By Arthur Plotnik @artplotnik
Here we go again with "size matters." Not long ago I was asked to help some writing students answer the question: "How long should a piece be?" Talk about generalizing---it's almost like asking "How good should a piece be?" (Answer: Pretty damn good.) But the length question is a common one, and, as I mused about it, my muse and I came up with some practical guidelines.
In answer to "how long?" the stock response is “as long as it needs to be.” “Needs” covers a lot of ground, however, and depends on what you mean by “it.” Often a publication and its editors set the length limitations. Sometimes the form itself does, as with a sonnet (14 lines) or haiku (17 syllables). Time can be a factor, as with television scripts.
But if there are no set limits, writers still have to consider their purpose and the interests of an audience. You don't want to run at the mouth or come up short. What will make your communication hit home? Which elements have to be there and which are going to be a distraction?
Limits are off only when writing something out of personal need; say, to get a jumble of pressing thoughts into some kind of form. The result might be a riff or a rant as long as the Alaskan Iditarod---and just as forbidding. Or it might boil down to about 140 characters, luring you to spill your inspissated guts on Twitter.
But what determines length when addressing a wider audience? Again, form is key. In news writing you have to lay out the who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, enough to tell a story; and, in opinion pieces, enough argument to persuade---all within the attention span of the average reader. In newspapers, that might mean 200-500 words for the average piece, and some 700-2,000 words in longer-form media, like magazines. (A double-spaced manuscript page holds 250-300 words; a typical printed magazine page about 700-1,000; a page of an average published book about 350-500.)
Poetry is mainly a form of “distillation,” where meaning is boiled down to the fewest telling words and images. Many literary journals call for poems no longer than about 40 lines, which is what fills one of their typical printed pages. Reflecting the tenor of the times, the editors suggest that if something can’t be distilled into 40 lines of poetry, then it hasn’t been worked on enough or the topic is unworkable. “Epic” poems, of course, are long verse narratives that might be book-length. They are stone out of fashion given the patience of today’s reader.
Short stories, too, are confined by journal guidelines. While quick-take stories (or “flash fiction”) run up to 1,000 words, 2,500 is the average maximum for short stories as the form has come to be developed. Experience has shown that 2,000-3,000-words constitute a workable length for developing characters and taking them through a meaningful episode.
With multiple characters to develop and more complex episodes, or a time-span of many years, one enters the terrain of the “long story,” about 5,000-12,000 words, or up to 40 manuscript pages. Higher counts, say 15,000-30,000 words are usually classified as “novellas,” or small novels. Like long stories they face a sheer cliff in getting published other than through the occasional contest or in a collection of the author's otherwise short stories. But here and there a bulked-up tale scales the heights. Published novels tend to run from 80,000 words (e.g., romance novels) to 200,000 (e.g., historical sagas).
Common nonfiction lengths include the editorial essay or op-ed of about 300-700 words; 1,000-3,000-word topical essays, and 100,000-150,000 book-length treatments of a rich topic (e.g., a biography, history of a war, or a year spent living in a tree with koalas).
Within the general lengths mentioned, a hundred aesthetic factors make for variations. If a created character or suspenseful atmosphere is so compelling that readers are likely to want more, greater length might be justified. If the idea is to stimulate by understatement, then like the “minimalists” you’ll be writing shorter pieces.
Often, an agent or even an editor will suggest cuts or expansions of a book manuscript without any promise of publication. And, blast them, they are usually right from a commercial publishing point of view. But not always; you'll want some second opinions. Once the book is accepted, you're still likely to face length changes from the editor---or a succession of editors during the long publishing process. You can go along with them, argue, or give back your advance. Your choice.
Crazily, the length might have to be changed at the last minute, owing to a budget change or, with print books, to fit the number of "forms" on a press (usually total book pages must be divisible by eight). You'll need to be a good sport, even if it feels like they're reconfiguring your very molecules.
But back to first things, your manuscript. The famous advice of writer Elmore Leonard still holds: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” And in the age of Internet, when words from every imaginable source flood every screen and every mobile device, people are skipping more than ever, especially self-indulgent, off-message digressions of interest only to the author and his/her unquestioning golden retriever.
And I hope I’ve left out those parts here.
Arthur Plotnik is a distinguished editor and author whose eight books include The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts Into Words (2012, rev. and expanded, Viva Editions) and Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (2011, Viva). His Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (Random House) has been a bestseller in its category. Website: www.artplotnik.com.
A. P., copyright ©2012