Final word counts

Switching from print to blog is a big step. Not only have I lost my editor, or rather gained a virtual crowd of editors, but I no longer have to count every word.

When writing for print, each word takes space on the page, and the pages have to be meticulously planned, laid out, and paid for. Kirsty, who miraculously turned my flat text into the lovely pages which appeared in MacUser, often had to ask me to make a quick nip or tuck to make the words fit the page better.

It is a discipline that you start learning at school, and perfect in higher education. Writing 500 or 4,000 words on a specific topic becomes increasingly familiar, even into gainful employment. In that harsh world, there is always someone who imposes a limit: a brief limited to two pages, perhaps, or for aspirants to greater things, an academic journal which will not accept articles longer than ‘5,000 words excluding tables and figures’. Some of the most prestigious of journals also charge authors per printed page, presumably to add incentive to brevity.

Only that is all changing.

With the advent of online publication, word limits no longer make any sense. The difference between one and eight thousand words in digital storage is neither here nor there. Nor does it matter now whether you have a slew of illustrations in glorious colour, another frequent bugbear of print publishing in the past. Look at vanguard open access online journals such as PLOS ONE, which sensibly limits abstracts to 300 words, but allows papers to be as long as necessary, provided that they are not monographs.

All of a sudden, the constraint of word counts becomes illusory.

In academic work, this could drag us away from the mediocrity of everyone submitting a piece of exactly 2,500 words in length. When I was reading for my first degree, in Oxford, there was an urban myth about a brilliant student who answered an essay question in their finals with the single word “No”, securing a first as a result. More credible is the scholar who needs three or four thousand words to express their full brilliance.

Sadly, although academic submissions now seem more likely to be accepted electronically, few teachers have yet liberated their students from the intellectual straitjacket of counting words.

[392 words, 1941 characters (no spaces), 8 paragraphs, 39 lines. So what?]