The DNA of editing is the word count. It is the basic tool for assigning stories, paying writers, overseeing layouts and making numerous editorial decisions along the way. In a fast-moving, creatively charged environment, word count gives an editor control. Let us count the ways.
Word count enables you to establish parameters for a story from the outset. Tell the writer how many words you want, and make it clear that when you say 1,500 words you mean published words. That’s what your pay rate is based upon. I recommend using a flexible rate for different sections of the book, paying, say, $1 a published word for feature stories, 50 cents a word for shorter items, and flat honorariums for guest contributors.
Then monitor closely. The writer should check in if the story starts to run short or long. Short can mean you need additional reporting, research, and interviews. You may have to slot the story for another issue.
Long can mean the story has additional depth, or perhaps the writer is being flabby. If there is time, ask the writer to tighten the story. Some writers are unable, or unwilling, to edit themselves, of course.
It’s preferable to have surplus copy to edit than to work with a story that comes in short. Good editing will always get the story down in size, compressing that mountain of coal into an artificial diamond. During this process the word count is an effective tool for explaining deletions to sensitive writers, sources or other onlookers who wonder why certain material didn’t make it to the print version.
How does it look?
Word count is also the tool for determining your book’s text-visual ratio. How much of each editorial page is devoted to text? How much to visuals?
I worked with a magazine recently that had become dusty; it looked too dense and text-heavy. Text type was Centennial, set 9.25 over 11.5. A column (61 lines) of copy was approximately 390 words. A page of text (three columns) was 1,170, rounded off to 1,200 words per page.
In order to make it more browsable and accessible to the casual (not committed) reader, we determined that each page would have something visual;photos, illustrations, headlines, subheads, callouts, captions for photos, etc.;that would cut about halfway into those 1,200 words. We ran some test pages with a new Fairfield font, gaining some additional length, so that approximately 750 words fit to a page for the look we wanted. Thus, we established layout guidelines:
Open on a page that is 1/3 visual, 2/3 text (or 800 words). Jump pages will be 1/4 visual, 3/4 text (900 words). Thus, a two-page column would measure about 1,700 words.
Here the emphasis would shift to a more visual look. The opener page for a feature would be 75 percent visual, 25 percent text (400 words). An opening spread would be 800 words, max. Turn pages would be 1/3 visual, 2/3 text (800 words).
A single-page feature would be varied, depending on the importance and impact of the visual. A copy-heavy one-pager would be 1/3 visual, 2/3 text (800 words, max). Or another one-pager might be dominated by a photo or illustration, and the text would be reduced to 1/3, or 400 words.
Sidebars would be included in the feature word count. Sidebars could run one (400 words) or two columns (800 words) max, with each feature.
In sum, this approach gave the magazine a browsable look by establishing word counts that could be used at the assignment and editing stages so that stories come in at an appropriate length. There is always some flexibility, of course;the photo-heavy story with nothing more than captions to the pictures as text or the deep-think piece with nary an illustration to break up the seriousness of the topic. But these would be exceptions, not the rule, as we developed a consistent editorial look and atmosphere reinforced with a steady text-visual ratio.
Finally, though readers may be unaware of the word count, they do like to know how long it will take them to read a story. They look for an end stop on the page. That is the final "word";a little symbol that says: that’s all, folks.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He conducts editorial workshops for professionals and is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy. For information on his Editor’s Tool Kit, e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.