Every word matters: the importance of Word Count

Dec 19, 2013

Every word matters: the importance of Word Count

Dec 19, 2013

From the newsroom

Sahana Charan

“The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” ― Dr. Seuss , the late American children’s writer, poet and cartoonist.

This is an interesting take on journalistic writing and to some extent, does summarize why word count is so important to a news report or feature story, or even to a blog or web post. That is not to belittle the long form, which is still used in certain stories in popular newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. But in most newsrooms, this diktat is written in stone — saying more in fewer words is an art that journalists and writers cannot do without.

There may be many reasons why editors insist that a particular story – be it a news report, a magazine article, an investigative feature or even a film review – should be of a certain length. As Dr. Seuss says, readers’ attention span is just one of them. Lack of space in the newspaper could be another.

Learning about word count the hard way

For me, sticking to the word count is more about keeping a story tight. So tight that no one could get an unnecessary word in even if they wanted to. And so tight that your readers find the article worth every word that they have read.

It has happened to most of us. As bright-eyed rookie reporters, we decide that the story would be power-packed if it is crammed with adjectives, replete with long-winding descriptions and soaked in flowery language. And then, when the article is sacrificed on the chopping block and comes out looking nothing like your version, you crash into reality – a good story is not about having so much you say but about saying something worthwhile.

Here are a few tips that I have picked up along the way –

1. First, edit in your mind – One thing seasoned journalists often do is to edit out unnecessary information even before they have sat down to write, while reporting an event or working on a special story.  Let me explain that – when you think of a sentence you want to write, you play the sentence over in your mind a few times, make it as tight as you can and then write it down. This will help when you start writing, since there will be more clarity on the important bits.

2. Select relevant information – An article should ideally focus on one idea and build on it rather than presenting many ideas that make the article look ambiguous. For e.g. if you are doing a story about a survey presented by the Health and Family Welfare Director on nutrition data in children, instead of starting with who presented it and giving mundane statistics, pick one interesting point such as what was lacking in daily food intake that brought about severe malnutrition and mention other points very briefly. This will engage the reader and also make the copy short and crisp.

3. Don’t write passively – Using passive words slows down a story. The sentences should have action and active verbs and words. These also help simplify and shorten sentences. So instead of saying “The new drug was discovered and patented by a group of scientists from X medical institute” say – Scientists from X medical institute discovered and patented a new drug. Here is a good example of a recent news piece http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jul/16/malala-yousefzai-documentary-davis-guggenheim.

4. If it is a well-researched or an investigative story which has to be elaborate, don’t cut down on the data but cut down on the useless words. Apart from the adjectives and adverbs, remove words like firstly, secondly, more and more, each and every, quite, very, to begin with, etc.

5. The most important rule about adhering to the word count is to be able to sensibly reduce, edit and re-edit your own copy. It is also the most difficult thing to do but remember – you did rather edit your story to keep its essence intact rather than someone else chopping it and changing the whole meaning.

Word count for blogs

Those starting new on the blogosphere often have this doubt — How long should my posts be?  Unlike print news or feature articles, blogs do not have the restriction of space because on the internet you do not worry about column size and word count.

But how much can we abuse this freedom is something to think about. It is no doubt that space is not a problem but in these days where attention spans waver and patience is short, not many readers may have the time or inclination to go through the whole blog post, if it is painfully long.

While there is no unbending rule about what the word length for a blog post should be, for beginners it is always better and easier to have some guidelines. For the sake of search engine optimisation, experts recommend that posts should be at least 250-300 words long. If you look at a sampling of popular blogs across the internet, typically posts are between 300 to 1500 words. If you are specifically new to blogging then it may be advisable to start with short pieces and then move on to longer ones, just so you retain the flow.

I feel that a blog post should be as long or short as you feel the topic demands it to be. If it is a subject that can be finished in 150 words while retaining its essence, then finish it in that many words. But if the post is discussing, in your opinion, something that is important to a larger audience and commands a bigger word count, so be it.

Here are examples of typical blogs. The first one is 1300 words long and is a review of a memoir that discusses historical and political events in the life of Burma and probably needs that many words.  The second one is about the media frenzy about Kate and Will’s royal baby. It is 493 words in length and conveys its message well in that many words.

1. http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jul/24/burma-despots-and-laughter/


Word length for different genres

1. News story – 500 words


2. News feature – 600-1000 words http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/12/world/asia/siege-by-taliban-strains-pakistani-girls-schools.html?hp


In long form, features and articles can go up to 3000-5000 words.

3. Food review – 600 words



4. Short story – 1000 – 5000 words



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