Thursday, January 06, 2011

Writing to size

When I trained as a journalist, one of the skills we had to develop was producing articles to specified length – usually provided as word-counts. As a freelancer, you may pitch a story and, if given a green light, you’ll be told how many words you can write. A typical news article is 300-400 words. At first it was very abstract, the idea of writing 400 words – but it didn’t take long to develop a feel for what could, and couldn’t be said in that space.

We also had to get over a common tendency to save some pithy quote or insight for the end. Instead of ending with a bang, journalists are essentially taught to let their stories peter out, filling in information of decreasing importance the further in you go. This is because the vast majority of readers only read the first few paragraphs of news stories. Also, if the editors need to make any cuts, it’s easier for them if they can just chop off the end to bring the article down to size.

It’s a strange way to write – working with the assumption that most people won’t read very far in to what you’ve written. You get everything important out right at the start. But then your article gets more boring and you’ve just offered incentive to stop reading...

I did my undergrad in English and philosophy, where we were rewarded for the use of big words, and complex sentences. Especially in philosophy, so much of the reading material was dense and convoluted.

To put it mildly, I had a steep learning curve when I started print journalism. My first assignments were handed back to me covered in red. I quickly had to learn to shorten my sentences, get rid of the clutter, the excess, the pretension. It wasn’t easy at the time but I came to appreciate clear, direct prose and realized that perhaps the most intelligent writers were not those who used the biggest words, but those who could communicate their ideas as succinctly as possible.

And so it is that I added this extra challenge of a precise 365 word count. It’s fun trying again to write to size.

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