5 Tips for Writing Within Word Count Limits

Whoever said “If I had more time, I would have written less…” stuck a red pen through the hearts of writers for generations to come. So many words, so little time — and space!

Variations of the quote have been connected to John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain. The original, though, is thought to have been written by French mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal in a letter in 1657. Translated from French, it read:

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”*

Any writer who’s bumped up against a word count limit understands Pascal’s pain. But Pascal couldn’t imagine the challenges of today’s digital writers (nor that a computer programming language would be named after him in the late 1960s — but no room for that here).

Today’s writers must craft tight copy for webpages being viewed by people on smartphones. We’re communicating via brief Facebook updates and 140-character Tweets. Web articles must be chunked out for easy scanning across multiple pages. Case studies, white papers, appeal letters, essays — everything we write must be tight, to the point and persuasive.

Word Counts: Writer’s Best Friend or Worst Enemy?
Do you live and die by your word count checker? Do you exceed word count limits set by editors, bosses, professors and clients — only to have your prose hacked down to size later?

Truth is, writing tight and concise is harder than opening the spigot and letting our genius flow. Pascal knew this and we know it, too. Tight writing takes planning and attention to detail. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned along the way to make word limits your friend, not your enemy.

1. Plan before you write. A carpenter wouldn’t build a bookcase without a plan, right? Writers need a blueprint too, especially to work within word count limits. I like to sketch out what the final piece might look like — including headline, subheads, bullet lists and footer information. I look at my source material and determine what needs to fit in the space I have before I actually start writing. Whittling down the information first saves time and precious space.

2. Check your word count often. Microsoft Word and Google Docs offer helpful word count and character count tools. Check your word counts early and often, and adjust accordingly! If you have a 500-word limit on a essay and you’ve spent 250 words on your lead—you’re already squeezed. Word count checkers help you balance your pieces and rethink your writing approach.

3. Set expectations with clients. Clients want webpage copy and articles to be “short, punchy, attention grabbing.” At the same time, some want to include a lot of information, quotes and sources. We can’t have it both ways. Plan upfront with clients and save extra information for spinoff or companion webpages and articles. In fact, that’s the next tip.

4. Save extra material for other pieces. Rather than trying to cram everything into a short webpage, feature story or blog article —save extra material for other pieces. Writers are always looking for other things to write about, and clients always need more opportunities to connect with their audiences and promote their products and services. It’s a win win!

5. Come in under the word count limit! You thought a 400-word limit for a one-page appeal letter or case study was tight? Guess again! How many times have you written right up to the word limit, only to have reviewers add tons more copy? We’ve all felt the pain of having to chop down copy in the eleventh hour—losing flow, balance and sometimes logic in the process.

Clients in the print world might reduce type size to make all the copy fit on a page. No one wants to read a wall of 10-point text — not in print nor on the web. Write under the word limit to allow reviewers to add their 2 cents. NOTE to editors: Set guidelines for reviewers on word counts, asking them to check copy for accuracy and meaning — not add more.

Well I’m about out of room. How do YOU handle your word count limits? Do you sweat them or forget them? Please post your tips in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

* Source: Quote Investigator, “If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter

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