As a writer, what does it mean to be "on word count?"
October 27, 2010 1:45 PM   Subscribe

As a writer, what does it mean to be "on word count?"

My freelance career is starting to pick up. I just received my first paying assignment. I have been advised by another writer to be sure I am "on word count." I'm not quite sure exactly what this means. I assume it means to meet or exceed word count. I took a class in which the instructor suggested going a little over word count to give the editor room to cut a little if needed. I've received another assignment in which the editor requested "no more than 800 words." I'm sure, in this case, I should hit pretty close to 800 but no more. In the other case, they want 1,500 words. I'm not really clear as to whether I need to be under, over, or right on 1,500 words.
posted by raddevon to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe I take things literally, but if an editor told me to give him x words, I would hit x words, and not go over. He didn't ask for x words + wiggle room, but x words. My thinking here is that he says 1500, but really only wants 1200, maybe.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 1:46 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In general, you have about 5% leeway under 2,500 words, and a bit more over that. But being spot on word count will win you the love of editors forever.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:48 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It means that you deliver the exact number of words you're contracted to write, and for fun, make it exact. The typical problem involves less words delivered, not more.
posted by dbiedny at 1:49 PM on October 27, 2010

I'm a freelance writer and editor.

If an assignment says at most X words, I will turn in between 3/4 X and X words.

If an assignment says at least X words, I will turn in between X and 5/4 X words.

If an assignment says X words, I will ask for clarification.

No editor is going to get upset if you say: "On this, are you looking for at least X words, at most X words or exactly X words?"

It's true that most editors will be expecting to make cuts to pieces that come in, but there's no way you can read their mind when they say "X words" and know if they're planning to cut down to X or down from X.
posted by 256 at 1:53 PM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Well, 256, the "on" part of the original spec makes it fairly clear, to my mind.
posted by dbiedny at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2010

Take that literally. It ain't hard, and editing away stuff usually makes what you write much better, and more concentrated.
The wiggle room is a thing handled very individually by different editors. If you show that you're cool with the rules, some might give you more room to wiggle after getting to know you, others won't.
[Anecdotally, I once had to get rid of 15.000 words in a book manuscript; I had 4 days to do it, worked like a horse, got it done and it was totally worth it, text much more readable now. Okay, nonfiction, but still.]
posted by Namlit at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2010

But that said, your clarification is gold. :-)
posted by dbiedny at 1:57 PM on October 27, 2010

How much wordcount matters depends enormously on where you're writing for.

In a newspaper on daily deadlines, going far over wordcount is a real pain for editors and going much under isn't great either.

For most magazines on more relaxed deadlines, a decent editor will not object to coming in somewhat under or over if that's the length you (honestly) feel the piece works best at.

For the web, where I'm less experienced, I imagine it's a mixture of outlets that care deeply about making things short and snappy, versus outlets that embrace the lack of space restriction and don't mind you going over.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:57 PM on October 27, 2010

And as an editor, I find it a little precious when writers hit the word count precisely. It makes me wonder if they intentionally made a less than optimal choice in wording or phrasing in order to hit the number on the head. That said, I notice it, grimace and then forget about it. The piece is going to need editing regardless.
posted by 256 at 1:57 PM on October 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

Point well taken, 256. You're good.
posted by dbiedny at 2:05 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always done about what Sidhedevil does. I write a regular column for a print magazine and they pretty much expect me to come in at about the word count they've asked for, consistently. Editing down a little bit is not a big deal but editing a lot really is a big deal. When I submit my column to them, I include the word count in the subject line. When I submitted my first column, they'd asked for 1200-1300 words and I delivered 1450-ish with the assumption they could edit it down and they sent me a note saying they'd really rather I was pretty much right on the word count they expected.

That said, if you're writing to deadline and you have a few extra days, asking your editor well before deadline if a few more [or a few less] words would be a problem is usually okay. Some editors I've worked with prefer to just not hear from you until you drop a completed article in their inbox, but many people will be happy to answer questions.
posted by jessamyn at 2:19 PM on October 27, 2010


Why are you asking us what the other writer meant? Why don't you ask her (or him) yourself? (Not trying to be snarky -- I just think your best bet for clarification is to ask the person who confused you.)
posted by jdroth at 2:22 PM on October 27, 2010

I had an opinion piece published in a trade magazine recently. The editor asked for 800 words, I submitted 798, and I think after their editing it came in at 791. Personally, I would plan to err just on the low side.
posted by deadmessenger at 2:47 PM on October 27, 2010

jdroth: The writer who gave me the advice is a minor Internet celebrity. Speaking of Internet celebrities, it's an honor to be called out by the man behind Get Rich Slowly. I love your blog!

Getting back to your question, I was flattered that he was willing to reply to my cold email asking for advice. I don't want to further impose by asking for clarifications. At the time he made this suggestion, it didn't really even matter since I didn't have any work. I'd hate to email him again six weeks later to ask what he meant when it seems there aren't any hard and fast rules anyway.

It sounds like I may need to take 256's advice and just ask the editor for clarification. I probably should have done that already, but, at this point in my career, I am so shocked to get any reply from anyone, I feel asking for any further hand-holding is pushing my luck.

Thanks to everyone for the replies. I will keep watching this thread for any further insights!
posted by raddevon at 2:52 PM on October 27, 2010

It doesn't matter what Minor Internet Celebrity meant by "on word count." It doesn't matter what the industry standard is. All that matters here is what your editor wants. So ask. It won't seem like you need your hand held; it'll seem like you want to do it right the first time, without needing hand-holding after.
posted by Zozo at 3:15 PM on October 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I come in at roughly the suggested word count, and offer more information in a sidebar if something useful and additional lends itself to that format. (I don't actually submit the sidebar when filing, just mention that it's available.)
posted by cyndigo at 3:22 PM on October 27, 2010

With the additional context you've given, I would cast "on word count" as a pithy shorthand for "follow editorial direction, and give them exactly what they have asked for."

No editor will ever get annoyed if you ask for clarification on the word count. They may sound startled when you ask. Rest assured, that's "startled" in a good way.

Trust me, editors have had a lifetime's worth of special snowflake blowhard precious Artists flaking off their flakiness all over the place.

If you can be reliable, reasonable, and follow the instructions, they will love you forever.
posted by ErikaB at 4:21 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The only thing that comes to mind here is that you should not leave in copy for the editor to cut out (based on the reasoning that the editor is going to want to cut out stuff anyway). For freelance assignments, everything must fit, everything must be polished.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:22 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

256 is spot on. Another thing you can do, if you have enough extra-but-interesting material, is offer a sidebar. Always ask first, though! If they don't take the sidebar, maybe it would make another article for another publication. Whenever I write a piece I see what's been cut and if I can flesh out that idea and sell it elsewhere.

And read The Renegade Writer blog -- they're great for boosting your writer-editor relationship skills.
posted by mdiskin at 7:59 PM on October 27, 2010

I edit a reviews section of a magazine and when I give a word count that is the number of words I want. I know how many pages I've got, I know how many words fit on a page. If you go under, I've got dead space. If you go over, I've got no room so I need to spend time editing you down. I'll have lots of different pieces to edit at the same time so if I have to spend additional time just getting your piece to fit, I'll be a bit pissed off.
posted by ninebelow at 3:18 AM on October 28, 2010

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