter excerpts to receive feedback on the introduction of main characters? Submit a complete short story instead?

Limits exist in every artistic medium: pop songs should weight in at between 3 and 4 minutes; feature films target 90-120 minutes; an episodic drama on network TV has about 42 minutes to work with each week; tweets are limited to 140 characters,  URLs excepted. It can be very productive to work within known boundaries.

To what extent do these limits shape the creative process? For now, I suppose it means flipping a coin for my excerpt and finding a new home for that story. And so it goes.  Meanwhile, I believe I’ve exceeded my rambling limit for the day.