Don’t count every word; make every word count

In helping clients with their writing, one of the most common misconceptions I have to fight against is the idea that good writing means a lot of writing.

I blame our schooling.

Grade school, high school, college and even grad school teachers in the US assign papers with a minimum page count requirement.

In some cases, that makes sense.

If the assignment’s on ‘The history of California’, it’s perfectly logical to have a minimum page count. That’s such an open-ended topic, and there’s a lot to cover. A minimum page count gives students some structure. (A maximum would probably be good too.)

But if the topic is ‘Why California should (or shouldn’t) be divided into two states’, that’s a different thing entirely. For that topic, the paper should be only as long as it takes to make the argument.

In that case, asking students to meet a minimum page count is begging them to pad whatever compelling points they have with fluff. It’s implicitly sending the message that quantity is as important as quality.

After writing dozens of papers over the course of a decade or so, it can be hard to shake that mentality. And before you know it, you’re writing a business brief or a bit of copy and instead of thinking, ‘The substance will determine the length of this thing,’ you’re thinking, ‘If this doesn’t reach a certain length, it can’t possibly be good.’ Which is counter-productive, to put it mildly.

I think most people are better writers than they realise. But then ingrained habits like minimum word counts enter their brains, practically forcing them into bad writing. It’s a shame.

So ask yourself: have I said everything my reader needs to hear? If the answer’s yes, then put your pen down.

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