On Writing: The Importance of Word Limits

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I don’t know if I’m in the minority here, but I love word limits. When I’m writing based on contest or submission guidelines, my process is to write everything I want, and then go back in with the Word Limit Sieve and shake out all the excess. Then, when I’ve hit that mark (usually just a word or two under the limit), I’ll know that what’s left is truly the best I can give. I’ve gone through and judged the value of each and every adjective, verb, noun, and (gasp!) adverb. Whatever’s left has earned the right to be there. Word limits force you to pay attention to phrasing and emphasis, which is something my son’s 3rd grade teacher could have done better.

It was the first birthday party of the year, and the kids were lined up in the cafeteria to receive a cupcake before recess began. “Ms. Z” got everyone’s attention and said, “After you get your cupcake, you can go outside.” I heard this as, “After you get your cupcake, you can, if you want to but you don’t have to, go outside.” Apparently, that’s also how my kiddo and a few of his buddies heard it because they all sat down and began eating. But a minute later, after all the cupcakes had been doled out, Ms. Z saw them and became furious. Apparently what she meant was, “After you get your cupcake, you can, since you all have legs and know where the playground is, go outside.” My son was henceforth seen as a disobedient trouble maker and the year was all downhill from there.

It is also important to not over-edit. Once, when I was hiking with my husband, who was wearing our then-6-months-old daughter in a baby backpack, we got separated. When I saw another family coming up the trail, I stopped the husband to ask if he’d seen a man and a baby. He said no, then turned around to call to his wife, “Have you seen a baby?” I’ll never forget the look of horror on the woman’s face as she thought she was about to become involved in a missing child case.

A man AND a baby.

AND.

Tell me about your unfortunate miscommunications at Kate@KateLanders.com.

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