25 Aug 2015

How To Get Out of Word Count Hell

Whenever a teacher gave writing assignments when I was in school, at least one classmate asked: “How many words should I write?” A good teacher should say “quality is more important than quantity,” but most teachers gave a minimum word count because, let’s face it, most kids are looking for shortcuts. We did everything we could to reach the minimum word count. The results looked something like this:

Technology has become such an important role in our lives that if we didn’t have technology, we wouldn’t be able to do simple things like talk to friends, get directions to places we haven’t visited and, most of all, take really great photos that will last a lifetime. (48 words)

In other words: Technology has made communication, navigation and photographing life’s important moments easier than ever. (12 words)


What happened in school still happens in the workplace, especially with new, young and hurried writers. When writers focus on word counts and deadlines rather than quality, the result is fluffiness, wordiness and crappiness like this:

Children are sensitive to the stress of poverty, and by being exposed to conditions of poverty can be at higher risk of repeating negative habits that ultimately lead to a life of poverty. (33 words)

In other words? Children who are raised by poverty are more likely to live their whole lives in poverty. (16 words)

Word Count and SEO

You jeopardize your SEO ranking if your content marketing focuses on only word count and not other criteria that matter to organic traffic and conversion rates.

Searchmetrics examined 300,000 URLs in an effort to figure out the correlation between what was on the page and how it ranked in the search engine results pages. Quality content, in fact, was the most important factor in SEO. They found that even though word count on high-ranking pages increased from 2014 to 2015, it has had less weight (influence) on SEO in 2015 than it did in 2014.

Word Count Correlation with Rankings

This is largely because word count isn’t exclusively an indicator of quality. What is more important is relevancy, or content that uses terms that are semantically relevant, which in turn signals to search engines that the page is of high quality. While word count is important, of equal importance is the need to use words that indicate “the website is highly holistic.” Over 50% of today’s top 30 ranking websites integrated relevant terms, Searchmetrics reports.

Now, back to what I promised in the headline: How to get out of word-count hell.

Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Instead of writing for word count, consider creating content based on factors that relate more toward quality, such as number and type of sources, complexity of topic and estimated writing time. Instead of word count, you’ll use “short, medium and long” as the your basic guidelines. Here’s an example of how you can shift your thinking when creating content yourself, assigning content, or working with freelance writers:

Content length matrix

Alternatives to Word Count

Shifting from word count toward article length (short, medium, long) is going to take time to change your way of thinking. Look at it this way: A B2C article on five benefits of healthy eating should be easily executed in six short paragraphs (an intro paragraph plus a paragraph per benefit). Once the task has been completed, stop writing. Don’t worry about word count. Get the message across and include semantically relevant terms. You’re done.

Sources: The content matrix above specifies the minimum number of external, credible sources you or your writer should use. This will give you a foundation of how much research to perform depending on the content “level.” For example, that article on the benefits of eating healthy has a plethora of credible and current sources; choose two. An article that shares opposing views on the future of email marketing, however, will likely use four or more sources.

Complexity of Topic: Complexity of the topic is directly related to the level of knowledge the writer needs. The more technical the topic, the more expertise the writer will have. An article that suggests things to do in your hometown is a simple topic. How to file bankruptcy, how to start a business or a comparison of marketing theories are complex topics that require experience and knowledge.

Estimated Writing Time: This is important to consider because it’s very easy for a writer to lose himself or herself on a very simple topic. I’ve done it. What this says is, “If you spend more than two hours on a short, simple article, you’re giving it way too much thought.” Most of us can write an article suggesting things to do in our hometowns in under an hour (I hope!). We will set aside more time for longer posts on complex topics that use many sources.

Advice for Content Length

When it comes to article length, I tell writers what my teachers should have told me: It doesn’t matter how long the content is; if you tell your story and achieve what you set out to do, then you’ve done your job. Stop writing.

We plan to explore this topic further; if you are willing to share stories, anecdotes and data from word-count hell, you may reach me at noelles@verticalmeasures.com.


  • Steve Kaplan Sep 04, 2015

    Hey Noelle, love your approach to writing content smarter. The chart is a great visual for how to create more value and not rush oneself into finishing content. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  • Noelle Schuck Sep 04, 2015

    You’re welcome Steve!

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