One of the most commonly searched terms when it comes to writing is ‘how long is a novel?’ It seems we’re all worried about making something the right length, but quality always trumps quantity. Your work comes down to much more than word count or how many multisyllabic words you can fit in.
When reviewing a writer’s work, do you look for a particular word/page/chapter count? How many is too many and how much is not enough?
With short stories, writers seem to err on the side of making their work longer, giving more detail and more story than is necessarily needed. Often this means there’s just too much information and I have to cut it down to make the short story short and, in many ways, better. I prefer a story to be shorter and more impactful rather than the lengthier, more drawn-out stories that belong in the world of the novels.
It’s the reverse when I edit poetry pieces. I prefer to be sent more rather than less, so I can be more brutal with how I pull different things out, and sculpt it down to the thing it’s meant to be. Poets can get even more precious about individual words than short story writers. There’s not a perfect length for a poem. There are rare cases that poems reaching 20+ pages, such as the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, are really good, but there’s also great examples of poetry smashing it on social media.
When editing, do you look for a certain sentence/paragraph length, or do you feel that it depends on the work?
I think it depends very much on the subject and what’s being talked about. Some writers use sentence length and structure to show the effect and feel they’re looking to achieve, which helps with narrative voice and tension within the story.
With the shorter pieces, sentence length matters more as you need the space to tell your story. In flash fiction sentence length is more important as the piece is so condensed that small things like length can have a huge impact.
It’s trickier to look at sentence length with poetry, as it depends on whether it’s meant to be on the stage or on the page. Things that look identical on paper may have a completely different effect when performed, as well as spacing between different sounds and words to create emphasis when being spoken out loud compared to being read on paper. A good writer can indicate this though, with how they build the rest of the poem.
How long is too long before you recommend that a paragraph is to be broken up?
One of the biggest factors is narrative voice, where sentence length plays a big part. If someone has a paragraph that goes on for 8-9 lines and it’s all one sentence, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If it’s done well and the flow works well for the reader, then the risk can pay off for the writer. Although I think this varies so much from writer to writer and narrator to narrator.
I believe this has a clearer definition of 8 lines for poetry. Once you hit 8 lines, the stanza starts to fray and you lose a sense of cohesion for the reader to follow as well as the rhythm intended by the writer.
Do you feel that there is a difference between the number of words/paragraphs/pages that the writer feels is right and the amount that the reader feels is right?
This can depend on the perspective. A writer can feel they’re doing a good job and in ‘the zone’ while writing, but in the edit, they can view that same work as bad and in need of reworking before being looked at again.
Editors look at the reader’s want rather than the writer’s want, so we often have to make or suggest changes that the writer, who has created a piece that they’ve put their effort and time into, won’t necessarily want to make.
Do you feel that there’s a link between the amount of time it takes to edit a piece and the amount of words/pages?
This depends so much on the execution of the piece. Some pieces can be a case of ‘where do I start?’ The Society of Editors states that two pages is about 15-30 minutes work. A lot comes down to whether the writer has taken the time and the care to write and edit the piece before sending it onto editors.
It really depends whether the writer has put in work beforehand and how much the writer is prepared to put into the editing. You need to try to make it a two-way process, giving the writer ideas to consider when it comes to their writing as well as receiving feedback on their work.
Sometimes the work can be so densely packed with description and content that a lot of editing is required to get rid of the unnecessary wording, whittling it down to the finer point and rewording to make it more compelling to the reader. This can greatly depend on the subject matter; whether what has been written is of interest to the editor. The time taken isn’t noticed if the subject matter is feeding the editor’s ‘story kink’.
Within the poetry side of editing within favourite subjects and ‘writing kinks’, it often depends on the personal connections with the writer rather than the content. It’s usually the project that will bring out the interest rather than an individual poem. That’s not to say that work on an individual poem can’t happen when the editor feels that work can be done on bringing out the writer more in the poem.
Do you have anything else to add?
If you are demanding someone’s time, you owe it to the reader for your work to be the best possible. Instead of every paragraph having something good in it, make every line having something great in it. Coal is good, it is useful for many things, but best to refine it to diamonds before it is seen by others.