When you agree to write to a particular length, make sure your content is actually that length


One of the lesser-known skills of writing for print is the ability to write to length. Remember in school when your teacher assigned you a five-page paper? Yeah, it’s sort of like that. If your first draft comes up short, you’ll have to sit down and come up with some more information. If you have too much, you’ll have to decide what to cut.

When writing a book, your length target has a bit of flexibility. You may have contracted to write a 500-page book, but your editor is unlikely to get upset if you turn in 499 pages or 501. But if you’re writing for a magazine, your length requirements are much tighter. If you are asked to write a four-and-a-half page article, you’d better write a four-and-a-half-page article. You still have some room for fudging, say by adding an illustration, but the old schoolboy tricks of changing the margins or the font size won’t work here. The magazine has its house style, and you don’t get to say, “For my article, please use 11pt instead of 10pt.”

If you’re like me and have a fixed-position column, things are even less flexible. My column must be one page long, exactly. If I go over, there’s no continued on page to overflow into; if I fall short, there’s no advertising to pick up the slack. When I get proofs back from the editors, they will often have remarks like “This article is ten lines short. Please fix.” (They don’t often tell me my article is long, because editors are very good at cutting on their own!)

One thing that struck me when I visited the TechNet staff a few years ago was that many people expressed their appreciation that I hit my length (though not usually on the first try). I thought this came with the job of writing: You agreed to write n pages, so you’d better turn in n pages. Apparently, a lot of writers don’t realize this. I’m told that when the editors tell a writer that an article is short and ask, “Can you add another ten lines?” they response they get back is sometimes a simple, “No, I don’t think there’s anything more to add.”

Print periodicals have space requirements. When you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine, you have to meet them. That’s part of your job as a writer.

Bonus chatter: Recently, I’ve found that when the editors cut for space, they have at times failed to detect which of my sentences are “filler” and end up cutting the “good stuff”. I’ve started including notes with my manuscript about which parts should be cut first.

Comments (12)
  1. keith says:

    It sounds like the magazine requests are flexible after all, if the editors are skilled at removal.  Maybe the request should be a page and an eighth (or a similar overshot for other commissions), and the editors can cut down to a page?  A "baker’s dozen" of paragraphs, if you will; or "selvage", to use a term of industrial art that it amuses me to apply to knowlege work.  

  2. Aaron says:

    "Selvage"

    I never thought I’d see the day my dry-denim and programming interests collided, though I am completely unsurprised that it happened on this blog.

  3. Nick says:

    Dang it, I’ve completely forgotten to read your TechNet columns for the last couple months.  I’m not a subscriber, so I just try to remember to drop by the TN site every month or so.

    What would you think about adding a link to your TN column in your links-box on the right of your blog?  It could be some kind of Old New Thing deleted scenes (or is ONT the TN deleted scenes?).

    [I include a link to the TechNet columns at the bottom of the semi-annual link blowouts. I think that’s enough, especially since they only come out every month anyway. -Raymond]
  4. someone else says:

    Speaking of your TechNet columns: They are ordered March 2008 to December 2005, then April 2008 to September 2009. WTH?

  5. Michael says:

    “No, I don’t think there’s anything more to add.”

    While I understand the strict rules of periodical publication, I have *great* respect for the quoted response.

    [I totally agree. In fact, the goal (when not writing to length) should be “I don’t think there’s anything more to delete.” -Raymond]
  6. JamesNT says:

    Raymond,

    I must admit, I look forward to your technet articles every month – they are your best writing.

    As always, there are those of us who truly appreciate what you do.  You are my programming god.  Please keep up the good work.

    JamesNT

  7. John Fuex says:

    Good article. I’ve been doing more than my usual share of articles for various magazines lately and can really relate to the back and forth about hitting that sweet spot in terms of length.

    In my experience, however, I usually get rough guidelines (1000-1500 words) until I actually submit something. THEN I get the news that I have to chop out 3-4 paragraphs somewhere. Maybe it’s because I use a lot of long words.

    I’ve learned not to let those editors do too much chopping unsupervised. Rarely is the person doing the editing very technical and I have had some articles go to press with some almost nonsensical passages in them. Of course, the reader has no way of knowing that.

    If you are writing for a press release that is going out on the wire and is going to be republished in several places with varying space to fill it is a good idea to give them a short, medium and long version since you won’t get a chance to proof the edits of the Luddite intern who it got handed to and told to chop it in half.

  8. Eric TF Bat says:

    "I never thought I’d see the day my dry-denim and programming interests collided, though I am completely unsurprised that it happened on this blog."

    Raymond, I think you have a new tagline…

  9. mike says:

    "No, I don’t think there’s anything more to add."

    This can also suggest that the writer has selected a topic that isn’t appropriate for that particular article.

  10. Stuart says:

    Length checking? Makes me wonder whether a specially-crafted article can cause the magazine to execute arbitrary code …

  11. Worf says:

    No, because lengths of articles is religiously checked and either abbreviated or rejected.

    Submit an article too big? Either a failure code or bits will disappear. There is no way to execute arbitrary code through all that excessive size check.

    But sometimes you get a truncated print article  (the article looks like it needs a few more sentences, but they are nowhere to be found) – depending on the condition of the parser at that point, arbitrary code can be executed. So you need an article of a particular length – just enough to slightly exceed the maximum length checks in final, but pass them in the reviews. Then you need to craft the article to setup the parser into a certain state…

  12. Lisa says:

    I used to be a copy-fitter years ago.

    Not only do articles get edited for general length, but they are also edited for things like widow and orphan control–those dangling lines where you end up with just one word on the last line of a paragraph, or one line of a paragraph on a new page. We would try to fix the article first by kerning the text without changing any content, but there’s a limit to how much you can kern before it becomes obvious.

    The fix then was to use a shorter or longer version of the same word. Most of us used to keep a cross-word puzzle dictionary handy for just that occassion!

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