Last week while running the 50-word critique advice contest, I got into an interesting conversation with contestant Ara Hagopian of MA.
Having created the contest, I'm the one who set the 50-word limit to keep the event simple. I have to follow such contest/submission rules when sending in my work and encourage other writers to do the same because there's no leverage in such a task. We're asking strangers to accept our work when they have no reason to do so. The best we can do is give them one less reason for rejecting our stories.
Yet there's a part of me that's a rule-breaker who craves to blast all limits in my path, otherwise known as the Renegade Syndrome, of which I think most writers suffer. While the risk of alienating agents/publishers/readers is high, a streak of antiauthoritarianism seems necessary for pushing the boundaries of the craft. While breaking rules related to word counts, grammar or style, fails miserably 99% of the time, the philosophy leads to fantastic results 1% of the time.
Ara's response, however, suggests that following the rules — especially those related to the business of submission — should not be seen as a hindrance, but rather a challenge for our wayward hearts, minds and spirits:
In the business-to-business writing world, word counts are absolute and non-negotiable. I’ve found they’ve made me a better writer because I’m forced to edit and rethink and reword, while keeping the message intact; very healthy exercises for a writer. In fact, I’ve found that editing down often improves my message, point, or summary, and in fewer words.
I once had the one-time job of editing artists’ and writers’ bios for a museum in Lowell, MA. The laminated bio card we were making for each person was the size of an index card, so it was decided to limit the bios to forty words. Easy, right?
I solicited all the people the museum showcased, about twenty folks. Some came in under forty words. Great. Some came in a bit over, no problem, I can edit. Some came in with two pages, 500 words! The director said, ask them again, or no laminated card next to their work! So I asked again. It was painful; a few people were at a loss to boil their bio down to what they considered an impossibly low word count. They physically couldn’t do it...
I think a big part of being a successful, professional writer, is to follow the rules. You know, double space your copy if they request it; label your first page with your name, phone number and genre, etc. Because you want to be perceived as someone who is a pleasure to work with. You can be creative in your content; that’s where you’re free.
An excellent point.
And if you're wondering, Ara's pen and ink on paper artwork will be featured in a solo exhibit titled The LITERATE Show from April 10 to 30 at the Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus, 61 Market St, Lowell, MA.
Thanks, Ara, and happy writing!