It has been reported that we humans now officially have the attention span of a goldfish! A study carried out by Microsoft deduced that we lose concentration after eight seconds, compared with nine seconds for the notoriously absent-minded goldfish!
Communication methods must, therefore, adapt to capture our audience’s attention.
I was recently asked to submit a 200-word article. If you’ve ever tried to write 200 words you should appreciate how difficult it is. I’ll admit I have faced criticism in the past for being long-winded, but for me, as a details person, I hate feeling I must compromise on writing style in order to say everything that I need to. When you are faced with a tight word or character limit, style is usually the first thing to go, because in most cases content is the priority.
Instances Where Word Count Matters
Let’s first look at some occasions when word count is critical to put this challenge into a business context.
In business, we often come up against requests for information that have word or character limits. Public sector tenders or award entries, for example, generally have imposed word limits to make your response manageable for the reader or to ensure a fair playing field for all participants. In both cases answering the question is more important than formatting or style, since you are generally assessed on the content of your submission, not how well it reads or how attractive it looks.
Writing for the Press
Another example is when writing for the press, since print articles will have a defined space on the page. This is more difficult because content and styling are equally as important.
Fast paced lives and the introduction of Social Media have created a culture where we consume information in bite-sized chunks. Twitter, for example, restricts us to 280 characters, but the underlying premise of Social Media in general is that posts should be short and snappy to capture the readers’ attention as they scroll through their newsfeed.
There is an increasing demand for visual content to satisfy society’s need for easily digestible information. An information graphic or ‘infographic’ is the ultimate interpretation of the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. An infographic is “a graphic visual representation of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly” (Wikipedia). To create a successful infographic, text content needs to be kept to the bare minimum so being concise is of the utmost importance.
Are you still with me?….Then let’s have a look at how we can reduce content.
How to Cut Words/Characters
So, after years of going waaay over on word counts, I’ve come up with my ultimate tried and tested word slashing techniques.
Take the final sentence in paragraph one of this article. It started out as:
This means methods of communication must adapt in order for us to capture our audience’s attention (16 words)
It then evolved to the following:
This means communication methods must adapt for us to capture our audience’s attention (“in order for” reduced to “for” – 14 words)
Communication methods must, therefore, adapt to capture our audience’s attention (“for us” removes – 10 words)
I could have gone one step further if I’d needed to by removing “therefore”:
Communication methods must adapt to capture our audience’s attention (9 words).
The last variant still says what it needs to but doesn’t flow as well as it could but by adding a linking word after removing other extraneous words, we have still significantly reduced the sentence. Either option is fine, depending on the purpose and number of words that need to be reduced.
Words Linking Sentences
In option three in this example, we added a linking word to help the sentence flow, but another trick to cutting words is to remove such words. “In particular”, “however”, “obviously”, “additionally” are all examples of words that are rarely imperative to the content. For example:
Richard was an expert in his field. In particular, he knew how to…
Richard was an expert in his field. He knew how to…
Losing “in particular” has little impact on the original sentence.
Adjectives (describing words), which make content seem more interesting, often don’t add much. Words like “extremely”, “incredibly”, “very”, “exceptionally”, “somewhat”, “fairly”. Interchange these words into the following sentence and note the lack of impact:
Alex was extremely / incredibly / very / exceptionally / somewhat / fairly cautious
works just as well as:
Alex was cautious
Check for Extraneous Words
We have bad habits in our language that are completely unnecessary. Phrases like ‘in order to’ or “enabling her to” or “makes use of”.
Lisa scheduled her work week in order to be more productive (11 words)
Lisa scheduled her work week enabling her to be more productive (11 words)
Lisa scheduled her week to be more productive (8 words – note: “work” also removed)
Similarly, “makes use of” can be shortened to “makes”.
In most circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable to abbreviate, and doing so will have little impact on styling. For example, ‘Managing Director’ can be shortened to ‘MD’, ‘horsepower’ can be shortened to ‘hp’, ‘search engine optimisation’ can be shortened to ‘SEO’, ‘for example’ can be abbreviated to ‘e.g.’.
The rule is to type the phrase in full the first time you use it with the abbreviation in brackets after the phrase (unless it is a common abbreviation that most people will understand without explanation) then use the abbreviation on every subsequent use.
In the above examples, MD, hp and e.g. would be common abbreviations that do not require introductions, but SEO might need to be written in full in the first instance, depending on the audience. It would look like this on the first use: “Search engine optimisation (SEO)”, then just “SEO” thereafter.
You can also use common abbreviations that are part of everyday language, called English contractions – ‘didn’t’ instead of ‘do not’, ‘they’re’ instead of ‘they are’, ‘haven’t’ instead of ‘have not’, etc.
Formatting of Numbers
The general rule with numbers is one to nine written in words and then 10 upwards written in figures. There is no need to write 21 as ‘twenty-one’. This doesn’t help with cutting words but is useful when up against a character count.
Remove Unnecessary Spacing
When placing words after a number, a space is not necessary. For example, £35 million can be written as £35million to save on words (or £35m to save characters). This works for any currency or measurement.
Hyphenation can also have the same effect. For example, ‘year on year’ can legitimately be hyphenated to ‘year-on-year’, reducing the phrase from three words to one. Another example is ‘pay-as-you-go’ or ‘PAYG’ if the abbreviation is explained in the first instance.
Using bullet points and numbered lists can reduce block paragraphs of text in length and, coupled with headings and subheadings, have the added advantages of being more reader friendly and offering search engine optimisation benefits.
Lose Content Unrelated to the Main Topic
If you really need to cut a lot of words, cutting unnecessary content is probably the only way you are going to achieve your goal. Search through your text looking for sentences or paragraphs that don’t absolutely need to be there. For example, if you are writing about a new product launch, stick to the facts about the product. Whilst you might want to talk about background information, such as the history of the company that manufactures the product, it is generally not imperative that these details are included.
Having said that, I fully appreciate that you have lovingly crafted these words and will be loath to remove them, so I would suggest this as your final round of cuts if you still haven’t met your target article length.
If you are really struggling, get creative!
In the sentence beginning, ‘Using descriptive words, known as adjectives…’ I have given a definition of what an adjective is, totalling six words. By putting the definition in brackets, I can reduce this to three: ‘Adjectives (describing words)’.
Make Content More Visual
If you have done everything you can and are still over the limit, turning text into charts, tables and diagrams can make words go under the radar.
Not only does this reduce chunks of text to visual content, making it easier to read, but if you insert the chart as an image, any words used within the chart (titles or text within a table, for example) are not included in the word count.
One final thing to consider in a business submission is the use of Appendices, if permitted. Appendices are “supplementary material at the end of a book, article, document, or other text, usually of an explanatory, statistical, or bibliographic nature”. Making use of appendices can help you focus on the important information in the main body of your writing, but still allow you to include other relevant information.
Here’s one Final Example Using Multiple Techniques:
- Using descriptive words, known as adjectives, although nice to have to make the content seem more interesting, often do not add much (23 words)
- Adjectives (describing words), although nice to have to make the content seem more interesting, often do not add much. (Add brackets – 20 words)
- Adjectives (describing words), which make content more interesting, don’t add much. (Slight rewording and removal of extraneous words “the” and “seem” – 12 words)
- Adjectives don’t add much. (Removing the definition of adjectives – 5 words)
Practical Advice for Getting Started
Some final advice when setting out to write, regardless of the purpose:
- Plan ahead
- Write then cut
- Take time out then review
- Be consistent! If shortening a word, shorten it everywhere except for the first use. If using contractions, for example, always use ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’.
Working in the marketing world, word counts are a daily struggle for us here at Genie Insights. We hope these tips we’ve picked up along the way will help you in striking the balance between and content and style! Good luck! 😊
If you are still stuck for words after following this guide, please feel free to get in touch to find out about our proofing and editing service.