Thursday, January 20, 2011


© Katherine Swarts 

A journalism school ran a contest for the most sensational headline: "need not feature actual events, but must be no more than three words long." The winner--two words and three syllables--was "Pope Elopes."

You can say a lot in amazingly few words, if they're the right words. Journalists and other periodical writers know this best. The typical feature article contains a few thousand words at most; a back-page article or op-ed may be no more than 500 words; anecdotal or "filler" articles may stop at 250. How does one tell a whole story, or explain the essential points of a subject, in five or ten short paragraphs? Often, by going through the manuscript six or seven times to prune it of every nonessential word.

Your Web site or sales letter may not be facing an "under 1,000 words or you don't get paid" dictate from an editor, but it will be facing hundreds of potential clients who are short on time and on attention spans. Many people run from the mere sight of a page of unbroken text. Here are a few professional-writing tricks for achieving readable-looking lengths:

Build up your vocabulary. Some writers pride themselves on learning a new word from the dictionary every day, or studying the thesaurus for fifteen minutes of each lunch hour. The more words you have stored in your brain, the less likely you are to waste fifteen words describing something because you don't know its name. Don't, however, show off and use words most of the public has never heard, or you'll be back to writing out the whole definition.

Consider syllable count as well as word count: 500 ten-letter words take up more space than 500 six-letter words. Most successful writers live by the rule "never use a five-syllable word where a two-syllable one will do."

Divide long paragraphs into short ones: white space makes the text look less daunting, and may be the deciding factor in whether people actually start reading a page.

Consider the sound of the words--and of the piece as a whole. To some extent, length is in the perception of the reader; J. K. Rowling got away with making the later Harry Potter books extra-long by sheer virtue of her storytelling ability. If your writing sounds monotonous or singsong, bored readers will find your 250-word piece twice as long as a more interesting 400-word piece. Use sentences of different lengths, cut the cliches, and save rhyme and alliteration for taglines!

Don't rush! One writer is said to have ended a ten-page letter with the apology, "Sorry this is so long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter." Experienced authors know that you never become practiced enough to get first drafts perfect; and the less time you leave between drafts, the more unneeded words and other imperfections you leave in the manuscript. Go ahead and write down everything you have to say about your product or news item; then, rather than sending the results immediately to the printer, go back and remove everything not vital to your central point. For really important materials, give yourself a minimum of two weeks to do three drafts.

And don't say you don't have time. The time you save your prospects will come back to you soon enough.

Katherine Swarts is a professional writer specializing in corporate blogs/newsletters and other articles. Her Web address is Her blog address is

Poet, author, and journalist. Has published articles in Focus on the Family Clubhouse, FACES, Children's Writer, and HomeLife, among many others. 


  1. Funny and informative.

  2. Thanks, Paul. Appreciate you stopping by.

  3. Those headlines remind me of Hemingway's six word stories. Good stuff! Thanks so much.

  4. Good point, Karen. Hadn't thought of that; and he's one of my favourites.

  5. I like "Pope Elopes" - not just the shortness of it, but the prospect...:))

  6. I love this subject! One of the most important lessons in writing!
    One of my favorite quotes about the right words is by Mark Twain:

    ""The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."""

    That is so broad, and could apply to so many aspects of wordage in writing.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Hi Grandpa. How about "Man Gives Birth"? I love that one!

    Hi Carol. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you're having a great time preparing for your release. Keep us updated.

  8. Lots of good sound advise. Great post!

  9. Thank you, Laura. Have a wonderful weekend.

  10. Excellent advice, Joylene, accompanied by much food for thought :)

  11. Hi Wendy. I was just thinking about you. I found a nicer pic of Bandit than the one you got. Generally he hates having his pic taken. It must be a guy-thing.

  12. Keith -- YEP!

    I'm very honoured to have Katherine guest host every month. Thanks to all of you for sharing in that and stopping by.

  13. Good topic, thanks Katherine and Joylene.

    Having started by writing for magazines I learned early to write within word count restraints. I like George Orwell's five rules for writing which include, "Never use a long word where a short one will do," and "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out." It's harder to do when novel writing but I know tighter writing is desirable there, too.

    You've offered some excellent suggestions to keep in mind when blogging.

  14. That is so true, Carol. I have ruined a scenes by cutting too much out. I've also ruined it by using too many words. The trick is to find the happy medium.


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