Funny You Should Ask: How strict are word counts for writing contests and book submissions?

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.
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

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.

Image placeholder title

Dear Meticulous,

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.)

Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post

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 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 and in other WD publications.

Discover more advice like this by subscribing to Writer's Digest magazine!

Image placeholder title

20 Most Popular Writing Posts of 2020

We share a lot of writing-related posts throughout the year on the Writer's Digest website. In this post, we've collected the 20 most popular writing posts of 2020.


Carla Malden: Writing With Optimism and Innocence

Screenwriter and author Carla Malden explains why young adult fiction and the '60s go hand-in-hand and how she connected with her main character's voice.


Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Talking About the Work-in-Progress

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake writers make is talking about the work-in-progress.


Greta K. Kelly: Publishing Is a Marathon

Debut author Greta K. Kelly reveals how the idea for her novel sparked and the biggest surprise of her publication journey.

Poetic Forms

Mistress Bradstreet Stanza: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the Mistress Bradstreet stanza, an invented form of John Berryman.


Capital vs. Capitol (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use capital vs. capitol with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.


On Writing to Give Grief Meaning and Write Out of Challenging Situations

Author Lily Dulan explains why writers have to be willing to go to difficult places inside themselves for their writing to make a positive impact on ourselves, others, and the world.


Gerald Brandt: Toeing the Line Between Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Science fiction author Gerald Brandt explains how this new series explores the genre boundary and how he came to find his newest book's focus.


Plot Twist Story Prompts: Moment of Doubt

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character experience a moment of doubt.