Blogging

Why I Don’t Do Word Counts

Briefly at Sunday night’s Blogchat, the topic of word counts in blog posts came up. Sooner or later, that topic always comes up. And there’s always a handful of people who have exactly the right numbers for everyone.

Some say 300-500 words is the perfect length for a post.  Some give you 600 words. Or maybe even 750. Anything beyond that, they say, and you need to split the post into two because you’re writing a post that’s just too long for anyone to read.

I don’t do word counts.

Honestly.  Never have. I write when I have something to say, and I write until I feel the point is made.

Let me clarify something important: I don’t worry about word counts here. If I write for someone else, and they insist on a word count, obviously I will oblige.

But here, at my site, I don’t count words. I do my best to say it concisely, particularly if more than one aspect of a problem needs to be addressed.

I know when I see it what is “too long” for me.  And at times, I have the attention span of a gnat.  When I write something that I feel is too long, I do one of three things:

1. Edit it down.

I try to find a way to say the same thing in fewer words. Maybe I’ve made an illustration or given an example that wasn’t really necessary. Maybe I made my point sufficiently two paragraphs sooner than I thought.  Re-reading for “cuttable” sections can help you shorten a piece to a more comfortable length.

There’s almost always a way to say it in fewer words.

2. Use section headings.

This is a technique newspapers use for longer stories.  They’ll divide the piece into sections, but it’ll still be a single article that runs on a single day.  But they’ll divide it three to six sections; each one gets a boldface “mini-headline” that conveys something about what that particular section is going to focus on. It helps a reader jump, when necessary, to a next section, and helps them find a stopping point to pick back up from if they need to grab coffee or get distracted by some of the other things going on at that moment. (See an example of this below where it says, “Consistency Counts.”)

Do I want to make it easy for people to leave? No, of course not. But if I’m writing something long enough that they might otherwise leave, anyway, I want to do something that will either make them feel like it isn’t so long after all or that when they return, they can jump right back in.

3. Split it into multiple posts.

For me, this is the worst-case scenario. I’ve done a few series posts in the past, but the problem is that they require the reader to make it a point to come back and read the rest of what you have to say. Your readers have lives of their own with a long list of distractions, just like you do. It’s not the most reader-friendly thing to do to require multiple visits to get one big point across.

Some people like series and do them regularly. If I go to a blog and immediately recognize that a series is happening, I tend to make myself a note to check back when the series is over, then read it in one sitting. Nothing ticks me off more as a reader than to encounter a series that isn’t yet complete and then have to wait for the next parts.

Is that a lack of patience on my part? Absolutely. But if I feel that way, I have to assume that I’m not the only blog reader in the world who does as well.

Consistency Counts
Most of my posts are of a similar length. I’m sorry I can’t tell you exactly what that length is in word count terms, but what I think is more important is that I’m making a reasonable attempt at consistency, so that when people return to the blog, they know what they’re in for. The fact that they return at all — and that some dear readers have been coming back for more for more than eight years now — tells me that at least on some level, they must be pleased with what they see.

Whether it’s 300 words or 3,000.

I think it’s far more important to build community than get obsessive about how many words I use in my attempts to do it. Don’t you?

7 Comments

  1. Number of words depend on a whole host of factors. A hard limit may be invigorating at times – see Twitter and poetry – but it shouldn’t be the main factor in general. It is a tool, not a master.

    1.  @yzouyang I agree. If holding yourself to arbitrary limits works for you, AND you can successfully communicate your point within those limits, then go for it. Otherwise, you’re cheating your audience by wasting your time with poorly-written pieces that simply meet a word count.

    2.  @yzouyang I agree. If holding yourself to arbitrary limits works for you, AND you can successfully communicate your point within those limits, then go for it. Otherwise, you’re cheating your audience by wasting your time with poorly-written pieces that simply meet a word count.

  2. I HATE splitting a post up into multiple articles – when I have ideas, I want to write and publish them NOW. :PAlso, my posts are almost always over 1,000 words. The one I published yesterday was over 3,500, and I have one from a few months ago that’s over 11,000. Yet, people still read them. It’s all about how you structure your article and how “hooked” you can get the audience. I’ve learned to break things up with lots of different kinds of media – paragraphs with good amounts of bolding, lists, blockquotes, pictures, video, and embedded tweets. 

    1.  @Thomas Frank My biggest problem with splitting posts is that it requires so much more commitment on the part of your audience: now they are being expected to make an effort to return to pick up where they left off.  Yes, if your content is compelling enough consistently enough, they’ll be back, anyway. But I just don’t like to do that to my readers because it feels like I’m ASSUMING I’m somehow “that good.”

  3. @patricksplace Perhaps more bloggers should focus on “words that count” as opposed to “counting words.”

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.