, , ,

There is always at least one pupil like that.

Whenever I teach a writing course, the first time I give a maximum wordcount for an exercise, someone will look puzzled: how do you even know how many words are in a piece?

I’ve been there, many years ago, when I landed in Cardiff for my Erasmus Year, and handed in my first essay written in longhand, after literally counting the words many, many times to make sure (quite a foreign concept to an Italian student, unused to essay writing, much less to have her writing measured, except in pages)… My tutor was amused – but suggested that I should really, really learn to type and to use a word processor before the next essay was due… I vividly remember the triumphant wonder when I discovered Word’s wordcount tool.

So yes, I’ve definitely been there – and explain the smaller beauties of technology. And then I wait. What happens next is that someone will ignore the limit, and hand in a longer – sometimes much longer – piece.

When I point it out, the objections tend to come in two flavours: they tried, but couldn’t possibly cut it down to XX words without loosing the sense, the meaning, the plot, the character’s backstory… Or they didn’t even try it, and have no intention of trying, because – really: they just can’t count their words like that; they are writers, not accountants; they can’t constrain their creativity like that… There was once a pupil who quoted to me The Little Prince, and the (obviously contemptible) fellow who wanted to count the stars.

I have to say, I very much prefer the first kind, the honest perplexity, rather than the righteous indignation – but in both cases I proceed to explain that in fact yes, they can, and they must, and they ought to, for reasons of both practicality and craft.

On the one hand, contests, journals, publishers and every conceivable kind of market will have limits of this sort. True, in Italy it’s not infrequent to have a maximum number of pages, together with indications of font, size, number of lines… which I find a little awkward, and besides you wouldn’t believe the games people play with margins, for the sake of another hundred words… I find a wordcount easier and more efficient – but never mind that: whether measured in words, pages, or lines, a limit is still a limit, and it always pays to be able to write (and/or trim down) to a certain size.

But well before even thinking to send one’s writing Out There, there is another important consideration: the power of limits and constraints. The way writing to a wordcount forces us to chose well whatever we put on the page. The way it teaches us to cultivate relevance and vividness. The way it makes us trim down to the essential. The way it has us finding other ways to say, imply, suggest what doesn’t fit within the wordcount.

A wordcount is not a petty accounting exercise. Done right, it teaches us clarity, depth, efficacy – and, yes: discipline. Control.

And at that point, now and then, there will be the pupil who, in the name of writing as the art of opening one’s heart, and pouring the messy content on the page, will quote some more Saint-Exupéry, and indignantly quit the course.

And I am left to wonder if they will ever see that limits and constraints – far from suffocating art – can be most powerful tools to learn, develop and refine the craft of writing.