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Five hundred words of foreplay

This column was written back in my Pelican Press days when I’d just been given a reduced word count for the Reality Chick column … . Given the decreasing size in newspapers across the country (have you seen the Sarasota Herald Trib lately?) this column still feels germane.

I’ve recently been given a word limit for this column. Five hundred words versus the average 700 I’ve been writing for the past year.

It’s nothing personal, my editor says. They’re cutting back the length of every column. Why? It’s the same story newspaper writers and readers are hearing everywhere: readership is down, money is tight, ad space is king. So what gets cut?

Not advertising. Not photos of warm fuzzies and ladies who lunch.

Ideas get cut. Content gets cut.

This isn’t a criticism of the powers-that-be. I’m well aware that every paper in America is going through similar convulsions over content – trying to find that sweet spot between keeping readers and advertisers, making money, and presenting something worth reading.

But when word count is reduced, meatier discussions go out the window. Ideas must be nipped just as they bud. Column arcs devolve to straight lines between points A and B.

(In case you’re counting, I’ve chewed through 152 words so far.)

I’m supposed to be diving into my brain each week and fishing out some morsel of intelligent thought and delivering it in a way that offers both sense and sentience. A columnist’s goal isn’t to encourage readers to skim and flip to the next page. The goal is to connect. The goal is to create a bond between reader and writer and newspaper.

The goal is to take an impossibly fragile message from one human mind, measure it out in ink on a page, and somehow land it into the mind – and maybe into the heart — of another human, a newspaper reader. Even with unlimited word counts, a scrap of paper crammed inside a bottle tossed into the ocean might be more effective.

But limiting a columnist to 500 words is like limiting a lover to five minutes of lovemaking. Any writer or lover can get your attention in such little space and time … but can they keep it?

You can have reasonable sex in five minutes, but you can’t make knock-your-socks-off love. It’s the same thing with a column. You can get someone to think about something in 500 words, but you can’t get them to feel. Lovers need time and writers need space. A few extra minutes in bed are as essential to a worthwhile romantic rendezvous as those extra 200 words are to an intellectual one.

(Hustle it up, Coolidge, you’re at 394 words and counting.)

Newspapers are an essential component in the cultural and intellectual development of a society. Newspapers showcase our shared humanity. Without sufficient space to share important news and thoughts, column writers will be reduced to linguistic foreplay, never able to deliver consistently on the promises they’re whispering.

And what’s worse is that readers will eventually come to accept such abbreviated writing as the standard in intellectual endeavor.

In the end, word counts make the difference between a been-there, read-that roll between neatly-tucked sheets … and a meeting of the minds that rips the sheets from the bed.

Posted on January 27th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
6 Responses to Five hundred words of foreplay
  1. […] And, awfully timely, MC Coolidge digs up an old column from when the Pelican Press cut her word-count from 700 to 500. When ad dollars […]

  2. I LOVE LOVE LOVE that you actually had the cajones to write about the injustice of cutting word count of quality content in favor of ad space. Girl, you have serious sass.



  3. Oh, thanks for the comment, Theresa! That “sass” lost me my column ultimately, but at least I’ve got the blogosphere! And guess what? There’s no word count here! 😉

  4. No word count and people that care about you.That ultimately is what matters the most as we discussed recently:-)

  5. MC
    I read this on first appearance in the Pelican Press and logged in my mind this favorite quote… Lovers need time and writers need space. thanks for the spot on reminder of who we are.

  6. Well, th anks for reading it again! and thanks for posting a comment…..

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