Article Length

My biggest challenge.

Yesterday, I began writing an article for a travel magazine. The magazine is relatively well-known and it pays pretty darn well. I’ve never written about travel — beyond what you’ll find in this blog — but I think I’m up to the task.

But I am facing a challenge: word count. The article cannot be more than 1,500 words.

I’m not accustomed to working with length constraints. On my blog, I can make an article as long or as short as I want to. The same goes for the articles I write for InformIt and other Web-based publishers. (That’s one of the benefits of publishing on the Web — it costs the same to publish no matter how long it is.) Even my book publishers don’t usually limit my page count.

But this is a print publication and the limits are real. And I seriously doubt that the editors there will love my words enough to make an exception for me.

Keeping It Short

The way I see it, there are two ways to keep an article short:

  • Write it short. I’m using Word 2004 (old habits really do die hard) to write the piece. Word includes a live word count feature, so I can monitor word count as I type. This is how I’m trying to write the piece. What I’m finding is that I’m about 1/4 finished writing, but have used up more than half my alloted words. As a result, I keep going back and shortening up earlier paragraphs and sentences to make room for the rest of the story. I don’t think this is the best approach.
  • Write it without worrying about page count, then go back and edit the hell out of it. This is how I usually tackle length problems — especially when I have to shorten up text that appears on a page I’m laying out. In those instances, I’m cutting out 10 to 30 words. But at the rate I’m going with this article, I’ll have to cut more than 1,000 words. This can’t possibly be productive. After all, I’m writing material that I’m just discarding.

Another Way?

It occurs to me that there probably is another way to keep it short: rethink the entire article and reduce the amount of information I want to provide.

This is probably a more professional way to go about it. It requires me to come up with an outline of what I want to discuss and budget a certain amount of words for each part. If there are too many parts, I need to cut out the parts that don’t really communicate the theme of the piece. Once I have a handle on how to approach the article, I should be able to write it close to the proper length. I can then edit it down as needed.

The key, of course, it to stay within budget for each part of the article.

And I think this is a good example of how blogging and writing for the Web can hurt a writer. When I blog, I have no editor — it’s just me. I can write whatever I want, whatever way I want to write it. Sentence fragments? No problem. Slang? Go for it! Extensive use of parenthetical commentary? Why not (since I always have more than just one thing to say)? Bloggers who are also professional writers can lose the discipline they need to produce high-quality work for publisher with very specific needs.

But I think I’ll tackle blogging and how it affects writing skills in another post.

Any Thoughts?

Do any writers out there have some advice for me? Speak up! Use the Comments link or form.

4 thoughts on “Article Length

  1. Hey, I’m sure you’ve seen this, but I find it helpful in times like these:

    http://www.poynter.org/dg.lts/id.74960/content.content_view.htm

    I dread making the cuts, even though my work is usually much better for it–but I also hate when I’ve written to length and then someone asks for more. Once you have a near-perfect, self-contained draft, sticking more stuff into it feels like pulling teeth. (Or putting teeth back in, if we don’t want to mix metaphors)

  2. Maria,

    I do sales and marketing work and very often I have to write a short article, letter, background item or even just a piece to use as a mailer (email or snail). Word count is ALWAYS and issue, if not due to the venue, due to the attention span of the target reader.

    I am a firm believer that less is more. It’s surprising how much you can say in a few words when you’re forced to.

    Like you, I tend to write first and thin out later, the biggest disadvantage being the time I waste writing a paragraph only to edit out the entire thing when I’m counting words.

    But in the end I find it always it a very good exercise to sit down with an outline (before or after I’ve begun writing) and say, if I use 300 words (or so) in my intro and closing, and I use about 400 words per topic, I can only talk about 3 topics. Hmmm. If I wanted to describe this locale / vacation / experience, etc. and talk about only three things, what would they be?

    Knowing you’re audience is a big help although you don’t always have that luxury especially with a “general readership” magazine. But perhaps you can either imagine your target reader, family, senior, college adventurer, romantic couple, etc. or, perhaps YOU can focus the piece on one of the reader types. For example “Arizona is a nature-lover’s paradise but it can also be a romantic getaway” or Arizona is a great place for a family adventure”.

    Or perhaps you can start out with a limited perspective such as “Arizona, don’t forget to bring your skis” or “Arizona at Night” or “The Desert in Winter”, you get the picture.

    BTW this post is a good example of a bad example.

    I sure do go on…

    So I’ll close by saying a focused perspective for the article might help limit the number of things you’ll be inclined to talk about right from the start, and then selecting 3 topics or so to discuss may force you to identify the core of what you want to say and help keep the word count within your limits.

    Good luck!

    Steve

  3. Hi Maria

    Have you considered using Mind Mapping software. I use NovaMind. You can build your article from the top down. It’s a bit like using an outliner, but more intuitive.

    Regards

    David

  4. Sometimes I curse my mind because it is far too fertile for my own good. My wife used to say “Eb – I asked you what time it is, not how to build a clock”. There is not one thing that I ever write without this comment of hers coming to my mind. And for good reasons.

    Another obstacle I face is that I write in “dense academese”, as one reader once observed.

    Since I am tired of trying to jump over my own shadow I finally resolved to not try and meet all writing criteria right off the bat and just “let’r rip” and then edit.

    There is word count and readability, both of which ‘Word’ offers some help with. Fortunately I do not need to meet word or page count criteria established by Journals or magazines, although I came to realize that it is best to write ‘as if’ someone breathed down my neck to do so.

    The best approach, as I see it, is to not stop the flow’ – to be who we are, to write as we see fit to just get it out of our system and to then go back and do what has to be done, depending upon whether we meet externally imposed criteria or just try to place ourselves into the role of a reader.

    I no longer have a link to an informed as well as exhaustive discussion on that subject by accomplished writers for narrow and broad material and readerships that also involved addressing specialized and general vocabulary as well as length of sentences.

    Basically I advanced from a low level of ignorance of what is the best way to write to a higher level – of ignorance. In so many words – I settled for how I now write, right or wrong.

What do you think?