Against Page-Limits, or: Does the Length Match the Reach?
This is the latest post in our creative writing pedagogy series. If you’d like to contribute, as always you can contact me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.] –Matt Salesses, Web Editor
As a student I was lucky enough to largely avoid page limits on workshop manuscripts. At Emerson when students asked Margot Livesey how many pages to submit, she always said something like, “whatever is right for the story.” “Whatever is right for the story” was indeed a frequent topic in workshop. By that I took her to mean: the length a story needs and nothing more or less, to be defined by the project and not by an arbitrary rule, even the rule of of its author.
Over the years I either stole or made up a phrase to describe this (I forget which). I tell my students to ask of their work and others’: Does the length match the reach?
I say the same thing in an online novel course I teach when students ask how long their scenes should be. I give them a few things I like to have my scenes do, such as shift the character and the plot, include symbolic action, start in one emotional or physical or intellectual place and end in another—your standard scene-fare—with the suggestion that their scenes should go as short as long as they need in order to accomplish their goals.
Along with length requirements, in other words, should be a consideration of what a thing is. What is a scene? Is it something of a certain length or is it something else? What is a story? Is it something of a certain length or is it something else?
Length never seems the answers to these questions, unless it’s to limit “story” to a form or a story, or a classification of a story, such as: novel, novella, flash fiction, etc.
Maybe I was naive to think, then, that length requirements had long ago gone out of fashion. It seems, when this question was posed online and I answered the right length, that no one else shared this view. 8-10 pages, or 10-15 pages—something like this was the more popular answer.
To the damage of the students.
I never sit down to write a 10-page story. Never. If I want to write a 10-page story I need to have an idea for what will turn out to be a 10-page story. I strongly suspect this is widespread. Part of a fiction writer’s education is to help them hone their ability to be able to tell a novel idea from a short story idea from etc. Not to decide to write a novel and then try to fit whatever they want to write about into a novel length. (Probably this happens plenty of times, but I’d say it makes for unenjoyable novels. Personally a novel that could have been done in a short story turns me off. I value and ask my students to value concision, though not for its own sake—that’s another essay.).
The complaint from instructors is something like this: But my time. Which is often couched as: But the other students’ time.
I get it. I’m not immune to this. There’s a part of me that is pleased when a manuscript seems easier/less taxing on my time to critique.
On the other hand, I like to tell my students who, say, claim that it’s only natural for humans to put other humans in groups, that the good thing about having a brain is that we can use it to correct what is “natural” or even learned from culture.
A student who turns in a one-paragraph story either because they don’t want to do the work or because after doing the work that one-paragraph is all they want the story to be is still going to get the same amount of time from me as a student who turns in a 30-page story. And the same amount of time from other students. That is, the first student might be surprised (but wouldn’t be, because I explain this to them) to find they get quite a lot of comments and questions, quite a lot of line-editing, quite a long note, on their one-paragraph story, and the second student of the 30-age story might be surprised (but shouldn’t be) that they get broader comments and no line-edits while still the same attentiveness as the first student.
That’s because students who complain about fairness need an answer. It’s only fair. To this end I talk about and include in my syllabus instructions to help students understand what reading a piece of fiction for workshop actually looks like and how much time it should take.
Specifically, I give my students not a page or word-length requirement, but a time-length requirement. I tell them they should take an hour to read and critique each manuscript for workshop, no matter the length.
I feel this is a simple solution with obvious benefits. But I’ll go on to address a few of the problems with assigning a length-requirement to manuscripts.
Every story, and every writer, has its own “breath.” That’s how I’ve come to think of it over my time teaching. It’s not voice, exactly. I believe one’s voice can change from project to project. But I’ve found with my own writing and with my students (and with authors I like) that we often have a kind of a length of breath to our writing. To explain, I have written probably too many stories and essays, as well as three novels, and though they’re of differing lengths and, I would argue, voices, they all have the same kind of understanding of when to get out of a scene, how long I can go on, how much compression there is, how many breaths it takes to say what I want. Actually, this is perhaps an inadequate explanation, but my flash fiction, my longer stories, my essays, my novels, all have sections within of similar length or pace or rhythm, even if the overall length and pace and rhythm is vastly different.
I often think about what Kundera says in The Art of the Novel about how he keeps writing novels of seven parts, even though he tries to write novels of six parts or eight parts or so forth.
Before we can understand our breath we’re often trying to figure it out via overall length or rhythm, etc. Putting a length requirement on a piece means we try to fit our idea into that length, which completely fucks up the breath.
Even if breath isn’t as micro as all that, writers often have a certain overall length they are drawn to or write more naturally in. Obviously there are people who really only write novels or really only write short stories, or really only write flash fiction. I’m the last—short stories and novels are acts of accrual for me, not acts of separate wholes. Say a writer needs 20 pages to write the kind of stories they’re really telling. Assigning 10 pages isn’t going to make them write a 10-page story. It’s going to make them try to fit 20 pages into 10 pages.
Assigned requirements force bloated or barely drawn prose.
To be honest, it’s hard for me to imagine a writer who doesn’t need both limits and freedom. So we should be careful where we encourage these limits and freedom. Length seems like the stupidest place to put our foot down. Like telling a child who wants ice cream that the scoops have to be exactly one ounce.
Length requirements, whether intentionally or not, encourage students to think that length is what makes something right, rather than that length is a symptom of getting something right. I’m against most ways we tell students what is proper writing, and especially telling them without being explicit about what we are telling them. To say to a beginning writer: “Turn into workshop a story of 8-10 pages” is to say to that writer: “To your professor (who is an authority you’re asked to put some degree of trust in) a good length for a story is 8-10 pages.” Which for some (many) may be internalized as: “A good story is 8-10 pages.”
That kind of implicit message requires a lot of unteaching, and do we want to spend the time we have to unteach on unteaching the things that we ourselves taught?
Length requirements are lazy. Not lazy as in, workshop leaders don’t want to take too much time, though that happens too. Lazy as in, workshop leaders don’t want to interrogate the classroom with the same rigor with which they interrogate fiction. This breeds the kind of questioning that simply reproduces the same kind of answers, such as: plot is one thing and how do I make my story do that one thing better, rather than going at plot itself and trying to understand what it could be and why we think of it as we currently do. Interrogation, critique, intelligence, creativity isn’t a one-trick pony. It’s all connected, friends.
I could go on, but I’ve reached my limit.
–photo: Flickr/Dean Hocman