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Are you fastidious about planning for your desired word count? If not, you should be. Read on to learn why….
Whenever a writer asks me why it’s so important to know their word count goal before starting to write, I tell them the following story.
I used to be an enthusiastic hiker — before chronic back pain sidelined me. But despite my enthusiasm, I always insisted on knowing (roughly) how many hours the hike was going to take and what the elevation gain would be. That way, I could prepare myself both physically and mentally.
If the hike was going to take six hours and involve an elevation gain of 5,000 ft. (1,524 m), I’d know I’d need to bring more food and more gear than if it were a two-hour stroll with an elevation gain of only 750 feet (228 m). I’d also make sure I had a really good sleep the night before my six-hour hike. And I’d pace myself more carefully during it — beginning more slowly and more steadily, recognizing that I’d need to be spending a lot more time on that hill.
Writing requires the same sort of planning, perhaps even more so.
Let’s imagine you’re an English student and you’ve been assigned to produce a piece on Shakespeare. But somehow, through a massive miscommunication, your prof hasn’t given you a word count.
Why is that such a problem?
Well, let’s imagine your prof had a 250-word essay in mind. For a humongous topic like “Shakespeare?” What you’d need to produce would be an encyclopedia type of entry giving his birth and death dates, his family history (father was a glove maker and leather worker), his roles as an actor, his involvement with the Globe theatre and his fame as an author of 37 plays and 154 sonnets.
But what if what your prof wanted was actually 2,500 words? If that were the case, you’d need to provide substantially more detail. And the best way to do it might be to pick two sonnets and compare them in terms of style, subject matter, and ultimate reception in the publishing world.
Or perhaps your prof wanted a 25,000-word essay. An entirely different kettle of fish! Here, you would need to develop a really substantive topic, allowing you to look in depth at a particular area. You could perhaps address the difference between Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies (or tragedies and histories) and consider illustrating your arguments via an in-depth examination of two of his plays.
Or perhaps you’re a PhD student and what your prof wants is a 250,000-word dissertation. If that were the case, your job would be of a different order of magnitude altogether. You’d need to do many months of research and you’d also have to develop a significant research question that would allow you to make an original contribution to the field of Shakespearian studies.
Of course I’m joking a little when I sketch out this scenario. After all, if you were going into a PhD, you’d already know your prof would require more than 250 words. Still, I run into a surprising number of academics (and other writers) who have no idea what their expected word count needs to be.
Don’t do this to yourself! If your editor or professor won’t give you a word count, then give it to yourself. (You can often calculate a reasonable number by simply measuring what other writers in your situation have already done.)
Here’s why word counts are so useful:
- Word count is sinfully easy to measure. Every word processing program does it automatically. If you’re using MS Word you can see your word count directly at the bottom of every screen. (I get cross with editors or professors who talk in “page” counts. This is a blindingly imprecise measure because of the differences in type size, page size, leading — the space between the lines — and margins.) Word count is the most specific measure that exists. Use it.
- A word count makes writing easier by limiting what you write. Don’t waste your time writing words (or worse, researching concepts) that you’re never going to have the space to use. Instead, make sure your work matches the scope of the project. If your word count is 600 words, you will not be able to use interviews from 10 people or 35 citations. So, don’t do that work. It’s a waste of your time. (And if you’re genuinely interested in the subject, you can always do more reading later, when you’re not on the clock.)
- A word count helps you set clearer — and more useful — expectations of yourself. If you know your overall word count is 2,500 words, for example, you can look at the goal and determine that you’ll be able to cover three points at 560 words apiece. This will give you a total length of 1,680 words, which is a little short of what you need. But remember you’ll also require an introduction (let’s budget 400 words for that) and a conclusion (ditto) and suddenly, you’ll have a total of 2,480 words — within 20 words of your goal. (This same strategy works for any length of writing. Just take your total word count, figure out how many points you want to make, and calculate how many words you have for each point. Easy-peasy.)
- Writing to a word count is a relatively easy routine to maintain. Did you know that if you write 250 words per day you’ll have more than 91,000 words at the end of the year? Do yourself a favour and write a small number of words every day.
Having a clear word count puts you in control. It makes your job seem easier and more feasible. And it allows you to spend the right amount of time on what you need to do, rather than too much time on work that won’t be useful.
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How much attention do you pay to word count – before you start writing? 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 May 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!