Don’t count the words in your memoir: make your words count

How many notes are there in your favorite song?

 

I’ve noticed a lot of people arriving on my blog after searching for tips about word count in memoir. I wrote about this some time ago but feel the need to clarify a few points.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some magic number of words per chapter that agents look for in a query letter, or editors look for in a proposal, as if it was a secret handshake that allowed you entry to their club?

Unfortunately, you can’t write a memoir (or any kind of book for that matter) to a formula. Let’s imagine a musical analogy. Think of the tunes you play on highest rotation at home or in your car. How many notes are there in the melodies you love? In the main theme the violin plays, or the chorus the pop singer repeats?

If you love the song, you don’t even think about how many notes the musicians are playing or singing. You’re enchanted by the music, not by its mechanics.

When I started my work-in-progress I did not think about how many words each chapter would have. I had written an outline that proposed eight chapters, but I hadn’t drafted a single one. I sat down and wrote a chapter according to what in my outline I imagined would go into it, but like the most enjoyable writing experiences, my draft took off in directions and tangents that my conscious brain did not see coming. After I had done that with a few chapters, it surprised me to see that my ugly drafts were falling around the 8,000 – 10,000 word mark. But so what? There will be more drafts, adding and subtracting material as I go, and who knows what will happen? Already I can feel that my eight chapter outline is redundant, and that my manuscript is falling more naturally into six chapters instead. If you feel intuitively that you have too much or too little in any one chapter, then perhaps that’s a sign that the chapter itself needs rethinking.

A final polished draft should, but does not always, fall into similarly sized chapters. There could be a few thousand words’ difference between one chapter and the next, but not much more than that. It’s rare to read a memoir where one chapter is twice the length of the one that preceded it. That level of unevenness is something to avoid, because readers feel fatigue after coming to expect a certain length of sections within a book. But great books are not known by their chapter lengths. They are known by their stories, and by their authors’ distinctive voices. Chapters are part of the mechanics. Let your story be the song, and sing it in the way that only you can.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I keep waiting to feel finished…but as much as I want to, I know I am not regardless of word count. I have readers who have helped a lot in telling me where I need to focus….which I know is probably better than focusing on words counts. Jonna

    1. Trusted readers – though not too many of them – are so valuable to any writer getting impatient with her draft manuscript. I am getting into that kind of bind with my work-in-progress, and just know deep in my bones that I have to let it go, in its rough unpolished and possibly very dull shape, to a couple of readers whose responses will then help me focus on the next draft. The important thing about a memoir – any book in fact – is the clarity of its overall shape, and the distinctiveness of its author’s voice. Definitely not its word count. Trust me, when it’s finished you will know.

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