Do Word Goals Help or Hinder Your Writing Process?
- Word goals stem from print media times when space was limited and they served a purpose.
- Nowadays, word goals seem arbitrary as (digital) space is abundant, and writings benefit from being just as long as they need to be.
- When dependent on search engines, however, make sure your pieces are not shorter than 300 words and, ideally, longer than 1,000 words.
Writing goals are a relict from the age of print media. Often assigned by editors, they served a critical purpose: allocating the space on the pages—especially the front page—to the articles they contain. Space was a rare commodity, and editors had to be very economical and strict about it. Therefore, limiting the pieces of their reporters to a specific number of words or characters was mandatory to fit everything on the page. You might ask: Are word goals still necessary, now that printed editions almost ceased to exist?
It’s peculiar that in a time when (digital) space is abundant, one of the most acclaimed features of writing apps is the ability to assign writing goals. It seems as if we couldn’t let go of the constraints that editors, teachers, or professors once forced upon us. While constraints can sometimes spur creativity, with writing it’s quite the opposite. When constrained, we don’t write for the sake of communicating; we write to meet arbitrary goals. And more often than not, the pieces we produce under such conditions lack substance.
Sometimes, digital space does matter
Online, we’re free to choose whatever length we consider appropriate for our writings, be it articles or entire e-books. The Internet doesn’t count words; it counts bytes. And while a longer text will cause a larger file, even 7-volume epics like In Search of Lost Time would occupy less digital space in a text file than a single high-res photograph.
However, when it comes to SEO, length does matter. Search engines might not even consider content that is too short. The longer a text, the more opportunities for search engines to learn what it’s about. That’s why Google often chooses longer pieces over shorter ones for the top spots on SERPs.
If you depend on search engines for traffic, make sure to always publish pieces that are longer than 300 words. Go below that, and search engines will probably consider them too insignificant to rank. To further increase your chances of outranking competitors, write articles that are at least 1,000 words long. The top results are rarely of fewer words unless there’s little to no competition.
Be wary of minimum word goals
The ideal length of any piece of writing depends on the circumstances you face as an author. Do you have a publisher whose rules you need to adhere to? Does your target audience expect or even demand a certain length? Do you need to factor in search engines?
Try to avoid minimum goals. If you make it mandatory to cross a certain threshold, you might end up adding fluff. This is something that frequently happens in the book industry. In order to justify the price tag of a book, it needs to have a minimum length. So, authors who struggle to add valuable information to meet that goal will resort to writing elongated sentences bloated with meaningless words.
If you read Amazon reviews, you’ll find that many popular books suffer under a specific type of 1-star review: The reviewers criticize the book’s content could’ve been shortened from 300 to 30 pages with ease. And that the author should’ve considered writing a blog post instead. Ouch. While these reviewers often point out the credibility of the main thought, they suggest the book lacks sufficient substance to warrant its format.
There’s consensus that fiction readers demand books to be of a certain minimum length. That’s understandable: with fiction, you want to indulge in the reading process as long as possible; you want to dive into another world. Every story fleshed out over 600 pages could just as well be told on six. But that’s not the point of fiction. However, even fiction readers don’t want authors to add fluff to their books. If readers sense you added words just for the sake of reaching arbitrary goals, they’ll abandon your works.
If you must meet a minimum word goal, there’s no other way than adding more and more substance until you reach it. Sure, readers will forgive the occasional extraneous paragraph. But mostly, your books or articles shouldn’t comprise anything that a credible editor would cross out.
Maximum word goals can elevate your writing
Sometimes, maximum word goals can be beneficial to your writing. They’re only detrimental when the reason for their existence is the lack of space on a page. But if you use them to keep your writing succinct, and if you consider them soft rather than hard limits, they might make you a better writer.
If somebody told you to cut half the words from the article you’ve written, you might consider that person insane. But if you set out to do it, you’ll find that it’s indeed possible to decimate the number of words without your writing losing any valuable information. Maximum word goals can be that strict advisor who challenges you to cut what doesn’t belong. The goal might still be capricious, but in pursuing it, you’ll make your article or book much clearer to the reader.
Just be sure that you don’t end up cutting only to meet a goal. If you can’t find anything to get rid of, then stop. The best length of a piece is not the one you chose before sitting down to write it; it’s the one that’s appropriate for a specific piece.
A maximum word goal is only useful as long as you don’t consider it a strict limit. Creativity can’t flourish in a box; it happens outside.