July 30, 2016

A Few Words on Word Counts: How to Beef Up or Slim Down

Anyone who’s written term papers by the page knows the tricks: how to adjust margins or insert superfluous information to meet the professor’s requirements (some of my former classmates used to insert material from other term papers, but that’s another story). Mr. Muse is often surprised when I tell him the article I’ve spent the last hour agonizing over is only supposed to be 800 words. “800 words?” he’ll say. “That’s it!? I could write that much in half an hour.”
But in copywriting or journalism, cheap tricks don’t cut it. Every word must count, moving the story forward and reinforcing the central message. Sure, you can use language to inject personality into your piece, but too much of that distracts and even confuses the reader.
Sometimes word counts are negotiated upfront with editors or clients. For instance, when I’m working with a client who thinks more copy is automatically better, I might explain the short attention spans of many readers (especially online), emphasizing why short, punchy copy that’s packed with quality information often trumps flabby, rambling copy. And when an editor asks me to write 300 words and be sure to mention X, Y, and Z, I might ask her to prioritize or adjust the word count so we don’t overwhelm the reader. Other times, I simply try to “make it work” as Tim Gunn would say.
And in the process of “making it work,” I’ve discovered some strategies that help. Most editors don’t mind if your article is slightly longer or shorter than the assigned word count, as long as it’s within 10% of the target. Here’s how to get there.
Tips for Shortening Copy
Paraphrase quotes.
Some experts like to hear themselves talk, so they’ll chatter on about the latest, greatest cancer treatments or the newest, coolest web apps for hours. If you can get the same point across in fewer words, do it. In most cases, quotes should add color to your article rather than serving as exposition.
Axe adverbs.
Stephen King reportedly said that “the road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” Sometimes these modifiers make sense, but other times they weaken your writing. Print out your piece and circle all the adverbs to see if it still makes sense without them. If not, choose stronger verbs or adjectives so you can communicate the same message in fewer words. Then repeat the exercise and see if you still need all those adjectives.
Be ruthless.
When trimming the fat from your web content or your essay, don’t get too attached to that clever turn of phrase or that killer bit of dialogue. Your copy needs to go on a diet, so it’s time for some tough love. Ask yourself, “does this section support the point of this piece or does it exist to show off my wordsmithing skills?” If it’s the latter, you know what you need to do. You can always start a running document with your favorite phrases from the cutting room floor and see if they might work better in a future piece.
Tips for Lengthening Copy
Do more research.
Go back to your sources and ask them to elaborate. See if you can dig up some interesting statistics or a recent study that supports your article’s thesis. Interview additional experts and be sure to ask, “what else should I know about this topic?”
Suggest a sidebar.
If your piece feels complete, but it’s still not long enough, talk to your editor or client about creating a sidebar. This could cover something tangentially related to your topic or go more in depth on something mentioned in your article. For instance, I just filed an article about energy drinks and the sidebar compared the caffeine content in popular energy drinks to other beverages. Sidebars can also be a list of additional resources or tips.
Work in colorful details.
You don’t want to needlessly add fat, so choose a few salient details that bring the story to life and reinforce the piece’s central message. Maybe you could describe how the bride’s face lit up each time she mentioned her new hubby. Or perhaps you could bring in some details about the subject’s physical appearance, demeanor, or surroundings, like how he seemed right at home in the crowded coffee shop or how her foot bobbed anxiously throughout the interview.
What about you? How do you beef up or slim down your copy? We’d love to know!


  1. Great article, Susan!

    Another way to lengthen – separate more commonly connected words. Same goes as advice to shorten. I use the word "healthcare" typically as one word, but if I'm trying to meet a word count and I'm short by a few, I'll separate that into "health care." It's still perfectly acceptable, and it allows me to meet the arbitrary count without watering down the text. And if I'm shortening it, combining words that can be combined can help.

  2. Lindsey Donner says:

    I think ruthlessness is key to tightening copy, whether it's making it longer OR shorter – you have to be your own critic, which is extremely difficult for everyone. I constantly catch mistakes, although they are fewer in number than they were a few years ago, and I finally realized this: the key is to give myself more time/room for revisions.

    Not copyedits, but true revisions.

    When we're on deadlines, or have a client breathing down our neck, we tend to forget this simple rule. At least I do. A third or fourth major revision always yields better copy for me.

  3. I love reading your posts Susan! I always learn how to make my writing better and better :).

  4. I am often in a position to lengthen or shorten my writing pieces, and your specific suggestions for how to do it are right on. I recently wrote a post your readers might be interested in on how long each type of document (brochure, article, blog post, etc.) should be: http://www.finaldraftcommunications.com/working-with-word-count/.

  5. TitleMuse says:

    Great article. I like the suggestion about axing adverbs. That's a technique I have never tried but I like it and will definitely try using it in the future. I think being ruthless is definitely the hardest part, but it seems to become more instinctive over time.