Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Dreaded Deadline

After 10 years of newspaper work, I retired with dreams of never having to meet a deadline again. Or of having to write a specified number of words to exactly fit the space alloted to it on page four.

Not to mention writing headlines that both made sense and spanned two or three columns of type without running out of space.

Now I find that these skills still matter. While the length of a title may not matter, it must hint at the content of the story in a way that catches the casual bookbuyer's eye. The title is your first "hook."

Writing to an exact word count is a little more difficult. I mastered that skill by writing a weekly column that had to measure 11 1/2 inches. No more, no less. I learned to cut sentences and find one word that meant the same as a two- or three-word phrase. Conversely, there were times I had to stretch my brain to add another sentence so as not to leave that dreaded empty space at the bottom of the page.

I worked with a publisher who insisted on writing a column. Because I was the editor and responsible for layout, I would tell her how much space she had. Invariably, she went over by five or six inches. I would politely tell her she needed to cut. She would not so politely tell me she either didn't have time or that her prose was too precious to drop one word.

I never understood why she couldn't learn to trim her words to an acceptable length. War and Peace is one thing; a weekly outburst of what she was feeling at the moment was another.

That's why it is important to understand if you are writing a short story, a novella or a novel. If you read a publisher's submission guidelines and they ask for novels of 60,000 to 150,000 words, you don't send them a 300,000-word epic. If your novel is too long, look through it for places you can cut: a scene that doesn't move the action forward, a meandering backflash that doesn't really add anything to the plot, a detailed description when a few well-chosen words could just as easily evoke the scene.

In the newspaper business, deadlines loom over everyone involved, from the publisher down to the to part-time clerk. I don't miss the stress of writing with one eye on the clock.

I work at home and no one is standing over me insisting I write at least one chapter a week. It's hard to set your own deadlines after having them externally imposed for so many years, but I do realize their importance. If I didn't set internal deadlines I would still be on chapter one and my last blog would have been written six weeks ago.

Newspaper writing and fiction are worlds apart, but what I learned in the newsroom has given me a solid foundation for my writing. The three rules I took with me were 1) Don't act as if you have a lifetime to write your book or you will never write it; 2) Make certain you have chosen just the right words to convey your story; and 3) Write what you have to say and then stop.


  1. Hi Sandy, very good advice. I'm going through the too long bit on a novel I'm editing right now.


  2. My problem is trying to make my books longer! Many of my friends who've read them ask me why they are so short-- make them longer! Believe me, I am going to try this with my next book!

  3. I cut 100 pages out of my first "baby" to get it to an acceptable word count. 40,000 precious words I thought the world would miss. Honestly, I couldn't tell you where they were now, and the story reads better. Good advice Sandy.

  4. As a chatty Cathy, I hate rule three. lol But as a writer, yep...still hate it. Respect it. But hate it. Aspire to do it. But still hate to stop. Love this post!

  5. Great advice. I started my writing career with short stories. The magazines have very strict word count guidelines, so I learned to write tight.

  6. Absolutely great post, Sandy. It's easy to complain about imposed-by-others deadlines but when it's time to write on our own, we need to self-impose same deadlines, or else we'd never get that book written!