How to write to a character count (video)

Viewing time: 4 mins. 25 secs. 

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question looks at how to write to set character count.If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question. 


Have you ever struggled with writing to a set character count? That’s the topic I’m addressing today in The Write Question. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant, the Publication Coach. 

I have a question from Marla Holmes, a writer based in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Here’s what she asked by email…. 

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these days many writing ‘opportunities’ require filling out forms. And, of course, these forms usually have a maximum letter count. I always thought it was bad enough when we had to write to a specific number of words, but letters? Letters?! It makes me feel like a computer. Do you have any tips for making this process feel less onerous and less tiresome?” 

Thanks for your question, Marla. You’ve reached me at the perfect time because I’ve recently helped one of my adult daughters submit her applications to a variety of graduate programs across the country. And the vast majority of those damn forms came with a character count! In my daughter’s case somewhere between 1500 and 1800 characters was typical. 

Now, don’t roll your eyes at me, but I’ve never minded writing to a set word count. I like the constraint of that. And the word count gives me a pretty good idea of how challenging the job is going to be. 

So here are my suggestions for you: 

First, don’t ever write your first draft on the computer form itself. That’s just going to increase your annoyance level. Instead, compose in a clean Word document and then copy and paste the words to the form when you’re done. 

Second, calculate the specific word count you’re aiming at. I may not understand how long 1,500 characters is — it sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But it turns out 1,500 characters is only 265 words. As a writer, I KNOW what producing 265 words feels like so I can adjust my expectations. 

To perform this calculation, just open any long Word document and highlight some text. Then activate the little dialogue box under Tools/Word Count. [Video shows this box onscreen at 2:12.] This will not only tell you how many words you’ve highlighted, it will also reveal how many characters

Once you know the word count you’re aiming at and you’ve done the writing, it’s likely you’ll discover that what you’ve written is too long. My daughter certainly fell into that camp. If this is the case, you’ll need to start cutting text. Again, doing this in a Word doc is going to be WAY easier and less stressful than doing it on the form. 

Crucially, understand that if you need to shorten the piece by 20 per cent or more, you won’t be able to accomplish this task by eliminating words or sentences. 

Instead, you’ll need to identify major chunks to remove. Don’t think too hard about this. Just get out your hatchet and excise that text. For example, if your argument involves four points reduce it to three. And if it’s already three, cut it down to two. 

I include a link below to a blog post I’ve written on the topic “How to write the perfect amount of copy.” Be sure to check it out. 

Marla, the work of cutting text can sometimes feel painful. But here’s how I suggest you think about the process: Remind yourself that everyone else filling out these forms is in exactly the same boat. 

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the novelist Stephen King“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”  

Marla, yes, it can be hard work to write to a specific character count. But don’t freak yourself out with the demands of forms. Just view this kind of writing as a game that you’re trying to play. It will be much less painful if you can adopt that attitude. 

If you’d like to write with greater ease and happiness, take a look at my latest book Your Happy First Draft. I don’t sell it in bookstores or via Amazon. The only place to buy it is on my website, link below. 


How to write the perfect amount of copy 

Your Happy First Draft 

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