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Word Counts and Fandom

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 27, 2014 | Comments ()


Articles are getting longer. Day by day, week by week.

Word counts are the only way to really compare these things, what with all manner of page sizes, margins, line spacing and fonts. Everyone who has ever had to write an essay for a class that they didn’t particularly like knows all about the joys of adding length through formatting. That’s why professors would delineate all the details of formatting: specifying precisely that there should be one inch margins, twelve point Times New Roman font, double spacing, no extra space between paragraphs (first line indent please), no footnotes, bibliography doesn’t count towards length, and make sure to left-justify the text.

There was a subtle undercurrent of desperation once an entire paragraph of a syllabus was dedicated to these rules. Word count was tempting, but there was no way to tell if they were being honest about the word count without standardized formatting. That is, until electronic submission became standard and the problem as solved.

But in any case, that’s why writers tend to talk about things in terms of word count rather than any other metric. My think pieces tend to be 800 to 1200 words, shorter articles (thinklets?) are more like 400 to 600. The lengths have a certain feel to them, such that regardless of font, screen size, or any other factor, I have a gut feeling for how long something is as I’m writing it without even glancing down at the little word count widget.

One of the wonderful things about the Internet, is that we are no longer constrained by the costs of publication in our writing. It costs us exactly the same thing to give you an article of two thousand words as it does an article of two hundred. That’s why movie reviews on the websites of newspapers seem terribly short compared to what we put out here. They’re still operating on a physical constraint that seems quaint to publications that have only existed in the information age.

Every once and a while I publish something somewhere else (mostly just to keep Dustin on his toes, it’s like flirting with the occasional waitress to make sure your wife knows you’ve still got it, or at least to let her know that you still think that you do) and on occasion they look at a 1200 word article and say, well, this is great and we’re going to publish it, but we need you to trim it 800 words. Because they’re running out of pixels in their budget. But by and large, we live in an age with no word count limits.

Previous generations didn’t have this joy. They had to write smaller, tighter, within physical limits beyond their control. Oh there are a few exceptions back in the day. There are some East Asian novel series from the 19th century and earlier that run for tens of thousands of pages. And there’s good old War and Peace, clocking in at some 600,000 words all told, and Hugo’s Les Miserables topped out at 530,000. But then over the last decade we’ve seen several fantasy series detonate over the several million word mark.

I’ve written before about how one of the most wonderful things about the Internet is that it has created a many-to-many society of communication. No longer are the masses passive consumers of content, but are actually generators of content. Any idiot can for costs approaching nothing set up a fully professional publication that can potentially reach billions of people. And on each of their sites, any number of people can file in and populate the comments and message boards with their own content. That’s two-way communication, that’s normal people communicating up and down and across, instead of just consuming what the networks put out, or silently taking in some handful of analysts that have landed gigs at big national publications.

The rise of fan theorizing is the latest little niche of how communication has changed. Thirty years ago, entertainment meant watching a show and getting 800 words of carefully compressed column space from a single writer, and maybe you got to go talk about it at work with a couple of people if you’re lucky enough to sit in a cubicle next to someone who likes what you like. And the creators of the content were yelling into a void, their only feedback what a few guys at newspapers wrote, and what the ratings numbers said.

It made their art fundamentally art that was made by elites and for elites, because the masses had no direct voice.

Today, the silence is lifted. The great renaissance of television? The rise of these deep and insightful shows that simply didn’t exist a generation ago? They don’t just correspond to the rise of Internet commentary, they are in fact joined at the hip with it. Because this particular breed of artist is for the first time in history interacting directly with its audience.

More communication cannot possibly be bad for art, it can only enhance it.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    There are affordances and consequences of every new communicative technology. Is it a good thing that most everyone can find an audience or community to appreciate or share whatever their idiosyncratic interest or talent may be? Sure! Do I like the dismantling of the traditional distance between artist and audience? Not always. Do I still believe in expertise? Yep. Do I want to change the parameters regarding what constitutes an expert and what constitutes an episteme 'worthy' of expertise? Definitely. All told, I want my gatekeepers critical and postmodern but I also definitely want them there.

  • e jerry powell

    840 words. Well done.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I like the idea, but word count doesn't automatically equate communication. I like the proliferation of articles. Some of them *could* stand to be edited more tightly though.

  • WestCoastPat

    While I feel that access to a greater diversity of writers and opinions represents a benefit for the consumers of pop culture, I'm not at all convinced that alleviating people of the need to self-edit for length is a net positive. Along with the diversity of writers these days seems to be a growth in bloated articles that could better make their point with 30% fewer words.

  • BWeaves

    I have no problem reading long articles on paper. However, I have no patience with reading a long article on the computer.

    Is it the difference between reading an illuminated screen vs. the softness of paper and reflected light?
    Or is it that I'm not turning pages, so I don't feel like I'm making progress?
    Or is it that I continue to scroll, so my eyes are always in the same place, and again, I don't feel like I'm making progress? (Visual treading water?)

    Also, I learned to type in 1973 on a typewriter. I was taught that you don't count the actual words, but every 5 letters and spaces. It was a good approximation of how many words you actually wrote, and an 8 1/2" x 11" typewriter page would always hold the same amount of words given pica size and consistent margins. It was a quick way to determine how many words per minute you could type. Word processors make the word count really easy now.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    treading water aspect for me, I think. I also hate when I read on my Kindle, and it doesn't show me page numbers. Even if it's showing me percentage, I need the pages.

  • Naye

    I've found that I tend to scroll down when reading something like a book or an article in a magazine. What stops me is reaching the bottom of the page. Mentally I say "I've reached the bottom, I obviously missed something. I can't turn the page unless I go back and finish." When you pick up a book, you already have an idea of how long you are committing to what you are about to read. On the computer, especially those of us who are using them on, ahem, company time during the day, have to gauge how much time we have to devote to a web article. I know this probably doesn't stand for people who keep a tablet attached to them.

  • Miss Jane

    When you look forward to read there are more things in your field of vision that can interrupt or distract. When you look down, it limits that field and helps with focus.

  • doctormew19

    Thank you for succinctly putting into feeling why I can't stand long articles on a computer. That feeling of not making progress is one of my biggest reason I like still holding a viable book in my hand or have printed out longer articles to read on my commute versus sitting on a computer screen. There is something about scrolling through a long article that messes with my eyes (perhaps its the visual treading water).

  • JJ

    Articles and content are getting longer? And here I thought we were part of Generation TL;DR due to our lacking attention spanish rice sounds great now.

  • JoannaRobinson


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