Just recently I have begun writing commentaries for the local newspaper. Twice now they have been kind enough to give me a spot in the Wednesday edition, a spot with a limitation—a word limit of 700.
I have always been a kind of storyteller, but I haven’t always been one to edit the number of words I use or the tangents I allow myself to indulge in. During the writing of the two published pieces and those waiting in the Documents folder, I found this limit a form of discipline, one of those rules you can’t avoid so you might as well learn something while complying.
700 Words has become a game I play now. When I write a piece I am contemplating submitting to the editor, I try to make sure I hit that exact number. 701 or 699 give me agita, and I have to mull over the story to see what word to add or take away to be exact. During a review, if I decide to delete a sentence, I count the words I am erasing and give myself that many to add in another spot. I get excited when I go back and discover I have used that smushy filler word “very” because that means I get to remove it and add a real word somewhere that needs a boost.
This limit is also helpful in eliminating all those unnecessary adjectives that you might think are absolutely essential to telling the story but really aren’t. In a letter from 1880 written to D. W. Bowser, Mark Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
I had never thought of an over use of adjectives as a vice until I started writing with the enforced limitation. Apparently I tend to use adjectives, not just because I think they are helpful and descriptive, but because sometimes I like the sound a particular adjective has in connection with the following noun. I read my pieces out loud, so the flow of the words is important to me, almost lyrical.
For example, in my most recent piece, I wrote about corn and how I had to shuck it by the dozens as a kid. Now and then I would find a worm under the husks, but just saying “a worm” is dull and empty, like an unfinished melody. Adding a qualifying “meaty,” as in “there would occasionally be a meaty worm,” seems to flow much better to me. And the adjective really is necessary because you might think it was a scrawny one otherwise. Later on, I called the worm “squirmy” so people wouldn’t think it had been killed by pesticide and was lifeless. Because it was meaty and squirmy, it becomes more of a threat. I think Mark Twain would approve of those adjectives and not suggest I kill them, but I might be wrong.
I tend to think of rules as burdensome, but I believe the 700 Word rule is a good one. It tames the tendency I have to go on and on and on about things that seem interesting to me but probably aren’t to anyone else and certainly have nothing to do with the subject at hand. It curbs the vice.
I’m not one for vices anyway. I smoked for a brief time during college but only because it was against the rules of the strict school I attended. That was one discipline I didn’t adopt. I drink wine but only in moderation, and I enjoy chocolate in small doses.
And now I have written another 700 word story. I don’t think I’ll submit this one to the newspaper. They wouldn’t give me prime space for this drivel like they have. If they were to print it at all, they’d bury it in the want ads with the used treadmills and mutt puppies. Free to good home.