As students and writers producing academic essays and creative writing projects, they’re all around us. This is, of course, understandable in an academic environment, because it helps define the parametres of our assignments and ensures that we meet the expectations of the instructors that are entrusted to imbue us, their inquiring charges, with the knowledge that we so desperately seek, and will, ultimately, help us meet our objectives.
See what I did there? That is one heck of a sentence, fat with syllables and big words plumping up the word count. But what does it say? Not very much, actually: word counts help students understand what their instructors want. Except that the reader was probably too busy tripping over unnecessary modifiers to get that message.
Inexperienced and insecure writers are often tempted to flex this type of writerly muscle. They mistake quantity for quality, to the despair of their audience who, unless they’re reading for credit, will probably throw it to the ground and go back to surfing kittens on YouTube.
Don’t get me wrong—I am a big fan of words. I am a writer and a reader; to borrow a phrase from Wonder Boys, I am “a junkie for the written word.” I’m also a big fan of word counts, because they can save me from stumbling into those traps, saving me from myself. It’s easy to prattle on, waxing poetic on a topic, letting the words tumble from your head onto the keys, and losing sight of what you’re trying to say. But writing is less about art and more about craft: choosing the strongest, clearest words available and trusting them to do their job because brevity counts. It follows that the writer must also trust their choices, trust themselves.
Outside of school, it’s a mistake I see businesses make. Marketing materials run on for pages, extolling the virtues of a product or service with the most colourful, multisyllabic language possible. Sometimes, the culprits aren’t writers at all. Many businesses have devalued writing to the point that they’ll assign it to any semi-literate administrative assistant who passed Writing 12. Lacking experience and confidence, they’ll go to town with the thesaurus, believing that the more and bigger words they use, the smarter they’ll appear. It’s the curse of the telemark jib jab, a collection of words whose only purpose is to be there, filling lines while conveying little meaning, and leaving the reader so baffled that they’ll just smile and nod in blind faith. Words, words, words. In sales it’s all just words, saying stuff while saying nothing at all, yet magically implanting the idea to buy, buy, buy!
So there’s the problem: it’s not necessarily the number of words themselves, but the novice writers who wield them in the mistaken belief that quantity will make up for lack of experience and talent. But it isn’t their fault—they’re just doing what they’re asked. I blame business owners who place more value on olde tyme strategies than new world marketing. And on the interwebs especially, words count.
A flashy $50k website is just a pretty toy unless it effectively shares information and conveys a message. It never will unless the words are strong, clear, and brief, which requires the services of a craftsperson, an experienced professional writer. Unfortunately, they usually sit around the bottom of the budget, first against the wall when money gets tight. And no one—certainly not that overworked administrative assistant—wins.
Businesses wonder why they’re failing? Often the answer is in their words; cumbersome, misspelled, and poorly punctuated. I can’t trust a business that can’t be bothered to pay attention to its words. Brevity counts. Words count. Let’s show them the respect they deserve.