For Word Count, Make Words Count

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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 to hack away at entire sentences, paragraphs, and sections, paring the piece down to its essentials. Then, when you’re within 100 words or so of your word count, you can further reduce on a phrasal level.

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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10 thoughts on “For Word Count, Make Words Count”

  1. “able to sell a more extension version to another publication”

    Should that be extensive?


  2. “…more cutting may be to accommodate…” instead of “…more cutting may be in order to accommodate the addition.”

    It’s redundant.

  3. “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil” – Truman Capote

    I once added about 30,000 words to a client’s novel (with approval!) to solve some plot problems. During editing, I took out about 10,000 of those words. The final result was much better.

    As my grandfather once told me, “You plant a lot of seeds, and then thin them out so the healthiest ones will produce more beans.”

  4. Mark, at 514 words, I think you went over the word limit for this article LOL…I think you need to pare it down…do you think you can do it?! 😉

  5. There’s one very key sentence in this article:
    “Writers often feel that such condensing ruins a piece, but the truth is that readers are unlikely to feel that anything is missing.”


    I try to read as my reader will read. Doesn’t always help pare words, but definitely makes me a more concise writer. As for photos, I’m the photographer for all of my articles so I’ve learned that if I have really great shots that I think have a good chance of being used, I’m even more careful about word count.

    I’ve often written articles that I simply cannot reduce any further without losing valuable and pertinent content, but a quick note of explanation to the editor often results in some leeway.

    In working on revisions for final copy, I often realize that certain paragraphs/key thoughts belong in an entirely separate article. In that case, I move those sections to a new document, let them stew there for a while and look back later to see if they belong in the original or not. In most cases, I don’t move them back to the original, but haven’t lost the (wonderful) thoughts and sentences I’ve created.

  6. @Precise Edit … As my grandfather once told me, “You plant a lot of seeds, and then thin them out so the healthiest ones will produce more beans.”

    And Grandfather was right. As a newspaper photographer, I shot much more film than I “needed” (maybe), but I never missed a shot.

  7. Pare some mistakes out of your last paragraph, and you might make your word count.

    “You can always ask your editor … but the decision is up to them … and it’s unwise to push your argument farther than one polite request … ”

    Editor and them aren’t consistent with each other. Furthermore, farther should be further. Don’t jah think?

  8. I’ve participated in micro-fiction writing and script writing where you have to be concise and clear in what you want to say. It has helped in reducing the unconscious padding most go through.

    The curse of that? I can’t seem to enjoy some novels now since I know there is a chunk of fluff I have to fight my way through. Such is the life.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. All my friends who know me well are aware that I dislike “padding” and “fluff,” to the point that if someone buys me a card (like a birthday or thank-you card), if it’s more than about 3 lines long, I won’t read it! I’m a bit more tolerant with prose; for example, I just got back into a workout routine and have been spending time on my elliptical. I have a Nook, and I have been “catching up” on stuff I never read before, classics like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Pride and Prejudice.” There’s a lot of what I would call “fluff” in those books, but that’s what makes them sort of period pieces and gives them more character and flavor, so…I’m going with that, and I don’t mind.

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