Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader's question about word counts for writing contests, book submissions and short story calls.
Say you told me I had only 100 words in which to answer this question. First I’m going to do some kind of witty intro, maybe referencing Chris Pine. Because, Chris Pine. Then I’ll provide an initial blanket response, outlining solutions for the most common aspects of the concern. Next, I’ll do a deeper dive into the “why” behind that answer, most likely accompanied with a relatable and supportive anecdote, where I come off looking humble yet coy. Then I might tiptoe across nuances that occur within the parameters of your question, ending with a callback—because everyone loves a callback!
Okay, did you stop reading at word 100, right before the callback?
No! You didn’t! Because everyone loves a callback.
... And because you felt compelled to keep reading a few more lines. Sure, there are competitions and poetry calls that demand strict adherence, so I can only speak to my own parameters when I’ve held contests and critique sessions. I might announce, “Send me your query and the first 300 words,” and while I *mean* 300 words, I’m not going to count your words one by one and stop reading at, say, 302. (And no, I do not count titles, author names, glossaries, postscripts, reference lists, etc. as part of the word count.)
I’ll allow more words—especially if it means getting a complete sentence or two to wrap up a character thought or action. That said, I know what 300 words feels like, roughly, so I can tell if you’ve gone over 300 in order to “get to the good stuff,” and in that case I will stop. That’ll also lead me to ask why it takes more than 300 words to get to said good stuff, and if maybe you should revise so that isn’t a concern. Get those first paragraphs shiny and taut, and get me ravenous to read words 301 and beyond.
ASK FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK! Submit your own questions on the writing life, publishing or anything in between to email@example.com with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on WritersDigest.com and in other WD publications.