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Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Break from Mistakes: A Rule of Thumb for Word Count

We'll return to freelance mistakes next week, but today's post is about a common question I hear from newer writers--how close do you get to word count must you come when you write an article?

Here's the scenario: you’re finishing up your killer 800-word piece, and you’re thrilled with your work. After all, you’ve written a scintillating lead, addressed all the issues your editor wanted you to cover, included insightful quotes, and wrapped the piece up with a strong close. You’ve pruned every unnecessary phrase and extraneous word, but the story is still running long—at 862 words. What do you do?

In this case, nothing. While there’s no set standard in the publishing industry, the basic rule of thumb for word count I use is 10%. That means a story can be 10% over or under the assigned word count without worrying about it.

Of course I’m going to get as close to assigned word count as possible. I love turning in a story that's been assigned at 1,000-word story at 999, 1002, or even 1000 words. (Truth is, hitting the exact word count gives me a thrill! Sad, I know.) But that 10% bumper means I don’t fret if a story is running a little long. (If it's coming in at more than 10% over, then it’s time for some judicious editing.)

However, in 14+ years, I have never turned in a story that was 10% short on words. First of all, I always have more than enough for the piece, and second, an editor is bound to think you didn’t do your job if you didn’t use every word she’s paying for.

Instead of tearing your hair out over an extra 20, or 30, or 90 words, try the 10% word count solution. It may give you the flexibility you need to write a strong piece without sacrificing a critical element in the name of brevity.


  1. Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for this info. What about sidebars? If you've agreed to do 1,000 word story plus a sidebar of local sources, does that mean 800 word story plus 200 word sidebar? Or does it mean 1000 word story with the 200 word sidebar as extra?

  2. Good question, Carol. It depends on the assignment. I always ask to determine whether the word count includes the sidebar (800-word main piece plus 200-word sidebar) or whether it's 1,000 words *plus* a sidebar. Ask your editor what she wants. :)