According to Shakespeare, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” meaning more may be said using less language. Certainly a lot can be conveyed in few words.
During the pandemic, The New York Times invited readers to send them six words describing what made them thankful in 2020.
The ‘six-word memoir’ style of writing was popularized by founder of SMITH magazine, Larry Smith, who in 2006 asked his community to describe their own lives in six words for a Six-Word Memoir project. He’d been inspired by Ernest Hemingway who, when challenged to write a story in only six words, came up with the poignant: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Larry’s community responded to his invitation with hundreds of stories, from the poignant, “I still make coffee for two”, and the bittersweet, “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends”, to the inspirational, “From migrant worker to NASA astronaut”, and the amusing, “Married by Elvis, divorced by Friday”.
The New York Times similarly received thousands of responses to their invitation for six-word tales of gratitude, all so telling of this period of pandemic:
“Saved a lot of lipstick money.”
“Braless at home? No one cares.”
“I am bored, but not dead.”
“Solitary Thanksgiving means no turkey. LOBSTER.”
“Zoom Thanksgiving beats an ICU Christmas.”
“Fell in love six feet apart.”
“I have someone I can hug.”
“Lost job. Lost boyfriend. Found happiness.”
“It’s just a cold, not Covid.”
“Vaccine is coming, Trump is going.”
“My parents did not get it.”
“I held my dying husband’s hand.”
“My wife gave me her kidney.”
“Wasn’t too late to say sorry.”
“Pandemic baby after years of trying.”
“Healthcare workers. Healthcare workers. Healthcare workers.”
And, my personal favourite:
“Windows have never been so important.”
Each of these six-word stories tells a tale and sparks our interest. They capture a moment in time, a feeling; from love and hope to appreciation despite hardship.
Yes, stories can be told in minimal words, but how many work for a good book? One of the first questions we hear as ghostwriters (after “How much is this going to cost me?”) is “How many words should the book be?”
Book length will partly depend on how much there is to say but will also depend on commercial implications. Most of the books I’ve written have ranged between 60,000 and 80,000 words. However, in the self-help category there is currently a trend for shorter books ranging from 25,000 to 40,000 words.
But why is wordcount so important? Firstly, it may impact what a ghostwriter will charge. However, a complex yet short book that requires extensive research on a difficult topic may take longer (and therefore cost more) than a longer yet easier book.
Secondly, there are commercial considerations in terms of production. The more words (and thus pages) a book has, the more it will cost a publisher to print. The same goes for self-publishing.
I’ve written and ghostwritten a total of 25 books and word selection becomes all the more important during the second draft, as editors working for publishers will often ask for expansion on key points while simultaneously requesting text be cut to keep wordcount down.
My personal view here is that quality always matters more than quantity, so reducing overall wordcount is less important than getting the text to be the best it can be. I’d rather go slightly over wordcount and have the book be optimally useful than cut out crucial text that would help the reader. Yet that desire to write helpful text must be balanced with some consideration of the commercial implications around wordcount. In this way, the reason for writing the book (to help others and equip them sufficiently with the tools they need to help themselves) often becomes the most important determinant of wordcount requirements.
Take my most recent book – Navigating Loneliness: How to connect with yourself and others – which was initially going to be 30,000 words. Halfway through the writing process it became apparent that 35,000 words was a more reasonable wordcount. I was able to persuade the publisher to find the right balance between commercial considerations around page numbers and price point with the importance of including everything that would help the reader. We were then able to focus on making every word earn its place.
Indeed, when it comes to wordcount, you need to make every word count. As is the case with the six-word memoir.
So consider this: Which six words might you use to describe the story or message you aim to share in your own book?
This exercise can be a great way to gain clarity about what you have to say. When you boil it down to a few words, you not only practice being selective with your choice of words but can also fine-tune what matters most about your story or core message.
In this way brevity can, to paraphrase the playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon, provide you with the soul of your book. And that is as good a place to start as any.
Cheryl Rickman’s six-word summary:
Helping people fret less, flourish more