Ask the Editors | Word Count, a Lot, and No One

Hi Rae,

When I write short short fiction that requires adherence to a certain word count, I count words such as “a lot” and “no one” as one word since they have their own meaning which is not the same as either one of the comprising words. Do you do this as well? Thanks so much.



Hi Susan,

I certainly understand the question and thank you for asking it. I go by what I’ve found to be the standard word count rule for many readers whether they are journal editors, publishing house editors, or agents, and that is to count words separately. In this case, “a lot” would be two words, not one.

I do understand the gray area, as the common understanding and intention of “a lot” is that it functions as a single meaning; however, as far as I know, “a lot” is still an article plus noun as “a” and “lot” and are being used individually in their own definitions and parts of speech the same way as their collective meanings. The etymology of “a lot” or “lot” specifically suggests that “lot” is “someone’s share” (Online Etymology Dictionary), and therefore, does function, both in the contemporary and classical sense, as a share. “A” and “lot” function as two words, the “a” interchangeable with a pronoun or proper noun. The same can be said about “no one” and “no” and “one.” An example:

  • She gathered a lot of stuff from the apartment before leaving him.
  • She gathered her lot of CDs and bonsai trees and the miniature collection of plastic bobble heads before leaving him.
  • She left him a lot.
  • She left him on Wednesdays and Fridays and every other Saturday evening between the hours of ten and eleven when the moon was full or her favorite cover band played “You Shook Me All Night Long” at the biker bar down the street.

One might suggest replacing “a lot” with “lot,” plus the added details, is a better construction, and therefore, “a lot,” as one meaning, could be considered clichéd and too vague. In the second usage, “a lot” appears to be completely inappropriate for the intention of the clause and might even be considered a far lesser construction for many of the same reasons as the prior. Regardless, as I see it, the intention of “a lot” is two words in both cases.

All in all, thank you for the question. I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought on “a lot” this much prior to your question. I suppose, when I do think about it, I don’t use “a lot” much in my own writing, except perhaps in informal dialogue. Your question has made me think on this not only as an editor but also as a writer. Much obliged.

All best,



The Editors

6 Replies to “Ask the Editors | Word Count, a Lot, and No One”

  1. What if I pushed all the words in a story together, as if they were carriages of a train that had crashed into the front of a tunnel entrance after a landslide.

    For instance:


    Would you class the above as one word?

    1. Hah! You know? As hard as the concept is on the eyes, I would really like to see it done well. Very well.

  2. short short fiction is desgined to meet a demographic raised on TV. That is, people who think Hemingway is genius, or rather illiterates. Reading hurts their brains 🙁 . A one word short short would throw everything into flux and be way too Faulkner or Joyce. So, no. You have to be “economical” or simple. And, yes, if you read between the lines, rich people hate a literate underclass. Their book=Milton, the Bible, or Shakespeare. The upper class? More along the lines of Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy.

    1. This is interesting, Bob. I would agree that shorter works appeal to many who are more visually intrigued, be that television, film, paintings, multimedia, etc., but I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive by any means. So many well-done works within any of these venues, though, I’m not much of a television watcher, myself. Outside HBO and news. I’m more of a film person and usually get my news from digital issues online. I certainly certainly understand the draw of TV for many, though. I know excellent readers and writers who have favorite television shows and are religious about it. I don’t normally prejudice one against the other. I’m not sure Faulkner or Joyce would be considered “one-worders.” I honestly see them as much more word prolific than that, but to each his own. I would say they are experimentalists within their time. I also like Milton and Shakespeare aside Hemingway. Such a lovely practice to place classics with modernists, postmodernists or any other era. Spent an undergraduate degree doing that. I’m thankful for it. I guess I’m somewhere between middle and upper, if I were to break down my family’s economics for you, but I’ve spent some time in middle to lower, and I’ve run a few gamuts of paycheck to paycheck and no money to buy milk after paying rent. I, for one, appreciated Faulkner, Joyce, Milton, Bible, Shakespeare, Hemingway, McCarthy then and now, but I like to throw a little femme in there as well. Disappoints the way the femme is so often forgotten. If you like Joyce, I would suggest reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. You may find it sufficiently rigorous if you are a Finnegan’s Wake man. O’Connor, Gaitskill, Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley…. So many. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Hello Bob:

    I’m not sure if I’ve picked you up correctly but are you saying that economical or simple writing is somehow dumber?

    When people go through trying times they tend to talk plainly. They use simple language to explain profound injury or disastrous experience. Because of this, I think Hemingway and McCarthy’s writing is authentic.

    Everything from TV to Twitter has changed the game. Twitter has 500 million active users as of 2012. 500 million people now communicate in 140 characters or less. Kids these days watch thirty second clips on You Tube instead of two hour movies showing slow-moving panoramas of the American countryside.

    This will have an enormous impact on how we, as writers, tell stories or communicate ideas. I don’t necessarily think we’re being dumbed down because of it. I think maybe we’re being forced to make our ideas more concise or leaner by stripping away an unnecessary fat.

    For the record, I don’t own a TV, don’t tweet, and think that Joyce is the greatest writer who ever lived. An important thing to note about Joyce though is that he was a modernist. If he was alive today, he’d be fully immersed in modern culture, in all its forms.

    1. Agreed, Bruno. I, too, like to think Joyce would be doing something today that would likely have us all equally stunned and envious and ready for more.

      I would add that McCarthy’s The Road was certainly minimalist. As was Child of God, to some degree, but I do not see them as representative McCarthy. Blood Meridian, arguably his magnum opus, is by far not minimalist. It’s an epic blood trail cut through the West. Quite literally, in something of a prosaic free verse, if that makes any sense at all. And for that reason, McCarthy is a beautiful example of how style and aesthetics can vary even within a single writer or artist, and it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. I was never one for the polarizations of preferences. Therefore, I have to agree with you, Bruno–short shorts, Twitter, multimedia, visual, textual long forms, etc. I love to see them in the same spaces and practiced in tandem or simultaneously by writers and artists. Fusions can be lovely, too.

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