What's a Word Worth?

My pat (yet sincere) answer is: depends on the word. Seems ludicrous to value an "if" at the same level as, say, a "vicissitude."

I mean, c'mon, the v-word has such a loftier, more precise purpose than that two-letter commoner.

Yet in many respects, we treat the two as if they are equivalent entities.

Our earliest training comes during English composition class, when a well-meaning teacher unwittingly sets forth the parameters of a given assignment in terms of word count (or, worse yet, page count).

We’re soon conditioned to believe that words are interchangeable, and that word count should become the definitive measure for all writing projects. Which reinforces to us that the primary goal is meeting a quota. Filling space.

Is it any wonder, then, why most of us are so careless with the words we choose?

Regrettably, the every-word-is-equivalent mindset follows us into adulthood, with many freelance writers being paid by the word instead of by the overall quality of the piece, regardless of length. To be fair, magazines do need to fill space and what other criteria would editors use to judge the value of a submission?

I find myself getting stuck in the word-count ghetto sometimes, despite my best efforts to rebel against it. I’ve come to grips with the reality that word counts will continue to guide me, but I refuse to let them rule me (at least most of the time).

My contrarian side truly enjoys the challenge of cutting down an article, paragraph or sentence to its barest essence. It's fun to see how many "needless words" can be culled, given the time and discipline necessary to perform such surgery.

I think that's one of the reasons I appreciate Twitter. It rewards such discipline and clarity of thought.


To be fair to those educators I reprimanded earlier, I understand their need to set forth some type of quantifiable parameter for writing assignments to guard against half-cocked essays.

But it really irks me to think that a superbly crafted piece could get marked down for falling a few words short of some obscure quota.

And I have to wonder what might happen if a teacher tried inspiring students to do their best work by setting forth criteria that is primarily based on content, not length.