Episode 45: Loving Word Limits


Age brings changes: wrinkles, glasses, muscle atrophy. For me, I morphed from a student gasping when a teacher or professor gave word or page requirements (“1000 words?”) to a writer/editor wondering how I can make it all fit (“Less than 2000 words?”). I blame the education system for teaching me to belabor a point to death—and my own desire to hear that voice in my head.

But word limits are not without merit. The editor side of me loves that I can throw my weight around by imposing my will (not really), but even as a writer, I find several benefits:

  • Set expectations: A clearly defined word limit means less worry about not meeting an editor’s approval. Even if there aren’t guidelines in place, editors can still have certain unspoken ideas about what they want. If you know the word count, you know what you need to do.
  • Forced concentration: While it’s always wonderful to have the freedom to ramble as I see fit, I even impose a word limit on my blog posts (500 words) because that’s usually the limit for web attention and because it forces me to be concise. I like puzzles, and word limits force me to work out how I’m going to address every topic or which ones need to be dropped.
  • Structure: Word limits also promote better structure for most writing. You have to know what you’ll address and where.

Not all writing needs limits, but I find that when I impose them voluntarily, my writing improves—but it does take some planning and forethought. So, here are my steps for meeting limits (with my personal approach for a recent magazine article):

  1. Read some articles or books that are about the same word limit you’ve been given. Just get a feel for the flow and how much you’ll be able to discuss. Pay attention to how many main points there are for shorter pieces, since you’ll have to limit yours as well.
  2. Write out the main points you think will fit. In a 500-word article that I wrote about bird flu, for example, I started out with four: recent history, symptoms, source, and significance.
  3. Fill in all the facts that you have about each one. In my case, I listed three main facts for each point.
  4. Combine points if possible. Early on I realized I could combine symptoms and source.
  5. Compose the article. Once I had my outline, the facts blended together fairly simply into a short discussion.
  6. Trim the fat. For my money, it’s always easier to trim than it is to add. Shoot for the word limit or a little more. If your work falls short, revisit your outline. As for cutting, the easy trim method is 1) snip periphrastic phrasing, unnecessary words, and tentative adverbs (e.g., “in order to,” “facilitated,” “in fact,” “probably”), 2) make compound subjects or predicates instead of multiple sentences, and 3) check for redundancy.

Word limits don’t need to be harbingers of doom. They can be a boon to creativity.

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