How Word Counts Improve Your Writing

On target writing

Every writer bucks against word counts. An assignment comes in for 1000. You get to work and suddenly you’re wanting 3000. The story is that good. Or, you’ve got a great concept for a brochure or website — and 30 words to say it.

That’s when the craft and art of writing begins.

Limits that seem like a confining wall can open a door to more creative, powerful writing. Some of the best work I’ve done, both as a fiction writer (nighttime) and agency writer (day time) comes out of wrestling word counts. After all, writing is an art of compression — getting each sentence, each word to say more, do more, mean more.

What can a tight word limit do for you?

• You look harder for the right word.

As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” You want the lightning.

• You use active verbs.

You ditch dull sentences ruled by “to be” and “to have” verbs.  Not: “The roof is slate” or “Bob has a problem with paperclips.” Maybe: “The slate roof shattered.”  “Bob seized on the paperclip problem.” In the long run, active verbs reduce word counts.

• You look for the best example.

In a half hour phone interview, what really captured you? What single statistic nails the argument? Which one story shows why this program is essential?

• You swear off passive constructions.

“The meeting was called by the president to determine new wiring strategies.” 12 words. “The president’s meeting nailed new wiring strategies.” 7 words, more punch.

• You think harder about organization.

Can the mere juxtaposition of elements, their order and relative size carry some of your meaning? Will a lead with one stunning statistic or quote save a paragraph of discourse?

• Most of all, you think harder about your purpose.

What do people not know that if they knew, would change something? How do you want the reader to think or feel? Where, exactly, do you want to move them? Once you know, every word, every sentence has to share that task. As a great editor once said, “When in doubt, cut it out.”

How do you use word counts to improve your work?

Pamela Schoenewaldt


Pamela writes long-form copy for FMB. She’s also a fiction writer, with short stories published internationally, a published novel and another on the way.

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