This article frustrates us.
First of all, this subject has been a pain in our copywriting and content-marketing asses for a long time. We’ve needed a while to even enunciate it.
Then: because our point here is counterintuitive, our brains are naturally disposed to reject it, even when our experience has already proven it to us over and over again.
Finally, since we’re writing copy about copywriting, many of y’all have pulled out your red pens and we know to expect it. (Game on.)
Still, the point we’re making here is fairly simple. Yes, Word Count is a handy metric—but it becomes less helpful the more narrowly you focus upon it. In fact, as you’ll soon see, a lot of bad copywriting manages its meaning with fewer words, yet it’s “bad” because denser words often blur meaning more than they sharpen it.
It’s wisest to see Word Count in the “spirit of the law,” not the letter. So widen your focus and try to remember three factors neighboring Word Count: the visibility of the piece’s outline, the clarity of your sentences, and the syllable density of the words and phrases you’re writing.
Let’s quickly get to details for each of Word Count’s neighbors:
Visible Outline 🌎 We try to practice what we preach, but especially here. No matter how well it’s written, you have to make sure your content is skimmable — because everyone skims, even the dutiful readers.
This doesn’t have to be a sad thing. First of all, it makes the content’s value easier for everyone to find. Secondly, keeping yourself focused on the outline helps keep the writing on its toes. Lastly, the “visible outline” of an article is often the preview which helps convince people to actually stop and read it.
Clear Phrasing 🔍 There’s no shortage of writing advice here—and you’ve probably heard much of it before—so instead of trying to lasso all of the suggestions together, let’s define the small-scale standard by which copywriters fail most often. And that standard is: Each individual sentence you write must make clear sense to the person reading it.
It’s frustrating, but true: your readers can get lost in the span of a single sentence. If they can’t re-orient quickly enough (or just don’t care enough), they’ll close the tab and put your article back in the dark. Every sentence matters. When you’re carrying the heavy burden of reader attention, you don’t want your footing to slip for even one step.
Syllable Density ⚖️ That phrase is ours, but we’re lifting the heart of this explanation from the middle of George Orwell’s insightful 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.“
After defining the faults common to writing in his time — which boil down, much as always, to “not fully thinking beforehand” — Orwell illustrated their shortcomings by quoting an example of ‘good English’ from Ecclesiastes and then translating it into the (bad) style of his time.
Original (Good): I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Translated (Bad): Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
It’s clear right away which passage is better. But here’s the detail we really want you to notice: the average number of syllables per word, which is 1.22 for the Original passage and 2.37 for the Bad passage. That’s damn near double!
This idea (and more) from Orwell’s key bite of analysis:
“The [Original] contains 49 words but only 60 syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The [Bad] contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first.”
Lastly, to bring the point all the way around: notice that the Bad passage is “wordier” than the Original except, actually, the Bad passage has fewer words!
If your goal is producing good copy, don’t fixate on the word count. Focus instead on the spirit of the word count; ask how you can make the piece more skimmable, clearer in every sentence, and simpler in every phrase.