The long and the short of it

In our school days, we probably all tried the same tricks to stretch our minimal research into the five-page report assigned by the teacher. Widen the margin, but not quite enough to attract attention. Use big type and extra spacing. Write sentences like, “This five-page report will report on the rise of the Byzantine Empire, a fascinating topic on which many interesting books have been written by excellent writers who are interested in this fascinating topic.”

On those rare occasions when we got enthusiastic about the subject, we may have found ourselves with too much material, and we struggled to shoehorn it all in.

Now that we’re adults, it’s time to take an adult approach to hitting the right length.

Fortunately, the Internet has reduced a lot of anxiety about length. Few people are going to care whether your blog post is 300 words or 600 words. But even with looser restrictions, you still need to pay attention. You want to give enough information to make your piece worth reading, but you don’t want to dump way more information on your readers than they need. And some material still gets printed on paper, where you have no choice but to fit the space available.

Here’s the approach I take for hitting a target length. It may not work for you, but give it a try if you haven’t already come up with a good system of your own.

First, I gather up a lot more source material than I need. If I’m working on a 1,500-word article with quotes from live interviews, I try to start out with at least 3,000 words of notes. This way, I can be picky about what makes it into the finished product. But I don’t want to start out with ten times as much as I need. That would mean I wasted a lot of time getting material I couldn’t possibly use.

As I’m putting the article together, I keep an eye on the words count. If it looks like I’ll come up short, I dive back into my notes. Are there some good details or second-tier information I haven’t used? If they are interesting, I stick them in even if they aren’t vital to the story.

Usually I try to write the piece a little bit on the long side, then go back and tighten up any flabby sentences. As I’ve said before, writing and editing are two different jobs. Making sentences stronger often means making them shorter.

On occasion I over-report and over-write. Then it’s time to get ruthless. I look for the least essential chunks and start tossing them out. Sometimes it hurts, especially when I worked hard to get that piece of information in the first place. But the job is to tell the story as best you can in the space you have.

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