Why word count matters

Saturday, March 02, 2013

At the age of 16, a local editor asked me to share a sports story - a first-person account about a college sports figure I knew.

"Just write until you've told the story," he instructed.

So, I did as told and turned in a 1200-word article about a Nebraska Husker football walk-on.

The editor printed the entire story. Not a single cut, no changes.

Imagine my surprise when my college paper editor demanded I limit my stories to 500 - 700 words.

I would agonize over word choice and details, scrimping on what I wanted to say so my work would be published.

Years later, when a regional publication asked me to cover a 1:1 laptop bootcamp at a local high school, I turned in a 2300 word article. Sure, I knew it was too long, but the information was valuable, informative, and timely.  I didn't know what to cut and left it up to my editor. It turned into a two-day feature. Nothing fell victim to his editing pen.

From these examples I gained immeasurable insight about the power of words and how to make each one count.

A word count forces an author to be concise and precise. It makes a writer prioritize which info is vital and which can be cut. Word count makes writing tighter  and demands that each word put on paper makes a difference, a lasting impression of a particular subject.

Now, when my weekly newspaper column is due, I know the 500-word piece won't stray from the original intent, won't change the final outcome.

In other words, I turn in a comprehensive view of the subject in the prescribed word count range. I know it's focused. I know it gets to and makes a point.

Word count is critical in any kind of writing.  It makes a tighter, cleaner story and gives readers a chance to glean necessary details without wading through a wordy piece.

Word count is a useful tool that makes me a better writer. . . And it can improve your writing, too.

By LuAnn Schindler


Sioux Roslawski said...

LuAnn--When I write a submission that has a small word count requirement (500 or even--yikes! 150 words), it is a wonderful exercise to condense, condense, condense.

Sometimes even slashing and burning doesn't work--sometimes I can't take a longer piece and simply cut some parts out. In those instances, I have to start with my central theme/idea from my longer piece, and begin a whole new piece.

LuAnn, there was even a time when a prose piece was sounding clumsy, so I ended up writing a memoir as a free verse poem. It worked perfectly, and reminded me that in poetry, there are no spare words or wasted white space or pointless punctuation. It ALL matters.

Thanks for the post, LuAnn.

Margo Dill said...

Your examples are so interesting--the ones that weren't cut at all! I remember when I first started writing for newspapers and they would say, "We need a 5-inch story." I freaked out--how many words is that? The editor told me to measure in the paper and count and get an average! :) So, I did. And I survived, but I find it easier when I am given an exact word count.

Marcia Peterson said...

I agree that word count is very important. First, editors have reasons for wanting a certain length and those guidelines should be respected. Also, paring a piece down to fit a word count so often results in a better piece of writing, as you mentioned!

Susie - Walking Butterfly said...

My writing career began with a short and concise newspaper column, after that I blogged for the last 5 years, also short and to the point. Now that I am trying to write a book, it is so hard to make the transition!

All that short-style writing taught me to self-edit as I go and now I am struggling to EXPAND on my theme in order to produce a whole chapter. Always learning!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Interesting examples, Annie! Why in the heck did that editor tell you to write until you told the whole story, and then tell you to cut it in half?! Yikes. As an editor, it's important to be clear from the very beginning. The last thing I want to do is cut a writer's article in half. That's so much extra work, when one quick direction would save hours.

But then again, I could see him assuming you've read the publication and knew the word count. I know I assume that when readers pitch to WOW and then do a double take when I read they are proposing a 700-word feature when our features are 2,000 words.

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