Word Counts Part One: How to Budget

Ah, the dreaded word count limit. If you’ve ever faced a deadline this can often be the hardest part of the submission process.  If you’re too far over the limit the editing process can be hell – what do I cut?  How do I shave it down?  Well, we’ll get to the editing part next week later.  For now, let’s focus on new works.

If you’re writing for a contest or highly specific prompt, often times you’ll be coming up with a new piece rather than editing something you already have to fit the submission call.  For fresh works it’ll be much, much easier if you budget your story with the word count limit in mind.

For example:

1,000 words = 300 words x 3 scenes (Beginning, Middle, End.)

Dividing your word count is a way to keep everything manageable.  It doesn’t just have to be for flash – if it’s a 5,000 word limit you’ve got 5 scenes of a 1,000 words each.  If it’s a 300 word MicroFiction contest (don’t forget to submit!) you’ve got 100 words per beginning, middle, and end.

I personally like to think in 3’s and 5’s.  Three is easy: Beginning, Middle, End.  Fives give you a little more room to expand if you think of it like a 5 act structure, or follow the plot outline from my earlier post on vignettes.

But really, you can call those sections anything you want.  Sometimes they’re just scenes that I want to include, and I often stray from the plan once I actually get to writing my piece.  For example, I recently had to write a 1,500 word story for NYC Midnight’s Short Story competition.  Here’s how that went.

What my outline said:

5 x 300 words

  • Open with apartment, day to day life, interweaving neighbors.
  • Could try two flashbacks to break up the action, develop backstory:
    • Roommate convinces MC to participate in study
    • After it all falls apart, moving away
  • Middle: riding on subway?  Listening to selfish thoughts of other riders?
  • End: Returning the things to roommate?  Asks for a cure or cutting off completely?

Finished draft breakdown:

  • Day in the life (technically one extra-long scene before 1st line break)
    • Waking up/bedroom scene (289 words)
    • Transition to kitchen, MC leaves for coffee shop (335 words)
  • Encounter with a girl on the street on the way to the coffee shop (232 words)
  • Making coffee, meets former roommate (236 words)
  • Resolution, reconciliation (273 words)

The flashback scenes clearly did not work as I planned, but that’s fine, because they naturally fit into the day in the life scene, making it extra long.  The boring scene on the subway became a single encounter on the street.  Because of my outline I could see that I didn’t have time for my MC to go to her former roommate’s apartment, so I dropped her into the coffee shop to save time.

That’s the real benefit of an outline: not to restrict your writing, but to save you time.  Feel free to pants* your way through your first draft as much as you like – the outline works to remind you of your word limitations .  That way you stay on track instead of wasting hours writing subplots that you’ll eventually have to cut out to meet the word count.

If I’m way past my opening scene budget and haven’t gotten to the middle of my story, I know I’m in trouble.  I could keep going, but I find that I’m off my budgeted allotment, it’s easier to revise my first scene and get it back to a manageable length before moving on.

Don’t stress too much about over going over the word count in your first draft – I almost never make it under budget on my first pass.  The goal here is to get your writing no more than 20% over budget on the first pass, which will make editing so much easier.

Next week Later we’ll take a look at how trim down a puffy first draft, now that it’s not twice the allotted length.

Note: My schedule went a little crazy in May, so without further ado, please enjoy Part Two.

Got any tips for how you stay under budget?  Horror stories from drafts that came in way over the limit?  Post them below in the comments!

*to pants: write by the seat-of-your-pants



One thought on “Word Counts Part One: How to Budget

  1. Pingback: Word Counts Part Two: How to Trim – Liz Schriftsteller

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