word counts


How many words should it be?

This is a question I often ask editors and content managers. For writers, a word count is a useful gauge to estimate how long a project will take and what the cost will be. Writers need to understand your vision so they can fulfill it.

But as an assigning editor or content director, it’s important that word counts not be viewed as merely arbitrary pieces of an assignment contract. A word count is the reflection of your strategy — of creating the right content for the right audience at the right time. Before sending a writer a word count you’ve set in haste, consider asking yourself these questions.


1. Who is your audience?

As content marketers, we spend a lot of time talking about what people will actually read. And the answer quite often is: not much. But some audiences read more than others (or at different times), so it behooves you to understand your audience. Have you promised readers easily digestible content? Or have you promised longer-form content with lots of detail? Have you promised anything at all? Are you writing for busy executives? Are you writing for people who need to justify expenditures and require in-depth information? Are you writing for scholars and academics? Are you writing for teenagers? Reminding yourself of your audience’s needs and expectations can help you set appropriate word counts and create more compelling content.


2. Where in your sales funnel will your audience be?

We often create different pieces of content for our audiences depending on where they are in our buying cycle. For example, we might know that at a certain stage of the process, people are looking for quick facts. However, at other stages, they might be looking for in-depth content that answers certain questions. Knowing this can help inform the length of the piece you are assigning.


3. Which medium and design make the most sense?

Someone selecting a print book clearly has different expectations than someone perusing his Twitter feed. Something your audience can download and save onto their tablet’s Google Play bookshelf can take a different form and be of a different length than something they should be expected to read on-screen from their inbox.

Is this something you want someone to be able to print out and post on their cubicle? Then it can’t be a dense 500 words. It can’t even be 200 words. Is this something that should be saved as a resource? Maybe it becomes a 2,500-word, well-researched e-book.

Your planned layout and how you’ll deliver your content will clearly impact your content length.


4. What is your overall purpose?

When considering your purpose, think about what information absolutely needs to be included. I spend a lot of time asking people if the audience really needs this XYZ piece of information. That’s because I think streamlined content makes it easier to reach audiences. I personally like stripping out irrelevant details. However, I do not advocate for removing information that helps an audience make a decision — that is essential!

But we need to consider our content’s purpose alongside the medium/design. As a writer, it is frustrating (if not impossible) to attempt to pack 10 messages and supporting facts into a 150-word blurb. This is a sign that content was not well planned.


5. What’s the best format to present this content?

No matter how long this piece is — whether it’s 30 words, 500 words or 5,000 words — it is important for you to consider the approach. The longer something is, the more broken up it needs to be. It can be broken up into chapters, pages, subheads, and into sidebars, callouts and pull quotes. It can be written as a true/false questionnaire, a quiz, a “listicle,” a “charticle,” a Q&A … The possibilities are practically endless, but remember that your chosen format, medium and word count need to work well together.


Assignments in Action

Consider this example: If a hospital wants to produce a guide on their various imaging equipment, the content editor might pause to ask some questions.

First, she will ask who the audience is. The things a patient cares about and the things a doctor cares about are very different. That should be reflected in the piece — in both format and content.

Next, she might ask where this piece should go. Will it live on the website where a patient needs to scroll through? Will it be mailed to physicians in a booklet for them to keep in their offices?

Now, what information needs to be included? If we’re writing for the patient audience, should we create simple flyers/downloads for each of our imaging systems? Patients want to know what they’ll experience, why they might be getting this particular scan, how long it will take, when they will get their results, what the results might mean, and if there is anything they can do/should do in advance to prepare. Should they wear particular clothing? Should they leave jewelry at home? These are important pieces of information, and to include everything we think someone might want or need into a one-sheet, we might need a few hundred words for each modality.


Getting Strategic with Content

At the end of the day, a word count on an assignment letter can feel arbitrary. Sometimes, of course, it’s about the number of inches a publication literally has on the page. Sometimes it comes down to budget and how much a company wants to pay for. Sometimes it’s because you just know your audience won’t read more than 200 words. All of these are fine reasons to set a word count.

But to maximize the value of the words you’re writing, it’s important to consider your strategy and why you are producing the content. Then, consider your audience, your purpose, the needs of your piece, and your approach as you assign your content. Sometimes we like to say the content should be as long (or as short) as it needs to be. By taking into consideration the other elements of your project, you’ll get a more accurate measure of how long that is.