Conforming to a Certain Word Count

I love it when someone hires me to cut copy down to a specific size. The same goes for bulking it up.

It’s a challenge: a fascinating puzzle to work out like a Rubik’s Cube. The major difference being that I’m awesome at rearranging words to fit just so, and the very opposite when it comes to those colored tiles.

Fortunately, conforming to a certain word count is a little more useful of a skill, as an untold number of my college roommates, friends and clients over the years will testify.

Really, I can’t tell you how many people have fretted to me about how a report isn’t long enough or a piece isn’t short enough. I also can’t tell you how many people have doubted my assurances that I can help them out.

To be sure, it might take a bit of work to help them out. However, by the time I’m done, the copy in question is going to look polished and precise… perhaps even with a few words to spare.

In the end – and the beginning too – it’s all about knowing your puzzle pieces.

Have you ever heard of the creative writing saying, “Kill your darlings”? It apparently originated with William Faulkner, who thought writers should take off their rose-colored glasses and look at their work realistically and critically.

Is “that” character really necessary?

Does “that” scene seriously help along the plot or can it be cut? Can it be “killed”?

We can apply that same premise to “regular” writing: the kind you do for school or work or a business blog. Except that you’re not debating the merits of fictional personalities and story segments. You’re deliberating about logical (or illogical) points, examples and descriptions.

In so doing, you might really, really, really want to tell the story of how a particular scientific theory came to be. Or a seventh (obscure) potential consequence of installing your own minibar. Or an example from your childhood to explain a parenting method.

But like it or not, you might not have room for those.

So analyze them. Accept your conclusions. Then chop accordingly.

If you still have more excess words after that, the next thing to attack is your adjectives and adverbs.

Do you really need to say that something “hurt really badly”? Can you say it “stung” or “smarted” or “throbbed” instead? And how about the word “very”… Did you use it? Does it need to be there at all?

There are more nuanced tips and tricks I could give you in this regard, but those are the two biggies. And since I’m following a word-count limit of my own, let’s move on to the opposite problem to have when writing.

When you have to increase your word count, you’ve got a much easier task on your hands. We’re talking easy-peasy, lemon squeezy here.

If anything, squeezing lemons is more difficult than what you need to do.

You know those adjectives and adverbs we were taking out above? Round them up and put them right back in. For that matter, include any other part of speech you possibly can while you’re at it.

Here are a few examples:

  • Instead of saying, “The trip was exquisite,” try “The trip was phenomenal, exquisite in every way.”

  • Instead of saying, “A river is a flowing source of water that deposits into an ocean, lake, sea or fellow river,” try, “Most adults and many children already understand that a river is a flowing source of water that then deposits into another body of water, whether it’s an ocean, a lake, a sea or a fellow river.”

  • Instead of saying, “There are two sides to every coin, and that includes the Boston Massacre of 1770,” try, “They say there are two sides to every coin, and in that, they’re right. They’re right in general and they’re right much more specifically about the so-called Boston Massacre, a much-misunderstood event that took place in 1770.”

It’s simply a matter of being as wordy as possible without detracting from your message. In the same way, cutting your word count down is simply a matter of being as succinct as possible without detracting from your message.

So don’t sigh. Nor should you weep. This can be done. And it can be done by you.

Or, if all else fails, it can be done by me.

No, seriously. Let me show you what I can do.

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