Writing by Peter Hilton

Writing with a word count limit

The enabling constraint of a strict 450-550 word limit - 09 June 2020 #writing

book cover

The submission guidelines for 97 Things Every Java Programmer Should Know introduced me to writing about a topic with a strict 450-550 word limit. At first I found this difficult, but worthwhile. Then I learned how to make it easier, and discovered a welcome side-benefit.

Short enough to focus and finish

While commercial writing imposes word limits, writing on a personal blog frees you from other people’s constraints. However, a word limit helps keeps you focused. 500 words only gives you enough ‘space’ to write about one thing.

When I started writing weekday blog posts in July 2014, I often ended up with around 800 words, as a result of starting on a topic and following threads that I uncovered. This resulted in half-written articles that I found difficult to finish, either because of loose ends that I couldn’t wrap up quickly, or because I didn’t have time to follow all of them. Those articles took hours.

Less editing, more planning

More recently, aiming for 500 words gave me a new problem: editing to length. The first time I tried this, my first draft arrived at around 800 words, as usual. Editing to remove a third of it no doubt improved the end result, but deleting so many whole sentences and paragraphs hurt. I needed to plan better.

By the third 97 Things article, I already had a reasonable idea about how much space I would have, and the first draft got me much closer to the target. I achieved this by starting from an outline.

Using an outline to plan

Get Better at Naming Things, the first of three articles that I wrote to a 550 word limit, consists of a series of statements and advice for programmers (which product backlog naming tips adapts for product people):

  1. Better naming improves your code
  2. Avoid bad names
  3. Adopt naming guidelines
  4. Compromise on 2-4 words
  5. Use domain language
  6. Enlarge your vocabulary
  7. Name your types
  8. Don’t mix class and object names
  9. Decide when to break the rules

I started the third article with a similar ten-point outline, then expanded each one into a short paragraph. This way, I avoided starting on topics that I wouldn’t have space to write about, and hit the word count target first time.

Since then, I discovered that reducing the outline from ten points to give creates space for examples. Technical writing often suffers from too few good examples. And jokes.

Weekly posts

After not publishing any blog posts in 2019, I resumed blogging in 2020. It turns out that the strict word limit makes it a lot easier to keep up a weekly schedule. By limiting each article’s scope, first in the outline, and again while writing and editing, I finish each one in less time, making it easier to average more than one post per week.

When planning fails, and I can see that I’ll go beyond the word limit, I’ve learned to extract a topic into its own article. That way I can mention a topic, and go into more detail in the next post. In the end, by writing less, I publish more.

First draft: 542 words