This is not a trick question. But it’s one that would have once been answered differently. That is, if thought had even been given to the question some years ago before succumbing to the addiction of creative writing.
My ignorance was buried in what Robert Lewis Stevenson is quoted as calling, “The swiftly done work of the journalist, and the cheap finish and ready-made methods to which it leads.”
Many a night during a career as a reporter, my arrival back in the newsroom after covering an event was greeted with the announcement from the editor that he needed twenty column-inches to fill the allotted space. The lead was needed in five minutes so that the headline could be written. The deadline for the entire piece was thirty minutes away.
In the modern world of computers, column inches have been shoved aside by word count. There is no set formula that converts one to the other because of present-day variances among newspapers on column width and type-size. But per the rule of thumb back in the 1960s, a column inch equaled thirty-five to forty words.
So a seven to eight hundred-word story was written in those thirty minutes without a moment’s pause. It helped in those days that the norm for vocabulary was geared to a sixth-grade reading level. It was a time when effort was not spent thinking of big words, or descriptive adjectives, or adverbs.
Rewriting? The word did not exist in the newsroom during the course of daily events. There was a “rewrite” desk to handle wire service stories from the AP or UPI. But the process was ninety-nine percent cutting rather than rewriting existing text.
That was the mindset when the jump into creative writing was made.
A quote on “rewriting,” one attributed to Dorothy Parker, was the only one with which there was any degree of familiarity. “I can't write five words but that I can change seven.” The quote reads “can” rather than “must.” It was once viewed as another attempt to demonstrate her wit. Its true meaning and importance were learned later.
Over recent years, many quotes on rewriting have been read. All hold an inherent truth, but one struck me as the true goal of a creative writer and the effort it takes. The following comes from an interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Review in 1956.
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
So how many words does it take to write a 65,000-word novel? As many as needed if one’s goal is: “Getting the words right.”