Hit your word count the first time
Remember the old saw: “After you’ve written your first draft, rewrite it as if you have a rule that it can’t be printed until it’s cut by one-third”?
Wait! So first, we’re supposed to write a piece that’s 33 percent longer than required, then unwrite a third of it?
Who has time
I cringe every time a writing teacher trots out this advice from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well:
“If you give me an article that runs to eight pages and I tell you to cut it to four, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you will go home and do it, and it will be infinitely better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.”
Who has time
Sorry, but I think a writer who can cut an eight-page article to three pages hasn’t done the hard but efficient work of tightening her focus upfront.
Selection, redirection and compression are the three big ways to cut your copy after you write it. But the most efficient way to keep your piece short is to write to fit your assigned word count in the first place.
1. Develop a budget.
Once you identify the best length for your piece, create a rough outline, estimating word counts for each section. For a 900-word feature for a health care system’s quarterly marketing magazine, for instance, I might start by estimating the lead and kicker:
That’s 200 words, which leaves 700. That means the three sections in the body will be about 250 words each.
My final budget:
- Lead: Anecdote, nut graph, quote, transition — 150 words
- Section 1: Anecdote 1, quote, anecdote 2, statistic, anecdote 3, analogy — 250 words
- Section 2: Anecdote, quote, statistic, analogy — 250 words
- Section 3: Anecdote, quote, statistic, analogy — 250 words
- Kicker: Wrap up, quote — 50 words
2. Edit before you write.
The 250 words I’ve budgeted for section 1 will probably be plenty for an anecdote, a quote, a statistic and an analogy, plus transitions between them. But I can see from here that 250 words won’t accommodate three anecdotes along with my other material.
So instead of wasting time writing all three anecdotes now, then wasting more time editing them out later, why not edit them out before you write?
My revised budget for section 1:
- Anecdote 1
3. Keep counting.
Once you start writing, you’ll want to track whether you’re staying on budget. So run word count frequently.
Write your lead, then run word count. Over budget? You’ll need to make up for that in the body, so change your plan before you write.
As you write section one, run word count often. On track? Great! Keep going. Not so much? Stop and adjust your plan.
Not only does tracking your word count give you a rewarding sense of progress, but you’ll also learn early and often if your words are mounting too fast.
If you’re burning words too quickly — or not quickly enough — adjust your plan, edit before you write, then move on.
Quit while you’re ahead.
I recently heard a new take on an old proverb that actually offers helpful writing guidance:
“All’s well that ends.”
Which brings us to the No. 1 way to tighten your entire piece: Stop writing. Take a tip from my favorite philosopher, Anonymous, who said:
“Write a great beginning,
write a great ending
and keep them close together.”