Are you tired of trying to draft a 1,000-word article, only to find your first draft clocks in at 3,000 words? Then it’s time to gain some new writing skills and learn how to write to length.
A reader recently asked me if I had a resource on how to hit your word count, and I realized I didn’t.
Which is silly, because I had to write to assigned length on 3-4 print stories a week for 12 years, as a staff writer. Not to mention the hundreds of short blog posts I’ve written for clients since I got back into freelancing in 2005.
And then there was that one hard-ass editor at Entrepreneur who would refuse to read my draft if it was more than 10% over assigned length. Period. THAT schooled me, for sure!
Got some writing tips to share with you on how to avoid time-wasting and overwriting in your writing process.
Ready for a simple system to avoid overwriting? Let’s go! Here are 10 key steps to cut the blather and make sure your first draft is close to target length.
1. Stop researching a book
Ever done a book’s worth of research for a 750-word article? I sure have. And it sucks.
When I first started out, I had a massive complex that I didn’t know enough. So I’d research, research, research.
Hint: Don’t read an entire book as research for a short article. You WILL know too much, and your head will explode.
I know many bloggers who don’t do interviews but research excessively, in an attempt to give their piece credibility. The compulsion to overwrite begins here, with the giant stacks of notes from your over-research.
Leaving any of this juicy stuff out is like sawing off your arm. Ugh!
Stop. It. Stopstopstop.
Only one or two research facts are going to fit in a typical short article or blog post (and that you can’t quote paragraphs out of books without permission).
When you’ve found a couple of useful facts or a good study result to cite, stop researching. Move along.
2. Don’t talk to too many
The evil twin of over-research is over-interviewing.
It’s easy to do, as each person you talk to recommends another source or two.
(Psst: All the people that source recommends are people who agree with them. You’re not getting different points of view that way!)
Next thing you know, you’re trying to fit 10 interviews into 750 words. Ain’t gonna work.
Now you’ve wasted peoples’ time!
Stick to this math rule:
“The number of sources you can fit in a story are 1 for the first 500 words… plus one more source for every additional 500 words.”–Linda Formichelli
I’d say I do a bit more than that, maybe 2 sources in the first 500? But any way you slice it, a 1000-word story fits 2-3 sources. That’s it. When you hit your quota, stop interviewing.
3. Don’t talk too long
Now that you know how many sources fit in your story, there’s one more step to avoid too much shtuff.
It’s limiting how long you talk to each person.
Unless this interviewee is your profile subject, a typical interview should be 15-20 minutes. Thirty tops.
Don’t blather on for 90 minutes, if all they’re getting is a quote or two or a paragraph paraphrased.
Respect their time, and yours. Shorter interviews mean fewer notes, and less urge to write too long.
4. Don’t start writing yet
When your research/interview phase is over, you may want to dive in and start writing, beginning your draft wherever the mood hits you.
We love the writing part! I know.
But this urge to start typing can waste a lot of time with false starts or wordy throat-clearing ledes that take too long to arrive at the point.
Overlong intros are a common first step down the road to a too-long first draft. Once the intro is long, it feels okay to overwrite all the other parts as well.
Instead of following your muse and rambling along on your topic, take a scientific approach to your piece that reliably results in correct-length drafts. Here’s how…
5. Find and organize the juice
Know the easy way to create a great short piece? Prioritize getting the best stuff into the draft.
To do this, go through your notes to the quotes and ideas that simply have to be in this article, or you’ll burst. Organize these into a simple list.
It’s time to outline your piece — what sections, subheads, or list of bullets will it have?
In the case of this piece, I outlined 10 points I needed to cover on how to improve your writing skills and write to word count. Boom!
Once you’ve taken the step of outlining your piece and identifying the key ideas, the best starting point will usually suggest itself.
Now, write that opener. And… we’re off!
6. Prune side trails
Once you’ve made your list of must-haves, you’ll usually find items left over. These are often side points or rabbit trails that lead elsewhere, away from the main point of this story.
Save yourself a lot of agony and eliminate these points from your outline. Yes, cross them all out.
Don’t be sad — these are additional article or blog-post ideas! Now, you have more ideas to pitch.
Nipping side trails in the bud instead of trying to shoehorn them into the draft is a big help in keeping the word count realistic.
7. Count sections and divide
In Step 5, you created an outline of the sections or bullets your piece will have. Now you’re ready to do one more important piece of math:
Take your target word count and divide it by the number of points or sections.
This calculation gives you the number of words each section can contain, on average. (Don’t forget to count your intro.)
Example 1: Your 1000-word piece has 4 sections, plus an intro. That means each of these parts can be roughly 200 words. That’s it!
Example 2: Your 1000-word piece is a ‘top 10’ list. With an intro and conclusion, let’s say it’s got 12 parts. That means each part has room for roughly 83 words — or one longish paragraph.
Yes, you can make one section shorter, and another longer. But thinking about average word count really concentrates the mind on the urgent need to be concise with each idea you state.
It can be shocking to look at your points and realize how little space you have to execute each one. But it helps avoid overwriting.
8. Edit by section
Now that you know the space you’ve got per section, run a quick word count after you write each section.
Too long? Cut this section down now.
I know — this violates the rule of staying in the flow of creativity. But you’ll quickly develop an instinct for how long 83 or 200 words are, and be able to eyeball the section for needed cuts.
One quick chop, and you’re on to the next section. Once you get the hang of it, writing each section to length shouldn’t interrupt your creative flow much.
9. Edit big to small
As you edit your work, start big and go smaller, to help you hack out major verbiage quickly. Begin by asking yourself if an entire section or paragraph could be cut. Then, consider each sentence and whether one could be trimmed.
If you’ve still got too many words, start looking at phrases and word choices within your sentences. Turn:
Joe thought about possibly getting up and going to the store later.
Joe considered going to the store.
The second sentence is half the length of the first. ‘Nuff said?
10. Obey the 10% rule
Good news for those who struggle to be concise: You can write over your assigned length. It’s always good to leave about 10% extra, to give your editor options.
But keep it under control.
Remember when I mentioned that editor who wouldn’t read drafts more than 10% over assigned length? That’s a good rule of thumb for writing in any case. Even if your editor would read it, you don’t really want to turn in anything that’s too far over.
When they get super-long drafts, editors do one of two things:
They kill your piece. #overwhelmed
They start randomly hacking and chopping at your beloved words. You won’t like the result.
Discipline yourself to never turn in drafts that are radically longer than assigned length — and your editor will want to assign you more.
Build your writing skills to earn more
It’s worth taking the time to build a process for writing to length. Overwriting really cuts your hourly rate. Write to length, and you spend less time on each assignment.
If you’re paid per piece, that means your hourly rate just went up. Congrats!
P.S. My first draft for this 1,500-word blog post was 1750. I used the steps above to get it to 1,486. 😉
What are your tips for writing to word count? Share in the comments.