Or delivering what you’re asked for.
When I was doing my time editing in Australia, one of the things that always annoyed me was receiving articles that were waaaaaaaaay over the word count. I’d ask for 800 words and get 1,200. Even worse, I’d ask for 150 words and get 350.
From the freelancer’s perspective, I can see why this happens. I’ve often been writing pieces myself, and wondering how on earth I’m going to fit it within the word count. It may be a complex subject that really needs deeper explanation, it may it quotes that seem too good to leave out, and it may be a sheer wealth of great material.
99% of the time, however, it’s just me getting carried away with things and waffling. There’s very little that can’t be solved by hacking through with the red pen and chopping a few flowery paragraphs out.
The golden rule
Occasionally, I have submitted articles that are well above the requested word count. I just couldn’t bear to cut, and I know this did me no favours in terms of keeping the editor happy. It goes against the golden rule – Make The Editor’s Job As Easy As Possible. It is not making their job easy if they have to go in and make swathing cuts to your copy. Quite the opposite – and, if they’re anything like me, it’s likely to annoy them intensely.
Cutting the best bits
The other reason to submit within a few words of the word count requested is that if the editor has to cut, then sod’s law dictates that they will cut the bits that you liked the most. The jokes, witticisms and sparkling turns of phrase are usually the first to go. They may be brilliant, but they’re not essential. As a consequence, your story can end up turning out quite drab.
How close to the limit?
But how closely should you stick to the limit? Nobody’s really expecting you to be exactly on the nail – there’s always a little leeway. But it is only a little. Some people will say that within 10 or 15% of the requested word count is OK. Maybe so, but I’d argue that 5% is a better figure.
Don’t go under
That doesn’t mean it can be under by five percent either. I don’t think you should ever come in UNDER the word count – if there’s one thing that’s worse than having your work cut, it’s having it padded with drivel. And on a more cynical note, if you’re being paid by the word, why on earth would you choose to get paid less?