Way back in 8th grade, I learned a lesson that changed the way I write.
Learning how to write five-paragraph essays — our first such essays ever — our class was debating how long they should be. Suddenly, our teacher started laughing.
“They’re like mini skirts,” she laughed. “Long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep it interesting!” When it comes to length, I follow this rule.
Because most rules are just that: rules.
- “Make it shorter.”
- “Cut words!”
- “Cut sentences!”
- “Cut paragraphs!”
- “Cut pages!”
Cut, cut, cut!
But some sentences need more words, some papers need more paragraphs, and some arguments need more support. The rule should read: “Don’t waste words.” Or, for writers of fiction: “Don’t bore your readers.”
Or my new golden rule of writing length: Your writing should be long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep it interesting.
When you’re reading what you’ve written, ask yourself two questions:
- Does your blog post, novel or essay cover everything? Does your essay support your argument? Does your novel finish the story?
- Is your blog post, novel or essay too long? Has it stopped being interesting?
When it comes to length, this is all you need to know. But I’ll elaborate.
How should you write?
Many books and blogs on writing advise us to write like Hemingway (concise, limited sentences) and avoid writing like Henry James (long, wordy sentences).
But great writing spans Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Joyce, Salinger…and James. Each used a different style to write in their own brilliant way.
We should write like ourselves.
Mostly, we just need to know our audiences.
I once read on a writing blog that all blogs should be written for the reading level of an 8th-grader. But academics have criticized my blog as not being academic enough. Then again, since my brother and I write about foreign policy, art and military affairs, our audience expects complexity.
Your writing style and writing length depend on your audience. So know your audience, and write for them.
- Cut unnecessary words from paragraphs. What constitutes unnecessary? That’s up to you, but go through your writing near the end of the editing process, and cut extraneous words.
- Study the writing of writers you admire, and study their writing length, punctuation use and word choice.
- Don’t fear the long paragraph, sentence or word, but ask yourself: does it work?
My brother and I have a rule: blog posts cannot exceed 1,000 words. We chose this length because way too many blogs we read blow past this threshold. (We tend not to finish reading those posts.)
During our first year of blogging, our posts averaged about 500 to 600 words per post. Over the past year, we’ve started averaging 700 to 800 words per post. But then something interesting happened:
Our blog posts got way too long.
Writing a series on a possible war with Iran, my brother had so much research that his posts regularly clocked in at 1500 to 1700 words long. So we trimmed words and cut extraneous paragraphs. We turned one 1500 word post into three different posts. By splitting up the posts into two or three pieces, each one stayed short enough to keep the reader’s interest, but long enough to cover each idea.
This exercise forced us to look at length, our topic sentences, subject matter and style. It forced us to re-examine our writing length. By focusing on our core ideas, we wrote shorter, more focused posts.
- In general, on the web, shorter is better.
- With no editor and no page limit, bloggers can just write and write and write. Avoid this temptation.
- Does your blog post have multiple ideas in it? Consider splitting up the post.
Guest Posts and Articles
You may have noticed something about this post: it’s about 1200 words long. Which seems long, for a post on length.
But it isn’t. We know, because we’ve written for Write to Done before. Articles range from 800 to 1500 words. The recent post “The Non-Google Research Tool That Makes Writing Easier” was 1500 words long.
Second example: while I was editing this post, I read this guest post on Mary’s editing process. I immediately went back to this guest post and edited it down. Know your audience — the blog, magazine or journal you’re writing for — and write to their guidelines.
- Read the style guides of publications.
- Look at published guest posts and articles, and figure out what their average word count is.
Have you ever read Bill Simmons? This prolific sports/culture writer regularly writes 4000+ word columns. His “Book of Basketball” spans 800 pages.
But it all works, keeping the basketball-obsessed reader engrossed throughout. And I’ll tell ya, I’d any day prefer 800 pages of great prose to 400 pages of great prose.
What can we learn from Bill Simmons? That long works too. Simmons packs his books with facts, details and anecdotes that keep you flipping the pages. He has so much great information and opinions to share that his essays, blog posts and books can afford to go long.
- Do your research. Great research enables longer essays and articles.
- Pack your essays and blog posts with information and facts.
- Always be open to cutting. Even though Simmons’ Book of Basketball is a great read at 800 pages, he’s talked about cutting entire chapters out of the book.
Novels and Memoirs
Lately, I’ve noticed that every memoir I read feels about 100 pages too long. After a certain point, I feel like the author has said everything they needed to say.
I was afraid I was becoming too “21st century Twitter” impatient. But then I read Jonathan Franzen’s 700 page epic “Freedom” and loved all 700 pages. My co-blogger just read Dickens’ The Olde Curiosity Shoppe, and loved all 600 pages of that still immensely readable prose, even though Dickens padded his novels with extra chapters because he got paid by the word.
So what’s the lesson? Keep it interesting, especially if you’re writing a memoir. Just like an essay stops being interesting if you don’t have compelling facts, anecdotes and research to back it up, your novel or memoir stops being interesting if nothing happens. Or if the characters remain flat.
Keep your novel or memoir moving forward. When the story stops moving forward, end the book or close the chapter.
- Take your first draft, and cut it by 10%. I got this rule of thumb from Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Try it, but don’t be hemmed in by it.
- Learn to cut excess words. You can only learn this through practice. Reread your writing, and question the purpose of every word you use.
- Read regularly. By doing so, your word, sentence and paragraph lengths will grow…in a good way.
What word lengths are you comfortable with when you write or read different genres? Do share in the comments below!