Word count woes

After two days of whacking at a 12-page essay with what feels like the editing sophistication of a machete,  I’m done. I’ve given up. I’ve run into a problem. It’s not a new one for me, but it’s frustrating all the same. I’ve got a pile of essays that I’d like to publish, and they are all too long.

Most of these essays came into existence while I was working on my MFA in nonfiction writing. My advisor, whose nonfiction workshops I took quite a few of, insisted that we turn in pieces in the 16-20-page range. He had found, he said, that requiring that length resulted in better, more complex pieces of writing. And, conveniently for the nonfiction book workshop I took with him, that length is a nice one for a chapter of a book.

It’s a bit ironic, this problem I’m having. Before I entered the MFA program, I tended to write five-page essays. They seemed monumental. I thought they were complete and complex. After two years in an MFA program, two years of being required to write longer, I realized that my earlier pieces were not complete, nor did they contain many of the characteristics of what I was learning were “good” essays: The dialogue, character and setting development that you might find in a work of fiction. My essays did not relate my experiences to a wider theme or experience, which I’d also learned was a must in a good personal essay. When I finished my MFA coursework, one of the things I could point to definitively as something I’d learned and valued in the MFA program was “learning to write longer.”

The types of essays I tend to write fall into the categories of travel, humor, and women’s interest (sometimes a combo of all three). These are not categories that tend to be popular with literary magazines, which do, often, accept longer essays. I have spent a lot of time researching publications that  accept travel and humor writing of the type that I do, and that’s where I’m running up against the word count limits: Generally, 800-1,200 words is what’s acceptable. This blog post is already 400 words. The travel memoir I wrote for my MFA thesis consists of chapters of abut 5,000 words. Yesterday, I tried to cut and rework a 3,500-word piece to about 1,000 words. I was unsuccessful. As a former newspaper editor, I know that there are often sentences, words, and even whole graphs that can be cut out — it is sometimes amazing how much of a piece is expendable. But when you start to loose the essence and meaning of a piece, you’ve gone too far.

And so, do I try to excerpt some of my essays – essentially rewriting them in shorter forms? I’d love to ignore the word counts and compile the essays into a book, but what agent/publisher would be interested in a book of essays in which none of the individual essays has been published yet? Do I just forget the essays, let them pile up in the back of my hard drive and concentrate on writing new, shorter pieces instead?

It’s funny, this morning I read this piece on Brevity’s blog (Brevity itself accepts nonfiction of 750 words or fewer. It’s an excellent mag all the same.) on how few places accept short essays. We writers are all looking for something that eludes us, it seems.


3 thoughts on “Word count woes

  1. I’m not sure, as a former publisher, that having had the essays published is a key factor in whether someone would be interested in your book. The first issue is whether the editor likes the essays and whether they fit her list. That is, does she like the book and need it to round out her seasonal list? This is somewhat of a crap shoot, admittedly, but the point is heartening. Although “books of essays don’t sell,” if they are linked in various ways it helps. And invoke the magic word memoir in some way–the publisher’s marketing department sure will. I am saying to try to get that book published; don’t reject yourself so handily. Shop it around. You’ve got a great voice and style on this blog, which is part of your “platform,” incidentally. After Julie and Julia and all the rest, there is surely a publisher looking for your essays!

    • Thanks for your kind words of support! As you can tell I was feeling pretty frustrated when I wrote this. I guess the “crap shoot” of publishing tends to leave me feeling defeated sometimes. You’re right, of course, I should at least give it a shot…

  2. I wrote the piece you referred to in Brevity’s blog, then a friend of mine who was complaining about trying to shorten essays emailed me this. Writing itself is frustrating; marketing it is worse! Hang in there!

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