If you love words, you shouldn’t hate a word count

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter with a decade of scribbling experience at places like Egg the online bank, some top agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. He has decent hair but a disappointing beard. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

Even the most exciting job has boring bits. Spies have to top-up the screen wash on their underwater cars. Professional wrestlers are locked in an endless search for the optimal grease-shimmer. Film stars, from time to time, may find themselves sharing a murky jacuzzi with Tom Cruise.

Copywriters are no exception. Yes, a good portion of the day may be spent tossing out award-bait headlines from the languid sway of our office hammock. But the job isn’t all inspiration naps and indoor smoking.

Classified very much in the ‘nuts and bolts’ section of our job description is the concept of the ‘word count’.

Copywriting, you see, is the equivalent of fishing for tiger sharks in an upside-down umbrella. Yes we are responsible for the impressiveness of the catch, but we are also responsible for accommodating it.

Some copywriters find this wildly infuriating. And most of us have been asked, probably frequently, to squeeze great thoughts into improbable spaces. (But the thing about ‘great’ is that it’s famously reluctant to squeeze.)

But a copywriter disparaging the word count is a lot like a fighter pilot raging about clouds. It is not just an irritating necessity of the job, it is the fundamental condition in which copywriting has always, and must always, exist.

Copywriting is the business of contained creativity – with neither the quality of the words or the discipline of the structure subject to compromise. After all, what’s the use in preparing a sumptuous meal if it doesn’t fit on the only plate you own?

Besides, I’m not merely arguing for a grumbling submission to the inevitability of word counts. I actually believe that working within a word count is what makes copywriting such a uniquely economical craft.

Read anything you ever wrote before you properly understood what it is to be a copywriter (which, unashamedly, could be most briefs I’ve ever answered) and I promise you will be able to take several words out of virtually every piece. What’s more, you’ll see quite starkly that the ideas you express in 20 words lack the force and clarity of anything you can communicate in 10.

Word count is undoubtedly an obstacle. But, like the best obstacles, it forces us to be more innovative, more precise and more rigorous in how we find our solutions.

Without that obstacle we lose the permission to disregard those who believe ‘anyone’ is capable of writing copy. And I can’t think of a single reason why a specialist would wish to give up any intricacy that preserves the necessity of their specialism. Even if it gives you a terrible dose of hammock-burn.

Follow Andrew on Twitter.

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