Rage Against the Word Count

Thursday, November 3, 2011
I’m going to admit something that may make me sound like an overachieving priss. Back in college, when assigned 750 word papers (it could be expected you’d be writing two or three of these per English course) I consistently turned in 1000 - 1500 word papers. I never felt I could make my point in 750 words, so I just kept writing until I ran out of things to say.

Did the papers need to be twice their assigned length? Probably not. Given enough time with a red editing pen, no doubt I could have slashed out hundreds of extra words, removed redundant points and turned in a tight 750 paper. But since my papers, regardless of their length, more often than not earned “A”s, trimming the papers seemed like a waste of time. Professors may have gotten more than they’d asked for with my ridiculously long papers (for one 10-page paper assignment, I turned in 18 pages), but I got exactly what I wanted.

In hindsight, it probably would have behooved the professors to dock me points for my lengthy papers. Certainly, I successfully answered the question asked in the assignment, but my blatant disregard of the paper’s word limit really meant I hadn’t completed the paper in the manner in which it had been assigned. I would have raged against any professor who suggested I might cut my paper, (“But I can’t make my point in less than 1300 words!”) but truth of it is: they would have been right and I would have been wrong.

As it is, I’ve had to curb my verbosity all by my lonesome. Long-windedness is an indulgence; one that most freelance writers don’t get to experience.

If I turned in a 1500 word article for a 750 word assignment these days, my editors would have a shit-fit. In freelance writing, I’m given a word count because that’s literally all there’s room for in the publication. Even if the writing isn’t for a print publication, the writing still must be concise because you can’t expect to hold people’s attention for much more than 500 words on the web.

Right now I’m working on a 1000 word article for a publication with the largest circulation I’ve ever written for. It’s also my highest paying market to date. As exciting as it is, there’s just one little rub: I have enough material to write a solid 2500 word article.

In the past couple days I’ve been trying to cram every possible point I want to make for the article into the confines of 1000 words. I’ve cut and cut and cut. I’ve reworded sections and reorganized points. It feels not dissimilar to shoving just one more clown into the car.

I’ll get this sucker down to 1000 words if it’s the last thing I do. I have no choice. Regardless of when I run out of things to say, I run out of words at the 1000 mark.


  1. I know what you mean. I have a 6,000 word article due by Monday and I'm at 10,000 words. Such is life.

  2. ahhhhhhhh! as your editor/teacher i would have flipped at you! i've always been a way better editor than writer... in college, i always offered to cut long-winded essays down to their proper length. 1300 words instead of 750?! woah.

  3. Congrats to payment and circulation! Words, well, not enough writer here. LOL

  4. sometimes I write longer things, sometimes shorter, but I have always hated constraints on length. Urgh.

  5. Exciting about the assignment! But I hear ya, it's hard for me to curtail my words too. But in the end, usually it ends up reading better with the extraneous stuff cut out. It makes sense there would have to be a boundary!

  6. I enjoy this post. I've started wondering lately if I ought to use my blog posts as opportunities to try to edit and cut to the point of ruthlessness--I have a feeling I would get more responses on a shorter, concise piece of writing. At the moment (if I edit) I'll cut what is obnoxious to me, but I won't use "samurai mind," as I think Julia Cameron or Natalie Goldberg puts it.

  7. Word counts are the devil for sure. I so love reading your freelance posts. As an up-and-coming freelancer, they're so helpful!


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