Behind The Scenes: About Word Counts

Word counts explained. Photo: iStock

“Can I just ask you for some guidance on word counts ? Ie: can I go to about 2500 or somewhere in between?” A writer asked this question  in an email recently, and it’s one that crops up regularly. And the answer is no, but can I explain why?

We have unyielding story templates to which our designers work, and 2500 sits slap bang between two of them, which are 2000 and 3000. The old days of our just running a story on over numerous pages until we’d used all the words are gone. If you look at an issue now you’ll notice that story 1 always ends at the foot of page 6, story 2 on page 16, and so on.  So, going back to that 2500-word story, it means we would have to cut out 500-700 words to make it fit the 2000-word template.

You might say that’s our sub-editors’ job, but when you look at the amount of reading in any one weekly issue, add in the content of the specials….well, it does make a very tight-packed production schedule a lot more manageable if the writers write closer to our template length in the first place, or make the necessary cuts.

Yes, I appreciate that every word is carefully crafted and precious, but wouldn’t you rather cut the bits you’re less attached to than have us cut out your very favourite line in the whole thing?

But your story doesn’t have to be dead on 2000 or 3000. We can allow 10% above. Not below; cutting is always better for a story than padding. But that 10% allows for the odd phenomenon that three different 2000-word stories will run in at three different column inch totals. And it’s obvious, if you think about it. Fifty very long words are going to measure more than fifty short ones. Fifty words broken up into choppy back and forth dialogue, are going to take up more separate lines and thus column inches than a fifty-word paragraph of narrative.

So that’s the reason for our word counts rule. And to remind you, those word counts are 1200 (though not just now, please), 2000 and 3000. (Also 4000 but again not just now, please. These are only ever placed in a special, and only at a rate of one per special, which means I only need 17 per year.) That means your focus should always, always be on 2000 or 3000 words, of which we use LOTS.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I set my reading and buying priorities.