Thursday, April 10, 2014

The hack's fear of the word count

I write a regular column about magazines for In Publishing. They're collected here, if you're interested.

Somebody just commented that the last one could have been shorter. Undoubtedly true. Pretty much anything could be shorter.

The reason it's long is it starts life in the magazine and James the editor asks for 1500 words. That way he knows it will fill the space he's set aside for it.

That's the way editors are. "Good idea. Can you do 3,000 words?" They pay you on the same basis. Weight. I suppose in the future the idea of asking for a certain amount of words will seem quaint.

I can write any amount of stuff for this blog because I don't have to. I'm not worried about whether I can produce enough words. If what I'm writing needs to be longer I keep going. If it doesn't I just stop. Like this.


  1. Anonymous9:38 am

    It could have been shorter, like stop with 'stop'.

  2. Back when The Word magazine was something tangible, I used to sometimes get reviews printed in in The Massive Attacks section.

    One thing I enjoyed about writing these pieces was typing maybe 500 words and then whittling that down to less than a hundred.

    The editing always took longer than the writing had. I suppose it's the adult equivalent of painstakingly constructing a building from wooden bricks and then gleefully smashing parts of it down with broad sweeps of the arm.

    I can understand why, if you were producing some kind of online magazine, you might want to preserve some of the structure of the printed medium and impose a word count on certain things.

    However, there are times when it's good to have the freedom to explore a complicated topic without being constrained by the physical space issues of the printed format.

    I occasionally encounter incredibly detailed articles online that, lengthwise, are pushing into the boundaries of novella territory. If you printed them out and laid the pages end-to-end they would cross international timezones

  3. Just because you CAN write as much as you like online doesn't mean you should of course. Lot of people out there need to learn how to be editors.

  4. Most writing is too long. I include Dickens in that.

  5. Anonymous8:14 pm

    I agree that most writing is too long: Backwards7-style whittling is more wise than it is widespread.

    Trouble is, the internet is particularly ruthless at exposing flannel: folk simply stop reading. Unlike magazine readers, they aren't invested in you: they haven't spent the thick end of a fiver up front, and they'll simply click away to one of your countless billions of competitors.

    It's for that reason that, as a commissioning web editor, I implore my hacks to be honest: although I pay by weight, the word count is a suggestion which can be surpassed if the content deserves it, but cut if it doesn't.

    "TL; DR", as the kids say.

  6. Can't help but notice that the title of this blog entry would still make sense with the omission of an instance of the letter 'o'...