For Word Count, Make Words Count
One of life’s great ironies for writers is that they spend their high school and college years padding essays and papers because an instructor requires a minimum word count. In the struggle to reach a 500-word or 1,000-word or 5,000-word lower limit, hurried, harried students facing a looming deadline will burden their assignments with prolix prose.
Sometimes a teacher or professor will penalize the writer for indulging in this verbose verbiage, but more often the student will get away with it, or will at worst receive a merely acceptable grade, and this bad habit will be positively reinforced.
Then, students foolish enough to decide to become journalists or practice some other form of professional writing may — oh, the irony — discover that they must develop a diametrically opposite skill: Many newspaper and magazine writers are assigned to turn articles in that adhere to a maximum word count. At first, achieving this goal may seem out of reach, but then they conduct research and interviews and the words start to pile up. Often, before they know it, they’re facing down a 4,000-word draft of a 2,500-word article.
At this point, the solution is not simply to slash nominalizations and pursue other strategies to make writing more concise,
But you’re not done yet. After you turn the piece in, your editor may ask you to provide more details or provide another point of view, and more cutting may be in order to accommodate the addition. Later, you may be told that the layout of your article is losing a page, or that the photographer assigned to shoot some pictures to go with it has so many good shots that the designer wants to add another image to the opening spread. Cut, cut, cut.
Abridging an article is usually painful for the artist who has assembled it, so count on a family member or a friend to provide some dispassionate direction. Writers often feel that such condensing ruins a piece, but the truth is that readers are unlikely to feel that anything is missing. If it’s any consolation, if you retain republication rights, you might be able to sell a more extension version to another publication, or you can post the entire article to your own Web site. (You might even request that the editor run the full article, rather than the version published in the print publication, on the publication’s site.)
You can always ask your editor to make more room for your story, but the decision is up to them (or may be out of their hands even though they would prefer to do so), and it’s unwise to push your argument farther than one polite request. A writer who turns in lean copy and will graciously render it even leaner on request is a writer who receives additional assignments or gets calls or emails about subsequent pitches returned.
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