Word count vs. words that count

Spoiler alert: compelling content wins in the end.

You still with me? See, It’s true! When you start reading something potentially interesting, you aren’t necessarily going to be worried about length. I’m willing to bet that a fresh voice, a salient topic and clear writing will keep you hooked beyond the first couple of paragraphs…or at least earn a bookmark. Am I wrong?

So why the focus over the years on word count? Why does Twitter limit our characters? And why is there an unwritten rule for Facebook posts? Yep, best practice suggests keeping a Facebook post to roughly 80 characters.

Why? Because people waste words and don’t think before they write.

Writers are the worst for it. We draft what we think are the best hooks, phrases, chapters, Tweets, Facebook posts, and so on, and then we can’t bear to part with them. Or, we start down a trail of thought and end up in a rabbit hole, standing on a soap box, holding a red herring. What? Where?

Businessman smoking cigar at desk

Where am I going with this? In my mind, a word count limit is a gimmick to try and get you to think about what you’re putting in print. Not a bad gimmick or a completely useless one, but it can distract from the creation of rich, logical and well-thought-out content, or give you a false sense security.

When I imagined how word count limits came about, this is what came to mind. A bunch of old, raspy-voiced editors sitting around a card table, smoking cigars and hardy-har-harring about the latest idiot who submitted a piece of writing for review:

“And, did you know how he described the sunset? I kid you not…the description was two pages of crap about golden-this, and vibrant-that.”

“Hey, Merv. What about setting a rule about how many words these kids can send us? Cuts down on the trash we have to sift through and maybe they’ll actually give a thought to what they’re sending us.”

*Grunts of approval from around the card table*

The intention was there, but you’ll still find garbage-writing all over the web and on paper that is short and concise. The reason being, even though we’re limited by character count, we’re not always making our words count. What really matters is writing about things people care about, carefully choosing the right words, and clearly conveying your thoughts. By the way, if your thoughts aren’t clear to begin with, it’s going to impact your writing. Now, read this carefully – I’m not suggesting that we not pay attention to length at all…just that you need to pay even more attention to what you are writing.

Here’s an exercise worth trying – before you start to write anything…and I mean anything…from a Tweet to the first chapter of your novel – think about it, run it by somebody (other than your dog), and then sleep on it. If it still seems like a good idea in the morning, then go for it. “But what if I miss Tweeting about….” Relax. This is just an exercise. Just try it and see what happens. You may find that the less you yammer on, the more people will pay attention when you do publish something important.

So who agrees and who disagrees? Anyone?

BT dubs, this post is 3,124 characters long (with spaces).

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