How to write the perfect amount of copy

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Are you always able to write the perfect amount of copy? It’s not related to luck. It’s the product of good planning and diligent editing…

I awoke at 6 this morning, as I do most mornings, and went to my office to meditate.

Then I attacked my “first morning tasks” — a checklist of 17 items that I do every morning. It may make you smile to know that this list includes the instruction to take my vitamins. (Not a hard job, to be sure, but one I might otherwise forget!)

I’m a very organized person. I say this not to brag but as a frank admission. Sometimes, my habits are dysfunctional but they reflect who I am.

You were born certain ways, too. And for writers, one of the most fundamental ways relates to whether you naturally write “long” or “short.”

It’s as simple as this: When you receive a 500-word assignment, do you typically write 600 words or more? Or do you usually produce 400 words or less? I guarantee you fall habitually into one mode or the other.

Let me hasten to add that neither is a tragedy. Well, as long as you don’t hand the story in to your editor without adjusting the length.

Here’s something you need to know about editors: Most of them are organized, like me. And they HATE getting stories (a) late, and (b) that are either too long or too short. When I used to produce a monthly publication for a forestry company, I would return stories — without looking at them — if they didn’t meet the desired word count. I’d ask the freelance writer to adjust the length before I edited.

But I was always sympathetic to the difficulty of producing “just the right amount” of copy. Most of us are a bit like Goldilocks — with her beds, chairs and porridge. It’s typical for us to find something that’s too hard, too tall or too hot. My own problem is that I was born writing too short. Interestingly, the opposite challenge — writing too long — tends to face more people.
So, here are seven ways you can edit your story to make it just the perfect length:
  1. Begin by outlining your story or article. I know, I know. I have argued vehemently against outlining for much of my coaching life. But this is the ONE time where an outline might actually help you. Why? Because if you do it retrospectively — after you’ve written — it will expose the underlying structure of what you’ve produced. I like to call this “outlining in reverse.” When you see the structure of what you’ve written you’ll be better able to decide what can be added OR removed, without harming the foundation and making the entire article collapse.
  2. If you need to shorten or lengthen the piece by 20 per cent or more, understand that you won’t be able to accomplish this by dealing with sentences. You’ll need to identify major chunks that you can either add or remove. Typically, these chunks will represent points in your argument. So if your outline shows that you’ve presented three (or four or five) points, remove one of them if you must shorten and add another one (or two) if you need to lengthen.
  3. Take the time to think about your audience again. Does your article do a good job of reaching this audience? If not, you might want to do another mindmap and figure out how to restructure. As you do this, remember that it’s far more important to make a point than to convey information. Points are memorable and useful; information often is not.
  4. Consider your angle. If your piece is too long, ask yourself whether it could be focused more aggressively. (One of the best ways to do this is to turn a single story into a three- (or more) part series.) If it’s too short, see if you can expand the focus to make it larger. Use a wide-angle lens instead of a zoom.
  5. Review the amount of description in your piece. Description — or colour — can make your article come to life. Add more of it if you need to lengthen. Reduce some (not all!) of it if you need to shorten.
  6. Reconsider your stories. Any effective piece of writing should be filled with stories, in the same way that scones are studded with raisins or shredded cheese. If your piece is too short, adding a memorable story is the single best way to lengthen it. If your piece is too long, then look to see if you can tighten (but not remove!) some of the stories.
  7. Look at your introduction and conclusion. If your piece is too long, tighten both of them, significantly. If it’s too short, lengthen both of them, ideally by adding another story or, perhaps, a metaphor or two.

There is no shame in writing too long or too short. The length of your crappy first draft should be irrelevant, because you’re never going to show it to your boss without editing first, right?

How do you get your writing to exactly the desired length? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of How to Write by Richard Rhodes. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.