Why I Hate Strict Word Counts for Written Content
I hate writing for a specific word count. More than 300, less than 1000, 835 and not one word more. UGH.
And yet, I do it. I even base content pricing on the word count requested. But it’s not my favorite way to write. Here’s why.
Note: I’m primarily discussing content that you write as a freelancer. But if your website is meant to be your business or to be strictly informational, some of this will apply.
Too Many Words Kills Simplicity
I have found myself adding fluff simply to hit a word count. My phrases lack conciseness. “To” becomes “in order to.” “Because” becomes “in other words” or “and as such.”
That makes me sound awful, but hear me out: The piece is written, and I’ve made the all the points I can. I’ve explained them thoroughly but in an easy-to-understand why. When I’m done, I edit for clarity, typos, and to make sure it’s as good as I can make it. But it’s 25 words shy of the mandated minimum word count. Without repeating myself, there’s nothing else to add.
Writing for an online reader needs to be concise. (Yes, there’s room for complex sentences and thoughts on the internet. I revel in this kind of content.) But if I’ve said what makes the most sense to say on a given topic, stretching it by another 100 words to reach a “best SEO practices” number requires random thoughts, imprecise language, and bullshit.
Confession: In high school and college I did very well on essays. Sure, I enjoyed writing, but most of the time I was BS-ing to hit the required word or page count. For years I wondered if I was a decent writer or just great at bull shit. I’m still not always sure. It’s likely a combination of the two.
Too Few Words Doesn’t Always Tell the Story
As much as I tear my hair out over adding unnecessary words to a nearly completely piece to hit a minimum word count, I equally hate not being given enough words.
We only want 500 word articles because a random SEO “guru” said it was the right number in 2010. *sigh*
Also, we get a cheaper price if we only pay for this many words. *double sigh*
But with too few words, we can only scratch the surface of this topic. And the potential reader isn’t helped by this content. Instead, we’ve likely just regurgitated information on the internet.
How is this content helpful if I can’t dive into important details? If it’s too short to be useful to a reader, why would they do business with the site who published it? (Again, this is strictly for informational content purchased by a business.)
How Many Words is the Right Amount?
That’s…complicated. As a blogger, to me the answer is, “However many words you need to concisely make your point.” Concise doesn’t mean leaving out details or information — but it does mean editing out filler words, side points, anything that doesn’t fit the point you want to make.
And that’s for informational content. Keeping your words tight is good for fiction, too, but I think writers have even more freedom when writing a story or fantasy. Subplots are a thing.
But ultimately, the reader of your content decides if it’s long enough or not.
Do they ask questions with answers that could have easily been included in the post? It might have been too short.
Is your content being shared even though it’s a picture, a quote, and two sentences you wrote? It’s the perfect length.
Did a 2000 word rant get shared and now you’ve weirdly gone viral for something you never thought anyone would read to the very end? Sounds like it’s not too long at all.
Word Ranges are Imperfect, But Better
When you’re writing for yourself, write until you’re done. Edit the hell out of it. And then edit some more. Editing doesn’t just mean removing words, by the way. It can mean adding in missing content, too. In my opinion, if it’s a piece you’re proud of, it’s the correct length. If it gets positive attention, it’s the perfect length.
When you’re writing for a client, negotiate a word count range with +/- 25-50 words buffer. If a client wants a minimum word count of 750, but it’s a good piece at 725, will they be okay with that? If they pay for a 1000 word article (and aren’t paying by the word), giving them 1025 is a bonus. But also, a 975 word piece shouldn’t be rejected — as long as it’s well written and accomplishes the clients goal.
If you’re not sure, ask. The minimum word count is 1000 words but you feel like it’s done at 950. Ask the editor or client if that’s okay. Let them read it and decide if they’re okay with the length. Frankly many non-writers don’t actually know what 1000 words looks like on a screen anyway. If you give them 950 words, and it conveys their message, they’ll probably be ecstatic.
There is No Perfect Number
Figuring out the “perfect” word count is a guess at best. Sure, you can look at the word count for articles on the first page of Google. You can also see what gets a lot of attention on social media. Even this doesn’t give you a single “perfect” number — only a range.
And there’s the myth that we have worse attention spans than goldfish when we’re online. Which is used as “proof” that content shouldn’t be too long. *triple sigh*
I think it would be better if writers trusted ourselves with our own content. And if clients trusted the professionals they hire to write “enough” words for the information being shared.
Ultimately, what you write shouldn’t be inflated to hit a mythical number. And it shouldn’t be so short that it conveys nothing of interest, either. The “right” word count is whatever a reader is willing to read and find useful, interesting, entertaining, or good.
Also, side note: I hate charging or being paid by the word too because that incentivizes fluffy content.
I always have the problem of going way over wordcounts, and have to pick up my editing shears! In doing so, though, I always discover more concise ways to express the same idea, but there are moments of sadness at chopping out some content. I also hate pay by word count on submissions, and agree totally that it encourages word-flab.
It’s a fine line to walk — enough words to get your point across, too many words that are unnecessary. But I like having too many words because at least I give myself something to work with (and cut, lol). Not enough words is a STRUGGLE when there’s a minimum word count.