Numbers in writing? What role do they play? In maths, obviously, but writing?
What possible role could they play in fiction, say? Surely there it is about the prose, how well the characters are created etc. Numbers turn up all over the place in writing.
Incidentally, the inspiration for the title comes from an old phrase hammered into me when I was learning division many moons ago at school. I had to look for numbers that “would go” into another number – e.g. 2 into 4 will go (twice!) and say 2 into 5 will go (twice but with 1 left over). Anyone else remember that style of teaching?
On to the use of numbers in fiction then…
Numbers feature in classic titles such as The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan), Twelfth Night (Shakespeare – who else?!), 1984 (Orwell), Five Go To/On/Of various adventures written by Enid Blyton, amongst other. Dear Enid liked her numbers given she had her Secret Seven series as well.
One of the best stories, P.G. Wodehouse’s The Great Sermon Handicap, has odds as a major part of its plot. A hilarious use of numbers in my view. Do check the story out if you relish a good laugh. Jeeves and Wooster at their best, I think.
For me, word count is a significant factor. I enter various writing competitions and the standard short story word count is anything between 1500 to 2000 words. It is that length of story you see most often in magazines. There are short story competitions with higher word counts but, when not writing flash fiction, I aim for the 1500 words mark as I know that will suit most.
For flash fiction, I write stories from the 25-worders through the spectrum of 50, 75, 100, 250, 500, 750, and 1,000 words, which is the cut-off point for flash. Anything over 1,000 words becomes a short story (though it can be known as a short, short story, given most magazines who still take fiction look for 1500 words and above as mentioned). I’ve even come across a flash competition where the story must be exactly 53 words!
I use the program Scrivener for my writing and one of its great features if being able to set the word count in advance. I can watch the bar at the bottom of the screen change colour as I get nearer to my target. At this point in the article, I’m still on amber but the colour will eventually become green when I’ve hit my mark.
I can remember having to count the words manually in the days when you sent submissions in by snail mail and that was tedious. You could guarantee to lose count and often several times.
There was an old tip of counting the number of words in your first line (say 15) and the number of lines on your first page (again say 15) and then multiply by the number of pages (say 50) to give a rough idea (11,250) and before you ask, yes I did use the calculator function on my phone to work that out!
This tip was useful in that it gave you a general idea you were in the right sort of area word count wise but that was all. It is far more useful to be specific on word count especially when you are writing to tight limits.
Tips for Managing Word Counts
Some of the competitions I enter include the title as part of the word count, others do not. I always take off about 15 words from the count allowed. Nobody writes a 15 word title (it would be too much of a mouthful to read, yet alone say!) but it means I know I will always come in at under the overall limit.
Unless a competition or market specifically says they want a story to a specific count, then it is okay to come in under it. The big no-no is going over it.
The online site Paragraph Planet specifically want 75 word stories which does include the title.
A couple of my stories have been in the compilations of winning entries for the Waterloo Arts Festival Writing Competition ebooks and these are set at a maximum of 1000 words. I always aim to come in at between 950 and 980, something like that, as I know when I edit the story, there will be things I will be cutting.
There will also be something I discover I could rephrase better and that adds to the word count but It makes the story flow better so those extra words are worth it. Checking on finishing, I make sure I have a few words to spare. The nice thing with the Waterloo Arts Festival ebooks (see below) was all authors included had to stick to the same theme and word count limit. About fifteen authors were included in these and there were fifteen different takes on the theme.
I’m typing this in Calibri but if I switch to Bookman Old Style you can see the difference in size immediately (if you look at the picture of my draft for this article). I didn’t put bold on for that incidentally, nor did I change the size of font. But where this matters is that the larger the font the more paper you’re going to need and that significantly increases production costs for publishers.
So sizes, measurements and numbers matter! (By the way I’m now up to olive green on my Scrivener bar. This means I’m about two-thirds of the way through my article. Other blogs I write for have a 500 words limit and again the Scrivener bar comes in handy for that. I write to the limit and then edit as appropriate, as I will with this piece, which I’ve set to 1500 words, excluding my Related Posts and end matter).
Most publishers use good old Times New Roman, Size 12 for submission requirements, though they will take Arial too. The font to avoid is Comic Sans as it lives up to its name. It looks like a comic font, not to be taken seriously etc. (Again, see the picture above to see the different fonts in “action” – the problem with online writing is I can’t change the font, which generally you wouldn’t want to do, but it is a pain when you want to illustrate a point like this one!).
So when publishers ask for submissions to be a required format, it is not for contrary reasons. They’ve worked out what works best in keeping their production costs down and they, understandably, will not deviate from that. It is also a sure sign of an amateur when it comes to submitting work to ignore those guidelines and send work in “fancy fonts” including the dreaded Comic Sans!
Then there’s paper size measurement. Now the great benefit with online writing is you don’t need to worry about that but numbers still come into play for pieces like this, and not just for the word count.
Online Writing – including Chandler’s Ford Today
Numbers come in not just for the text but also for the pictures. For a photo or other image to show up crisply on a screen, it has to be a certain resolution. So back to numbers again! I mainly use 360 x 640 for the images I use (whether they’re from the ever useful Pixabay or for my post last week on Winter Trips where I took the pictures).
Also having too large a photo slows downloading time for the image (and it can slow it down for the article). In this technological age, if something takes too long to download, people won’t bother waiting and will move on to read something else.
Where Numbers Don’t Apply – well almost
There is no limit to the number of good books out there! There are always more wonderful works waiting for you to discover them. I guess the only restrictions here are (a) your budget and (b) what book shelving capacity you have!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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