Making corporate web Web writing

When sign-off bloats your word count

As a web writer you’re the first (or if you’re working off a decent brief, second) person to work on creating something new. Because you’re human, you’ll end up feeling a bit proud and protective of the draft you end up with. Good! So you should.

But the process of approvals that your new work goes through can damage your copy (and hurt your ego). People who don’t understand your craft have a hand in what your work ends up looking like, and what it ends up saying. This approval process will, 99 times out of 100, bloat your word count.

Where word bloat comes from

Let’s say you’ve written a new 400-word article about a fantastic new widget that your company’s going to export to Asia. In a typical round of approvals your work might go through people from:

  • marketing, who add a couple of sentences cribbed from that print ads they’ve finalised that morning (because “it’s all about cross-channel integration!”)
  • legal, who try to “soften” what you’ve written about the widget (no matter how true it is), adding small print or some extra weasel words
  • a manager who’s trying to boost her profile online, so throws in a made-up quote from herself
  • branding, who compose a strange new paragraph about how important China has always been to your company.

By the time your 400 words get back to you, there’s suddenly 600 of them. Your short, carefully crafted article is half as long again, thanks to a bunch of people who don’t appreciate just how little online readers read, or how hard it is to keep people’s attention when they’re surfing. And it’s your job to stick to a brief for 350-400 words. What can you do?

Don’t let expert approvers work as editors

Approvers are necessary, and can do good things for your work. But they need to remember what their job is, and what it isn’t.

Ask for comments rather than direct edits of your copy – see Giving, and receiving, expert feedback on web copy (update: link added 19/06/12).

Include word bloat in your plan

You’re the only person in this process who’s going to care about word count. The reality is that everyone else will want to add, not subtract, words. Expect their bloat and plan for it. If you’re asked for 350-400 words, try to deliver 300 in your first draft. If you have 7 or 8 pages to fill, write enough for 6.

Constraining yourself to give others some slack isn’t ideal. But it can be an easier to get things done this way rather than getting your copy back from its first round of approvals, editing it down, and then sending it back through the same process that bloated it up in the first place.

Make bloat-culling part of the approval process

I don’t normally suggest that you add hurdles for your copy to jump, but this is an exception. If you can, try to have a writing style sign-off in the same way there’s a legal or marketing sign-off. Find an editor that assigns your writing work, a web development lead who upholds standards of design and accessibility, or someone else who works with web content and make it part of their job to approve your copy from a stylistic sense.

So long as they know good web from bad web, they’ll understand that every word matters and won’t approve bloated copy. Then you’ll have a veto-wielding ally who can help you remove words. “We can’t say anything about this new widget if we can’t say it in 400 words. How much do we need your quote?”

Writing style sign-off is easier with more objective criteria. You should have guidelines like “Corporate blog posts are 400 words or shorter”, rather than “Keep it short when you can”.


This post is 648 words long, with an average reading grade of 7.4.

By Max Johns

Content strategist and web writer.

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