When I was in high school, my journalism instructor used to say that I was hard to edit because I wrote so tightly. She meant it as a compliment—emphasizing that I didn’t tend to write fluffy, loose paragraphs loaded with dross—but that tendency of mine did come back to haunt me when I had to cut a piece. One of the hardest situations a writer can face is to over-write a piece, and cut repeatedly, and STILL be over on the word count.
Adhering to an assigned word count is like the other two previously mentioned ways to make your editor your friend: it’s just common sense, as well as common courtesy. Despite this, I have received 400 word stories when I asked 2,500 and 1,500 word stories when I asked for 500. The first was from a first-time writer working on a trade magazine article who was in over his head. The second was from a long-time writer, who had also edited the publication I was working at before I did, who just felt he had more that he “wanted readers to know about” that he had to stuff in his op-ed column.
Guess whose piece I revised gladly? Guess whose piece completely hacked me off (since this all took place after deadline)?
I think most writers, experienced or not, don’t write long or short with ill intent. It also seems to me that the vast majority of writers miss word count by over-writing rather than under-writing.
Many writers do as I do when I write an article and over-research, which can lead to writing long if the scope of the article wasn’t clearly delineated when the assignment was made. Plentiful research, as useful as it is for finding the telling detail or confirming speculations made by sources, can also tempt the writer into wanting to find a way to cram everything into the article.
One of the most helpful cures when you’ve gone over your word count is to go back to your “nut graph” and strain the paragraphs that follow through that filter. How directly do they relate to the main point of your article? If the content is mostly diversion, can you make a convincing argument that the words must stay—and find other words that can go instead?
Other typical easy ways to trim an article:
- If you have a tendency to put “echo quotes” (a second source more or less agreeing with the first person, with little elaboration) in your stories, take them out.
- Write in the active voice. Passages written in passive voice almost always take more words to say the same thing.
- Watch for the tendency to engage in “throat-clearing” and write useless set-ups for our quotes.
Links to learn more about adhering to word count and writing tightly.