Sunday 6 May 2012

Ever decreasing word counts

I was having a discussion on Twitter about the fact that flash fiction seems to be taking precedence over short stories, but additionally, the length of flashes themselves is also reducing, resulting in more drabbles appearing online. The big question seemed to be...why is this?

I think there are two main reasons behind the decreasing word counts of stories. The first is the perceived reduced attention span of readers. There are clearly more demands on a reader's time these days, and shorter stories are welcomed as a result. These demands range from work and home based commitments, as well as the increasing proliferation of stories online. In the days of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, there were not only fewer authors available, there were also fewer formats for literature, and also fewer things for the leisured upper classes to do. These all combined to provide the opportunity, and the option, to read much longer stories. It's hardly a surprise that many of the books written before even the 1950s can often take longer to get started, since readers were not so inclined towards 'instant gratification' as they are now. Perhaps the demand for 'bitesize' options stems from the desire to consume fiction between activities?

The second perceived reason is that of the reduced attention span of the writers themselves. They too have more demands on their time, and when we're constantly being urged to make as much work available as possible, we can feel harassed into producing more work that is shorter in length in order to satisfy demand. Moreover, word counts are less of an issue in a purely electronic format - a reader won't pay £8 for a 30,000 paperback, but they'll happily pay £2 for a 15,000 collection of short stories. Tied into this is the possibility that we're being slowly conditioned by the format of television or film narratives to except stories to delivered in a faster format.

So what should you do? Common sense would dictate that if the market tends towards shorter stories that you should follow suit, but it's often good business practice to do something to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Therefore, if everyone else is offering shorter work, you offer longer work to satisfy the demands of the niche who still crave longer work. After all, the popularity of George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, containing truly gargantuan paperbacks, attests to the fact that people will still quite happily plow through a book with a word count well over 100,000.

As I'm odd, I worked out the word counts for my last eight Friday Flashes. They range between 121 words for Silhouette, my most recent offering, to 979 words for The Jar By The Door. Only three of the eight are less than 500 words long, and all of them are longer than 100 words. The average is 555 words per story. I'd conclude from that that I simply write to the length required by the story. Will I always do so, or will I start writing shorter stories?

Only time will tell...


John Wiswell said...

I'd like to think word counts are decreasing because amateur writers are learning the craft. The general feeling I get from writers who routinely hit 950-1000 words per flash is that they don't know how to filter, edit or structure, and so jam as much of an idea into the word count as they can.

However, I don't believe flash fiction is globally dropping in word count. Drabbles have been online for years and even have their own paying zines. Meanwhile in the pro-rate markets there are still plenty of 700-1,000 word flash fictions. Has there been an empirical study on a particular market or group (like #fridayflash) caching word counts over time?

Icy Sedgwick said...

I don't think so - as I said, it was originally just a discussion in which Marc said he'd noticed a lot of drabbles being submitted as part of Friday Flash. What I hate to see is a flash fiction being split over several weeks, since the whole point of a flash is it is less than 1000 words. If it's going to take 3000 words to tell the story, then it's a short story!

However I do believe that shorter fiction is on the rise, but that's more in terms of 'flash fiction' versus the classic short story.

Helen A. Howell said...

I often write flashes of around 1000 words,(that could be and often need to be longer to tell the whole story) but fall back on drabbles etc when as you say, time is short. I think it depends on who/what we are writing for and what the reader expects from that category. I read a flash this week that was over 2,000 words, but I don't consider that flash, more a short story.

I often see competition categories that list all three, micro-fiction, flash and short stories. When I read flash I expect it to be anything up to 1000 words and when I read short stories I expect anything up to 5000 words.

I don't think word count is dropping, I think people are just writing for the category they are participating in and perhaps as John suggests also people (including myself) learning to cut superfluous words.

Anonymous said...

I think we write to the story. If it only needs to be 100 or 1000 words. But if we're writing flash we know we are limited to a word count.
Beyond that, we can let the words flow regardless of limit. The medium will always pitch to the lowest common denominator and we as writers need to make sure we keep raising the denominator.
Each type of story has its place.
Adam B @revhappiness

Tony Noland said...

I've been reluctant to split a story over several weeks. I've done two-part stories, and recently a four-part story. Unless I can make each story stand alone, it doesn't seem right to call it flash fiction.

I responded to your post and put up some numbers of my own:

Anonymous said...

When I'm reading the Friday Flashes, I'll scroll down to see how long it is and if I have to scroll down much more than I did reading your post, I wouldn't read it. Partly because there are a lot to get through and I just don't have time and partly because flash fiction is supposed to be brief - that's the whole point of it. I don't think it's on to write a 2000 word short story and post it as a Friday Flash. Having said that, if I find myself reading and it's good - so good that the story carries me with it - then I won't care how long it is. This rarely happens, though.

Cat Russell said...

When I'm reading Friday Flash, I usually try to read the shorter flash first, because it's less demanding on my time. It's not so much attention span, because I'll read through an ebook or paperback between 50-100K words, but rather that if I'm going to read longer fiction I want it to be a book. When I read short fiction, it's usually because of time constraints or the format lends itself better to short stories. I don't read as many 1k long flash as I do 500 words or shorter.

Larry Kollar said...

I think the story says how long it is. I've had pieces meant to be a #FridayFlash run way over, and in some cases had to do a lot of work to cut it back to even oversize. I do agree that flash and microfiction is popular online — simply because 1000 words is a very short story but it's a helluva long blog post.

As for serials, I mostly agree. Now I've ended up serializing a longer story in #FridayFlash once or twice, but because readers wanted to see more of what was meant to be a standalone flash and the Muse was OK with it. There's also the minor detail that #FridayFlash tends to get a lot more attention from readers than #TuesdaySerial, which means there's a huge temptation for writers to include their work in the former even if it's a longer work in flash-size pieces. I should blog about that, since Tony has already blogged about word counts. When Mason goes down for his nap, maybe.

Sulci Collective said...

It was just an idle tweet I made as I read through this weeks #fridayflash offerings and found most of them to be short. Makes it easier to get through more authors, but it did start me wondering. Of course we can only be led by the material, it takes as many words to relay as it demands.

I've written nearly 100 flashes and only recently have a couple started to creep up over 1000 words. I tend not to write short ones, though one of my favourite ones recently arose out of calls for submissions of 250 words or less.

I'd hate to think Icy's piece on her blog was right, that writers are tailoring themselves and their writing to the market. I'm with her, write what the hell you want to write!

marc nash

Anonymous said...

I think the average length for me is 500, but most of the flash I put on the blog is around 100 words. Also, I think of flash fiction as anything under 1000 words.

Anonymous said...

also, I write to the story. It's as long as it's going to be. I mean, most people will have an idea for how many words the story they want to tell needs. If a story ends up longer - it has a few times - than I write something else for Friday flash.

Unknown said...

My flashes have tended to get longer over the last couple months, but I think part of that is because I have been experimenting with using a highly structured format, so there are a lot of plot milestones I'm trying to hit.

And I think the shorter flashes, if they are done right, tend to pack a better punch at the end. I think the ultimate value of a flash is a function of power divided by words. So perhaps as people writing flashes are getting better, they are keeping power constant and shrinking words?

Unknown said...

I did notice #fridayflash getting more shorter submissions. I attributed that to summer, but that may be unfair of me. I find that writing a drabble can take me as long as writing a flash. Much of this is because I place an emphasis on creating a new world and characters for most of my fiction and that often takes quite a few stolen moments.

As a reader, I like #fridayflash at 1000 words or less because I could not afford to read as many of them as I do if they were longer. I do read short stories and novel material as well. Each have aspects that lend them to certain types of stories and I don't really find them interchangeable.

My flash tends to work on particular craft aspects I want to improve and as a result tends to vary from shorter to longer lengths as what I'm worried about changes.

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