On Length

I’ve been surprised by how many beginning writers have a strange notion that whatever they’re writing—say, a chapter or short memoir or essay—must be certain length—say, twenty pages—and get tied in knots when their writing doesn’t conform.  Ironically, everyone’s assumptions about the proper length for a piece are different.  Where do these ideas come from?  And why?

I suspect these assumptions have their origins in twelve-plus years of schooling, during which every bit of writing comes with page expectations.  Our five-paragraph themes had to be three pages long.  Our college essays had to present our response to certain texts within twelve pages.  When I taught creative writing at a seminary a few years ago, I was amazed at how many times my students asked me how long their assignments had to be.  “As long as they need to be,” I answered repeatedly.  In the freewheeling world of creative adulthood, guidelines such as page limits fall by the wayside.  I don’t think my students ever believed me.  Such freedom is frightening, and almost unheard of in an academic setting.

Honestly, though:  A creative piece should take up as much space as it needs to to be whole, to do the work it sets out to do.  Read Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones’ anthology, In Short, to see just how short creative nonfiction can be.  Read Kathleen Norris’ Dakota or Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum to see how varied the lengths of individual chapters can be within a book.  Read an essay by James Baldwin to see how long essays can be.  Just as individual sentences can consist of a single word or fill whole pages, the length of creative prose will work if it fits the content.  Length, like any element of structure, must serve the story’s heartbeat.

That said, a page-count restriction can be a helpful boundary in the same way a sonnet’s strict form can provide inspiration and creative limitation to the poet.  Venue often dictates length; writers who submit to periodicals or contests must abide by word-counts, and writers for the web must keep things punchy, sometimes even within the boundaries of the screen.  In these cases it’s good to keep a rough sense of length in mind as you compose.  The act of reading alone leads to certain strictures.  I once worked with a memoir so long, the author expected it to be printed in four volumes.  Despite his gripping story and outrageous humor, his story would be well-served by the limitations of a single volume.  I say this not because he’d be more apt to sell it this way (although this is true) but because readers need material to be digestible.  Sure, a nine-course meal can be a treat, just not on a regular basis.  Most often the discipline of fitting a story into a reasonable length for a book is good for the story.

This is yet another instance when we must trust our stories more than our selves.  Like people, each story will grow into its own unique size.  Our challenge as writers is to find the length that serves the story best.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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